‘Look, I wrote a poem about a peacock and a lion!’ your youngest granddaughter says, rushing into the room, brandishing her school notebook.
They’ll see right through that, you want to tell her. Cut the peacock and pick something subtler. But you hold your tongue, and pull up your reading glasses. She’s only little. She probably doesn’t even understand what writing about a peacock means. More to the point, it doesn’t matter any more! She can write what she likes. As can I, you remind yourself.
‘Do you think it’s good, Grandma?’
You peer at her scrawls more closely. ‘Why don’t you go and type it up, dear, on the new computer, so I can read it in large print.’
She scampers off.
You remember what you were told when you first started to write seriously:
You’re not allowed to publish anything without 50 copies of it being sent in advance to the censorship board. You’re not allowed to write anything containing an explicit mention of sex. You’re not allowed to write anything that could possibly be seen as critical of Buddhism or the military or the government. Don’t even think about mentioning inflammatory names, like Aung San Suu Kyi, or any of the other names used to refer to her, like the Lady, the Rose, or the Peacock – even in allegorical stories. In fact, be wary of metaphor generally.
If you really want to write fiction, here’s what it should look like: realist short stories in accessible but appropriately formal literary language about ordinary workers who struggle valiantly to leave good lives in the noble service of the state. Write these well enough and you might be nominated for the National Literary Prize.
Or, if you’re more interested in sales than prizes, you can try writing romances, comedies (provided they’re not satirical), fantastical horror stories (provided there’s no hint of allegory), and Buddhist self-help books. You might make a living from that if you work hard enough.
But although you were desperate to write, you hated the government and you didn’t want to go down any of those roads. You read up on postmodernism, and learned how to write poems so obscure that you could pack them with radical messages about freedom and democracy without the censors having a clue. A publisher picked them up and you published two collections. The problem was, most of your readers didn’t have a clue about either the messages or postmodernism in general, so you sold pitifully few copies.
You wondered whether you should risk writing something more accessible that pushed the boundaries, and see if your publisher would agree to print 50 copies to send to the censorship board. If he agreed, you knew the best case scenario: they would return a copy to him with a few sentences painted out and you would have to accept all the changes. Next best: they would ban the book and you would have wasted your time. Worse: they would blacklist your pen name and your writing career would be shafted. Worst: a kangaroo trial followed by prison. And you knew what went on in prisons.
You were introduced to a family friend who told you how she had been trafficked to Thailand where she was horribly abused. Her story moved you, and a novel poured out of you in less than a month. Your publisher read it, and said it was good but too controversial. You insisted it wasn’t directly political, or at least, it didn’t criticise the government, just the traffickers, and none of the sex was explicit. He finally agreed, reluctantly, to try sending it in. But within two weeks you’d got a blacklisting letter, and your publisher was given a warning that if he tried anything like that again his publishing house would be shut down. Never again, he said, testily.
You decided to write a cheesy, uncontroversial romance under your own name, just to get some more words in print. It was quite fun, actually, sold pretty well, and led to your first agony aunt column.
As the years ticked past, and you churned out more formulaic love stories and columns, you became increasingly frustrated. You had a growing sense that the outside world was changing, and that Myanmar was being left behind.
A young friend of yours was selected to take part in a writers’ programme in the United States, and came back raving about how grand and gleaming it was, how interested people were, how you could write anything you wanted. You wondered about applying for the same programme, but felt you were getting too old. You wished there was at least more contemporary fiction around for you to read.
And then the rumours began about a ‘transition’. I’ve heard that one before, you thought. But the rumours persisted, and in 2012 there was a by-election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to run, leading the National League for Democracy. She won by a landslide, and though this only meant a small minority of seats in parliament, it was progress.
One day, you heard even more astonishing news: the 1962 censorship law had been repealed. Scrapped. We can write anything we want! a writer friend of yours exclaimed in a local teashop, as incredulous as you. The following week, another writer friend was released from prison after ten years behind bars. You all got together, treated yourselves to a mountain of deep-fried okra, and celebrated for a whole afternoon.
Still, you found you couldn’t really believe that it was real, this freedom. For a while you waited, you watched. When a young poet was imprisoned for a poem mocking the president on Facebook, you muttered: I knew it.
Even when the NLD won again at the national election in 2015, and the world cheered that Myanmar was finally a democracy, it wasn’t really. Not yet. The military had still kept a grip on 25% of seats in parliament, and you couldn’t trust them.
Other writers, especially the younger ones, were going for it regardless. Breaking through the old taboos, writing about politics, drugs, sex – the works. They all seemed to be safe. I should try it, you told yourself. I’ve waited long enough. So you got in touch with your publisher, and your banned novel was published straight away. It was quite something, to see people reading it freely in teashops. Your toes curled with delight, every time.
But when you got out your pen, and sat down at your desk with your notepad to start something new, you found it wasn’t so easy. What to write about? All you could think about was telling people about the regime’s abuses. There was no need to disguise it in postmodernist complexity any more, and yet you still feared being explicit. Perhaps, you thought, I’ll try to write about the future instead. But what will the future look like?
Your granddaughter prances back in, waving a piece of paper. ‘Grandma, here you go, in big print!’ she says. ‘I just posted it on Facebook and it’s already got twenty likes. Tell me if you like it too?’