Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons: A Love Story travels deep into the embattled zone where personal meets political
Of all writing, non-fiction is perhaps the most vast, varied realm, constantly balancing truth with memory, facts with inevitable subjectivity – and all dependent on the writer’s own, sometimes vague definitions of those terms. "I have a responsibility to the truth as I experienced it and understood it, and certainly I want to be true to the information I’ve received from others," says Karen Connelly when talking about her latest non-fiction journey, Burmese Lessons: A Love Story.
Connelly, who won a Governor General’s Literary Award for her 1993 non-fiction account of living in Thailand, Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journey, and wrote about Burma’s politics in her novel The Lizard Cage, embarked on Burmese Lessons "because the story wasn’t finished. I realized there was still a lot of information untold: being at the 1996 protests in Rangoon, getting into various kinds of trouble that could have been much worse. I wanted to talk about that story and the reality of life on the border, in amongst refugee populations and the dissidents."
Connelly dug into her memories and journals to return to the circumstances of her life in 1996 at the age of 27, when she was encouraged to go to Burma as a writer to observe and recount people’s, especially artists’, experiences of living under the country’s military dictatorship.
In Burmese Lessons, we feel the country’s physical heat, the warmth of its people and its stormy politics at once: sometimes quiet on the outside, a smiling peace partly maintained because talking would mean punishment, sometimes dangerously cacophonic with revolutionary voices (the book is full of dialogue as much as description). Add in Connelly’s overriding love for the place and certain people in it – much of the bravely personal latter half of the book concerns her relationship with a Burmese man in the dissident movement – and we’re drawn into something immediate and intense.
"I wanted the personal element to come into it too," she says. "It’s called Burmese Lessons for a reason – it was a time of very profound education for me, and like any significant event in one’s life, marks me still but particularly marked me then."
It’s this accomplishment in awareness, that Connelly puts herself in the centre without losing the story’s truth or politics, that makes her book so compelling. And then there’s love and what it does to us: puts us in the moment, makes our bodies tangibly course with life, transforms us. Love here is what happens when something skims from surface into deeper understanding, to really matter; it’s the meeting place of life and death, acceptance and determination.
"One of the causalities of a regime like Burma’s or any embattled place like the Thai-Burma border is that the personal is sacrificed for the political. There’s really not very much time for the personal – that was a great yearning for people and was also a struggle for me."
For Connelly, Burmese Lessons is as much about Burma itself as it is about "reflecting on those times in our lives when we have to make decisions about how we want to live, those moments where the path diverges into possibilities for choosing a life and an identity. Everyone has politics in their lives."