From February to May 2023, NCW collaborated with PEN Myanmar to run Sharing Stories, Connecting Lives, a project supported by the British Council’s Connections through Culture that brought together writers and translators in the UK and Myanmar.
Over five months, the participants followed an online short story course led by tutors in both countries, sharing work with each other and meeting once a fortnight on Zoom. The tutors were San Tun Thaung and Dr Zaw Tun in Myanmar, and ko ko thett and Thett Su San in the UK.
At the end of the course, the writers (and many of the translators) wrote short stories, which were translated by their peers. Discover the experience of one of our writer-translator pairs on the Sharing Stories, Connecting Lives course →
Read on for the introduction to this wonderful collection from tutors Thett Su San and Ko Ko Thett, and the link to download the whole zine.
Sharing Stories, Connecting Lives
In February 2023, in the welcome note to the opening session of our online creative writing course ’Sharing Stories, Connecting Lives,’ supported by the British Council Connections through Culture, Nyi Pu Lay, the President of PEN Myanmar, noted the dearth of creative writing and translation courses in Myanmar, which had resulted in an overwhelming number of applicants to the course. He urged the successful candidates to expect the usual challenges associated with the country— power outages, unreliable internet connection and the Myanmar-UK time difference. By the end of May, some of the Myanmar-based participants of the course had also survived the Cyclone Mocha that made landfall in Myanmar earlier that month.
The outcome of the course is an exciting array of flash fiction in three distinct linguistic groups; stories by Myanmar-based writers who wrote in Burmese, stories by Myanmar-based translators who wrote in English, and stories by the UK-based writers who wrote in English.
The Burmese language workshop, led by senior writer San Tun Thaung, translator Dr. Zaw Tun and editor Myo Myint Nyein, yielded seven stories reflecting the violences and idiosyncrasies of Burmese life under tyranny. ’The Country of Joy’ by Hsu alludes to ’The City of Joy’ by Dominique Lapierre, and is a sardonic take on daily life in Myanmar, often disrupted by power outages and always disturbed by the cost of living crisis. In ’Childhood Sweetheart’, Po Po Phoenix makes a direct reference to a well-known Burmese pop song and its lyrics. While the story itself is a simple reminiscence about a childhood sweetheart by a grown-up person, understanding the decade, the 80s, when the song was popular, and perhaps being able to hear the song in one’s head, may be key to understanding the story.
’If the World were Divided in Two’ by Thu Ta, a story sprinkled with Burmese slang, is a challenge to any translator. In ’Have a Wonderful Time at the Festival’, Aung Naing Htoo muses on the Burmese words pwe, for ’festival’, and sitpwe for war, creating a ’festival of armed conflicts.’ In ’The Princess of the Town’, Thandar Tun shares a story of a neurodivergent woman who was routinely abused by men. ’Come and Rob Me of My Love’ by Shwe Eain San is about child abuse of an incestuous nature, a tragedy not uncommon in Myanmar, vividly told from the perspective of the child victim. ’Dawn: A Life is Born’ by Thinn Thiri Tun is a nature-focused narrative. The reader will hear a bird hatchling speak and tweet in her story.
The English language group, led by Ko Ko Thett and Thett Su San, comprised six Myanmar-based translators, and four UK-based writers. Four out of the six translators were inspired by the UK-based writers to come up with their own stories in English. ’Farmer’ by Olivia Ma is based on a true story of a farmer from the Irrawaddy delta, who was fixated on owning a satellite dish, a status symbol in Myanmar, so much so that he fashioned one out of bamboo, and got himself into trouble with the authorities. In ’Blissful Thanksgiving’ the ethnic Kachin writer Nhkum Lu weaves her story around the Kachin thanksgiving culture, where the whole community gathers at church for a feast as well as poetry recitals and dance competitions. ’The Library’ by Nu Htet Htet Lwin perhaps is an allegory for the situation in Myanmar, where the country’s hard-earned democratic transition was ended by a putsch in 2021. ’Dreams’ by Hsu Lei Nwe features a Burmese Pollyanna, who finds solace in dreams amidst the unfavourable reality of her circumstances.
Stories by the UK-based writers present no less a challenge to Burmese translators, but writer-translator collaboration between the Myanmar translators and the UK authors bore fruit.
The translated stories danced between cultures, tugging at the heartstrings of both languages and emotions.
’The Boy at the White Hotel’ by Mika Royd is a bold LGBTQ+ story, a genre that has yet to be developed in the Myanmar literary landscape. ’Writer’s Block’ by Mariyam Karolia is about an honour killing, with a subtle twist. ’The Kitchen Table’ by Jessica Wright impressed our guest editor, Nathan Hamilton of Strangers Press, as a piece of flash fiction that can say so much in so few words. ’Bewilderment’ by Gus Mitchell is about a man who started talking to an unassuming birch tree in a park, and ended up becoming a reluctant celebrity.
The course, the first of its kind for Myanmar, provided an exceptional platform for literary collaboration and cross-cultural understanding. As the workshops approached their final sessions, the Myanmar literati was hit with the news that Nyi Pu Lay suddenly passed away from a cardiac arrest after he got home from his usual walk on the morning of 21 June 2023. Sayagyi Nyi Pu Lay, or Grand Master Nyi Pu Lay, as he was called in Myanmar, was a highly accomplished short story writer and a former prisoner of conscience who served nine years in jail in the 1990s. He was to deliver the closing remarks at the final session on 4 July. At the closing session, we, Myanmar workshop participants and tutors, fondly remembered him as a major force in contemporary Burmese literature. To his memory we would like to dedicate these short stories.
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