ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Novelist wins praise for tale of gays, ghosts
Like many writers in this military-ruled nation, the 50-year-old says she has struggled to carry on with her work without compromising her principles in the face of notoriously strict censors.
"I'm so glad the international community has acknowledged my art, which I have built based on my own beliefs over 20 years," the author told AFP in an interview at her small apartment in Yangon.
Nu Nu Yi – who writes under the name Inwa, the town where she was born – was nominated along with 22 other authors from around Asia for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, which will be awarded in November in Hong Kong.
She is one of only a handful of writers who dares to paint accurate portraits of life in this country, ruled by the military since 1962, but says that is the only way to fulfil her responsibilities to herself and her readers.
"Because I hold my beliefs firmly, I have had many difficulties. But I decided to take risks to be a dutiful writer," she says with a smile.
"The biggest difficulty is that there is no freedom to create art," she says.
"If a writer reveals the feelings and the real lives of people when she writes, that is a political act – even though she is only writing for the benefit of our country."
Myanmar's military censors maintain complete control over everything that is published or broadcast within the country formerly known as Burma.
Among the 1,100 political prisoners that the United Nations estimates are held in Myanmar are some of the country's most prominent writers, making it even more difficult for Nu Nu Yi to continue her work.
But she says she will persevere.
"It is certain that we do not write just to violate our country's policies. We just create art. I want the authorities to understand that," she says.
The novel nominated for the Man award, "Smile as they bow; Laugh as they bow", first appeared in 1994 but barely made it past the censors.
The story unfolds during the eight-day Taung Pyone festival, held outside the central city of Mandalay, in honour of traditional spirits known as nats, which are almost as important to Myanmar's religious life as Buddhism.
The novel focuses on a 53-year-old gay medium who falls in love with a 23-year-old man brought to be his apprentice. The longing leads to heartbreak as the younger man tries to run off with a woman during the festival.
Gay men are often sought out as fortune tellers or intermediaries to the spirit world, as they are seen to have the ability to channel the nats. Nu Nu Yi says she spent three years learning about their lives.
She grew up a short distance from the town of Taung Pyone, but says her mother would never allow her to visit the annual Nat Pwe – another term for spirits party – because many of the participants end up drunk.
Many women, usually in their 40s and 50s, come to the festival and try to appease the spirits through music, dancing and drinking.
"Myanmar women cannot go to a nightclub for dancing if they are depressed. They seemed to relax when they dance," she explains.
"I think they come to find a release at the Nat Pwe. That's why I became interested in the idea for my novel," she says.
But despite the story's basis in local custom, the censors banned it, calling it an offence to the country's cultural values, the author says.
That wasn't her first run-in with the censors, who she knew were particularly concerned about books that hit too close to the often grim reality of life in a country under decades of military rule and economic collapse.
Homosexuality is illegal here, and the military is somewhat embarrassed by widespread belief in the nats, which they dismiss as pure superstition.
The censors finally agreed to allow Nu Nu Yi to publish the book, as long as she cut passages detailing intimate conversations between the two main characters and the powers of the nats.
"When my novel came out, I was not fully satisfied as an author" because of the edits, she admits.
Censors also scuttled an effort to turn "Smile as they bow; Laugh as they bow" into a movie.
"I feel sorry for my audience who wants to see my novel as a movie. But this subject will not go stale even though the authorities will not allow it. The movie will become a reality one day," she says.
Even some gay spirit mediums also took issue with her novel, which they felt revealed too many details about their normally secretive world.
The home of the book's main character closely resembles that of a real medium who lives near Mandalay, and readers began paying him unwelcome visits, assuming that he was the inspiration for the fictional protagonist.
All these difficulties led Nu Nu Yi to put down her pen. This book, her 15th, is the last one that she has written, although she does occasionally write for local magazines.
"I write with feeling in every story. But I knew that I would have to face reality. I got depressed as time went on and stopped my fiction writing," she says.
"Some gay spirit mediums didn't like how I presented them in my novel at that time. They said the spirits had stopped me from writing another novel after this book," she notes with a laugh.
Things seemed to change when someone approached her about translating two of her novels, including "Smile as they bow; Laugh as they bow".
She reached a deal with Hyperion Books in New York to publish English translations of her books, done by American Alfred Birnbaum.
That deal inspired her to submit the novel for the Man award. To her delight, she is on the list of 23 contenders for the prize.
Nu Nu Yi – who is married to a psychologist – is now working on a new novel about life in a traditional Burmese family, and is mulling another book about Myanmar migrants living in neighbouring Thailand.
The depression that kept her from working on a novel for more than a decade has finally lifted, she says.
"The gay mediums might say now that the spirits are not angry with me anymore," she says. AFP