Freedom to Write: A report from the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, Myanmar

March 6, 2013 — 2 Comments

As 11,000 U.S. writers (including me!) head to Boston for the annual AWP Conference,
here’s an excellent reminder of what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Many thanks to Cila Warncke for this guest post.

sign outside the festival

Guest post by Cila Warncke

Sometimes you have to go halfway around the world to appreciate what you have at home. Attending the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma) reminded me that literature demands not just inspiration but also political, psychological and economic freedom.

Myanmar has endured almost 50 years of repressive dictatorship, complete with pre-publication censorship. Foreign journalists were barred and native writers faced prison if they angered the military regime. The country has opened up considerably since democratic elections in 2010 and in late 2012 the government ended censorship. It officially disbanded the censor board in January 2013, just a week before the festival began.

Among the many international and Myanmar writers gathered to enjoy this new political freedom was Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, a memoir of three generations of women’s lives in China. It is hard to imagine the formidable, charming Chang an exiled teenager doing peasant labour, but that was her fate after her parents, ranking members of the Communist party, fell out of favour.

In crisp sentences she spoke of her father being forced to burn his beloved library and her mother suffering public denunciations. She told of flushing her first poem down the toilet during a police raid on their house, and joked about the hazards of working as a self-taught electrician.

Despite her tormented adolescence Chang’s story has a happy ending. She was intelligent, young, and strong enough to hope. When the revolutionary fervor cooled and universities reopened Chang was able to study English. Eventually she won a scholarship to Britain, earned a PhD, married, and made a life there.

None of that would have been possible without the easing of Mao’s terrible repression, but political freedom was only the beginning. For many years Chang told people she was from South Korea because her memories of China were too painful to discuss. It was more than a decade before she began the conversations with her mother that became the basis of Wild Swans.

Giles Fitzherbert and Jung Chang

The success of Wild Swans, which has sold over 13 million copies, gave her the means to spend 10 years on her next book, a biography of Mao co-authored with her husband Jon Halliday. Financial freedom is as critical today as when Virginia Woolf made her pithy argument about a room of one’s own in 1929. Money can be a major obstacle creative work and, as with political and psychological freedom, there is no simple solution. It would be lovely if we could all write international bestsellers but the reality is that writers often work two shifts or learn to live with less.

As writers we may never enjoy perfect freedom but, as the Irrawaddy Literary Festival showed, we can always learn from each other’s experiences and find inspiration in our struggles.

Cila Warncke is a freelance writer and editor. You can contact her on cilawarncke@gmail.com or via her website cilawarncke.com

View more about the Irrawaddy Literary Festival by Cila Warncke here: http://www.freewordonline.com/content/2013/02/free-thinking-from-the-irrawaddy-literature-festival/

2 responses to Freedom to Write: A report from the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, Myanmar

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