Wendy Law-Yone: Tales of Politics and Persecution in Burma’s Independence Era

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 13 March 2015

RANGOON—Though she made her name in the international literary scene in 1983 with her debut novel ‘The Coffin Tree’, until last year Wendy Law-Yone was relatively unknown to many booklovers in her native country.

As one of Burma’s only English-language novelists to be published and marketed internationally, Law-Yone’s work has been inaccessible to a local audience.

Now, more than three decades since her first publication, a Burmese translation of ‘Golden Parasol’ will give readers the chance to explore the literary endeavours of one of the country’s finest writers. The story of Law-Yone’s father, a journalist and politician during the first decades after Burma’s independence, Golden Parasol is a memoir of an era largely scrubbed from the history books.

Wendy Law-Yone told The Irrawaddy that although all her books relate to Burma, Golden Parasol (titled Shin Yin Shwe Hti in Burmese) is a worthy candidate for translation as it speaks more directly to the Burmese condition—of politics, personalities and much else besides—than her other works.

“It’s a memoir about my father, who in a perfect world would have been publishing his own memoirs here in Burma. On the other hand, in a perfect world maybe there wouldn’t be a need for a book like this at all,” said the 67-year old writer, the day before her book is to be launched in Rangoon.

Though she was born and grew up in Burma, Wendy Law-Yone fled the country at the age of 20, settling in the US for three decades and now residing in London. She left in 1967 after her father Edward, the founder and chief editor of the country’s influential English newspaper The Nation, was imprisoned for five years by the late dictator Ne Win.

After his release, Edward joined the former Prime Minister U Nu to form an exile government in Thailand. Eventually he left for the United States and died there in 1980. In Law-Yone’s memoir, she recalls through his eyes the days of press freedom, parliamentary democracy and his struggle to agitate for the end of Ne Win’s rule from abroad.

Law-Yone’s account of his life features some ribald stories concerning Ne Win and Katie, one of the dictator’s wives, both of whom he was close to before his imprisonment. At one point, to the fury of Ne Win, Katie asked Edward to fasten the clasp of a bra she was trying on over her blouse, which he had earlier brought back from America at her request.

Wendy said the easing of censorship in recent times is a particular boon for books like Golden Parasol and other books that aspire to bring to light long buried stories from Burma’s past—not just subjects previously banned from public discussion, but significant chunks of history that are in danger of being washed away in the ocean of forgetfulness and falsehood that is the lingering legacy of all dictatorships.

“What I hope sets apart my book from the kinds of biographies and memoirs permitted by a state-sanctioned publishing industry is the very fact that public figures can be portrayed as fully-fledged human beings rather than cardboard figures,” she said.

San Mon Aung of Our Literature Publishing House told The Irrawaddy that he decided to publish Golden Parasol because of its insight into the lesser known history of Burma.

“I just want people who grew up with government propaganda, to know something different, to provide them a means to see from both sides,” he said. “If they think what they have read in the book is untrue, they can argue with the writer.”

Given current publishing trends in Burma, with the easing of literary censorship and the republishing of some books that were once banned outright by the government, the Burmese translation of Golden Parasol arguably comes at an opportune time.

“Burmese readers on the whole are every writer’s dream,” said Law-Yone. “I hope this book speaks to Burmese readers of all ages and interests, but I would like to think it has special significance for the generation that has been deprived of the truth of their own recent history.”