Books from Myanmar make their debut in the world
‘I am proud to have the opportunity to present my books at a stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair’, writes Myay Hmone Lwin

Our friend and colleague Myay Hmone Lwin (the pen name of Sanmon Aung) reports from the first Myanmar stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair. NCW has collaborated with Myay Hmone Lwin since 2014 on the Link the Worlds translation project, and last visited Yangon in 2017 for the Myanmar Literature Conference. NCW and Strangers Press are working with Myay Hmone Lwin on a chapbook series of short stories from Myanmar.

This article was translated by Ko Ko Thett.

The first thing passers by usually noticed was the Myanmar flag. Once they’d seen the flag, they would pay attention to the books. Then they started to ask questions.

Publishers and literary agents at a book fair wouldn’t usually waste their time at an exhibition stand that had little to do with their business. Time is precious for them. Nonetheless, when they appeared in front of my stand, they would peer inside, even though they might have little business interest in my books.

Some of them leafed through the pages of my books, intrigued by the round shapes of the Burmese alphabet. Beyond the books, some people were keen to learn about the current political situation in Myanmar. They had never seen a Myanmar publisher at the Frankfurt Book Fair and had no idea which genres were popular or who wrote what in our country.

Almost everyone who visited my stand wanted to talk about Myanmar, the country, rather than about Myanmar’s book industry. I learned that our country has not been forgotten by the world, just that some people have been out of touch with Myanmar.

This lack of contact has led to a great literary divide. Books by Myanmar writers are rarely translated into other languages. You might stumble upon books about Myanmar in bookshops in the West, but most of them are treatises on Myanmar politics and nonfiction by non-Myanmar researchers and authors. You might find a novel or two set in Myanmar, but these are usually by non-Myanmar writers.

The Myanmar literary world has been out of touch with the rest of the world too, ever since a strict censorship regime came into effect in the country following the 1962 military coup. Fortunately, there were a number of literary translators in what was then Burma. Dozens of world classics have been translated from English since the 1960s. However, attempts to publish contemporary world fiction in translation have been very limited under censorship.

It was only in 2012, in ‘transitional Myanmar’, that most literary censorship was abolished and publishers were free to publish and sell whatever they wanted. However, this bird kept in a coop for more than sixty years had forgotten how to fly away to her freedom when the coop was opened up.

I remember this: a translator presented his version of a novel by Haruki Murakami to a publisher, but the publisher declined it. He didn’t dare print a novel featuring Murakami’s sex scenes.

After 2015, a new generation emerged, not just of publishers and translators but also of readers who were beginning to appreciate the fruits of freedom. These days, new books by Murakami are translated as soon as they appear in Western markets. Some titles are translated simultaneously by two or more translators in a race for publication.

Myanmar readers today can enjoy contemporary writers such as Michel Houellebecq, David Mitchell, Han Kang, Yoko Tawada and Mo Yan. Some of us have started to make contact with international publishers and literary agents to obtain translation rights for certain books. Slowly but surely, we have been reaching out to the world.

Like an array of garden flowers, people from all over the world with their different views and experiences came together at the Book Fair in Frankfurt

I am proud to have the opportunity to present my books at a stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I have made an agreement with a Danish publisher to translate into Danish a Myanmar graphic novel, Pa Jau, about the story of artist Htein Lin, who survived some of the most awful and unimaginable tortures known to humankind at the hands of a rebel group at the China-Burma border in 1991. Pa Jau in French will follow soon, I hope.

International book fairs are crucial bridges between local and global literatures. We, Myanmar publishers and literary organisations, have a long way to go before we are fully represented in some of the biggest book fairs outside our country.

‘Where are you from?’ I asked of everyone who visited my stand. India, Mexico, France, Germany, the UK, Israel, Canada, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland, lots of places. Like an array of garden flowers, people from all over the world with their different views and experiences came together at the Book Fair in Frankfurt. Diversity is beauty.

We have been given the chance to introduce Myanmar literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair. We are now ready to present to the world creative writing from Myanmar.

Abysmal socioeconomic conditions under the military dictatorship notwithstanding, most Myanmar writers, translators and publishers have thrown in their lot with their readers, their people. We continue to support our people with what we know and what we do best – with our writing. Myanmar writers today are writing against the double plagues of COVID-19 and the military tyranny.

It’s time we showcased their work to the world.

Myay Hmone Lwin is an award-winning writer and founder of NDSP Books in Yangon, established in 2013.

Special thanks to Kate Griffin (National Centre for Writing) and Claudia Kaiser for making the NDSP Books stand possible at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2021.

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