CAN THERE BE ethnic identity without tribalism? Does loyalty to our group honor the sacrifices of our ancestors, or does it prevent us from seeing ourselves as part of the human family? This is the topic of a heated conversation some hundred pages into Charmaine Craig’s epic novel Miss Burma, between two characters whose groups have historically been oppressed: Benny, a Burmese-born Jew, and Saw Lay, a member of the country’s Karen ethnic minority group. “Surely you know ‘unity’ is just the word tyrants use before heads begin to roll,” Saw Lay cautions Benny, who is more optimistic about Burma’s prospects as a multiethnic nation.

“But —” Benny protests. The two friends don’t come to any conclusions, and therein lies both the literary brilliance and contemporary relevance of the story Craig tells.

Say “Burma” or “Myanmar” in the West today, and people will remark on the current conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, which over the past few months has led 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the country. Inquire deeper, and many readers will have some awareness of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her rise from political prisoner (military dictators kept her under house arrest for most of the past 25 years) to de facto leader of the country. Most people don’t know the story Craig is trying to tell — that of the Karen minority group and their fight for self-determination in a country carved out by British colonizers, then left to what has become the longest-running civil war in history.

Yet these three stories are tied together by the tension between identity and tribalism, by ethnicity’s promise of — and oft-deferred deliverance of — social and political salvation. These three strands of Burmese history are also linked by one behind-the-scenes character: the Western colonizer. As they did in much of the world, the British in Burma reified racial divisions and instilled prejudice against dark-skinned others. They decided that Burma was composed of 135 native ethnic groups, dominated by the Burmans; convinced Burma’s residents that ethnic identity was immutable; and instituted among these groups a competition for resources and power. Then, in 1948, they washed their hands of the matter, setting the country up for a tough century after independence.

Craig’s novel starts well before that fateful year, with Benny’s search for love and belonging in colonial Burma. Intuition draws him to Khin, a Karen woman whose “unruly center” provides much of the plot’s momentum. “Miss Burma” turns out to be their daughter Louisa, who becomes a symbol of the country’s fledgling sense of national identity — and whose journey away from that illusory unity and toward revolutionary Karen nationalism takes the reader into the military dictatorship of the 1960s.

This tapestry of love, hope, and betrayal is not pure fiction. The main characters are based on Craig’s mother and grandparents, called by their real names. They rub shoulders with figures even better known in Burma’s history; although Aung San, U Nu, and Ne Win may not be household names in the United States, they are the George Washingtons and Alexander Hamiltons of Burma (and just as flawed).

Thus the past is not so much a backdrop for Craig’s story as its underlying architecture. History is the bones to which the flesh of human experience clings — or is it vice versa? Should we remember that night in January 1949 as the one when Louisa gets a life-threatening fever, or the one when the Karen village of Thamaing is besieged by the Burmese army? The timelines of the characters’ lives unfurl contemporaneously with Burma’s history in a way that makes both equally compelling. In fact, moving on to other novels after finishing Miss Burma, we may feel an uncanny absence of historical specificity, as if most books transpire in Literature Land, where nothing happens outside the characters’ personal lives. Craig expects a good deal of her audience in terms of their appetite for Burmese history, and I hope that many will rise to the occasion, because the rewards are rich.

For instance, she captures the bittersweet challenges of intimate relationships across linguistic and cultural divides. Benny and Khin, lacking a common mother tongue, are at first limited to the simplest of words: “I have been … move up!” he sputters, telling her of his promotion. “Very good! Very … happy!” is all she can reply. These stilted words leave plenty of room for unsatisfying ruminations. “Was it a Karen trait,” Benny wonders,

Khin’s preference for the quietness he sometimes found stifling? Had she been taught never to impose, to avoid eye contact, to fold her arms across her chest in conversation, to duck when passing others congregated on the street? He wasn’t at all sure that her habit of refusing his offers to purchase her some tidbit […] wasn’t in fact a Karen form of modestly accepting.

We feel for Benny and Khin as they stumble through their marriage, bound together despite — or by means of — their differences.

Benny and Khin are not the only ones who struggle to understand each other. Craig demonstrates the unreliability of communication even when people share a language, thanks to those spaces around words that allow us to interpret them as we wish. “It should have been me,” Benny’s friend Saw Lay says to Khin after Benny is arrested and tortured by Japanese soldiers. Neither of them seems to know if he means he should have been the one arrested, or the one to marry Khin. These awkward phrases, and the silences that surround them, haunt all of the intimate relationships in the novel. Craig conveys with sensitivity the regret that can poison close connections, the wounds that become unspeakable and bleed into every interaction. Through Louisa’s eyes, Craig captures the tenderness and humiliation of really seeing — and being seen by — one’s parents. Before Louisa takes a decisive step away from her family of origin, she confronts Khin, who had pushed her onto the beauty pageant stage with a combination of adoration and spite:

It occurred to Louisa dimly that her years of pretense had been encouraged by a mother who was frightened of her daughter’s feelings. And for a moment, all she could do was stand there, fighting off the tremors of old hurt and rage, as Mama threw her hands over her own face as though to hide what it had to say, or as though to hide from what its eyes might perceive.

Benny and Khin are not the only parental figures in this novel. Saw Lay explains his disappointment with the British, whom many Karen saw as their protectors from the Burmans. He diagnoses himself as “brokenhearted because his daddy, who he thought saw him as precious, as unique, as loyal, as good and worthy, never really loved him at all — because his daddy loved him only as a convenience.” The British colonizer (and later the American CIA man) emerges as a fraught figure, inspiring a twin bond of dependence and aggression that mirrors the biological relationships in the book.

No matter how much the characters want to determine their destinies, the West seems to be an inescapable audience for which they must perform. Later in Benny and Saw Lay’s conversation on the tension between tribalism and ethnic identity, Saw Lay criticizes Aung San, widely known in Burma as a hero who liberated the country from the British and unified the minority groups. According to Saw Lay, Aung San dazzled the Western world, while keeping intact his underlying dedication to Burman chauvinism:

How very Western to trust the word of a man who speaks fluently, intelligently, even brilliantly. How very Western to trust that he has the same code of honor. How naive to think that because he makes one gesture toward Western democracy he couldn’t possibly at that very same moment be plotting a systematized form of inequality — a state in which one “dominant” race rules and is sanctioned to discriminate against others — against “minorities.”

Reading this passage in 2017 brings up an uneasy parallel with Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. Until last year, many in the West saw her as a saint: fluent, intelligent, brilliant like her father. Now she stands accused of ignoring the genocide of Rohingya people — and her political base, Burman Buddhists like herself, loves her no less for it. The oppression of the Karen and of Muslims cannot be conflated, but both illustrate just how broad the category of otherness is in Burma. Indeed, scholars have compared Burmanness in Burma to whiteness in the United States for the way it fosters unseen privilege in relation to all others. 

Miss Burma reminds us that there is no nation-state on earth that wasn’t built around exclusion and violence. Craig has called writing this novel “a political act”; it is also clearly a deeply personal one. She weaves those threads together for us, showing us the ordinary human failings behind what often seem like clear-cut cases of good and evil.

“Lack of courage keeps us from understanding others’ perspectives,” a fellow political prisoner tells Benny. While this novel cannot untangle ethnic identity from tribalism, it is a courageous attempt to broaden the way we see others and ourselves, both personally and politically, at home and abroad.

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Rosalie Metro is an assistant teaching professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is the author of Teaching US History Thematically: Document Based Lessons for the Secondary Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2017) and a novel, Have Fun in Burma (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018).