Burn This Book by Toni Morrison (Ed.).
Compilation copyright 2009 by HarperCollins Publishers.
All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing and disturbing the public. Writers who are unsettling, calling into question, taking another, deeper look. Writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights—can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace; and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.
That is their peril.
Ours is of another sort.
How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves.
We all know nations that can be identified by the flight of writers from their shores. These are regimes whose fear of unmonitored writing is justified because truth is trouble. It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public. Unpersecuted, unjailed, unharassed writers are trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources. The alarm, the disquiet, writers raise is instructive because it is open and vulnerable, because if unpoliced it is threatening. Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow. The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place. Cultural and political forces can sweep clean all but the “safe,” all but state-approved art.
I have been told that there are two human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. When the chaos is simply the unknown, the naming can be accomplished effortlessly—a new species, star, formula, equation, prognosis. There is also mapping, charting, or devising proper nouns for unnamed or stripped-of-names geography, landscape, or population. When chaos resists, either by reforming itself or by rebelling against imposed order, violence is understood to be the most frequent response and the most rational when confronting the unknown, the catastrophic, the wild, wanton, or incorrigible. Rational responses may be censure, incarceration in holding camps, prisons, or death, singly or in war. There is however a third response to chaos, which I have not heard about, which is stillness. Such stillness can be passivity and dumbfoundedness; it can be paralytic fear. But it can also be art. Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, of military power, of empire building and countinghouses, writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. And it is right that such protection be initiated by other writers. And it is imperative not only to save the besieged writers but to save ourselves. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.
A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.
The Man, the Men at the Station
I got off the overnight train in Mandalay, Burma’s historical city of kings, and instantly there was a swarm of men around me. They were hard for me to tell apart, most of them, dressed in white shirts, with wraparound longyis around their waists, many of them wild-eyed and unshaven after spending all night in their trishaws. Like people in many countries that I’d seen, they were at once trying to arrest my attention and to avoid the attention of all the passersby or seeming passengers (or even fellow trishaw drivers) who might be making a living by giving names to the police. How to stand out, how to get by, and yet how not to attract notice: it is one of the never-ending predicaments in a country such as Burma.
I settled at last on one of them, with a straggly beard and rough, rural features, and we bargained a little on the street. Maung-Maung, as he asked me to call him, had a sign on one side of his half-broken little vehicle, “My Life,” and a sign on the other, “B.Sc. Mathematics.” I could tell that, like many of his fellows, he was bright, resourceful, well-educated, but in Burma intelligence (in all senses) is something to be feared and can best be used by giving oneself to something other than words and ideas. I felt something of the unease that many a traveler feels in such a setting: it was as if I, through no gift of my own, had stepped down off the movie screen that Maung-Maung and his friends had been watching for most of their lives— an emissary from a land of freedom, possibility, and movement—and now they were reaching for me as if I could carry them back to my make-believe world.
We got into his little trishaw at last, I in the throne at the back, and he pedaling furiously, to show me the sights. After a short while, though, he turned off the main boulevard and we started entering unscripted land: the houses grew smaller and smaller, more entangled in undergrowth, and the bustle fell away, so that I felt I was being taken into a kind of underworld. My new friend sensed, perhaps, the stiffening in me, and so he passed back a small piece of jade, as he cycled, and told me that it was a present, for me. A present from the citizen of a desperately poor country to a visitor from the world’s richest? It sounded strange. Then he passed back something even more valuable: a photo album with its protagonists carefully marked out. “My Monk.” “My Headmaster.” “My Brothers and Sisters.”
I took all this in, and then a final book came my way, in which my new friend had written out his precepts for living: he would always abstain from the toxins of life, he had written, and try to show kindness. Those were the guidelines his monk had drawn for him, he said.
I didn’t know where we were going and whom I was ending up with as he cycled, steadily, into rougher and rougher parts of town—this is the traveler’s predicament, perhaps his excitement—and when we came at last to a tiny hut, weeds growing all around it, I wasn’t sure at all whether I wanted to go in. This wasn’t listed in any guidebook I had seen. Still, I followed Maung-Maung into his home and sat on the bed that his roommate used at night (a trishaw driver in Burma cannot afford to live alone). Slowly, as if he were pulling out what was true contraband, my friend reached under his bed and drew out his treasures.
A sociology textbook: Life in Modern America. A faded Burmese-English dictionary, out of which he had copied sentences: “If you do this, you may end up in jail.” “My heart is lacerated by what you said.” A book of photos of the foreigners he had met, their arms around him, the faraway places they belonged to implicit in the cameras around their necks, the excited gleam in their eyes.
Until two years ago, Maung-Maung told me, he had never met anyone from outside Burma. “Only in movies.” In villages like his own, in the Shan States, people with opportunities might as well belong to another planet. Then he showed me the place in the album in which he had pasted every letter he had ever received from abroad. We sat in the little room on the hot autumn day and looked at stamps and messages from California and Paris and Australia.
I suppose I had been in rooms like this many times already—in Tibet and Colombia and Egypt. Soon it would seem as if most of my life was being spent with people like Maung-Maung, who represent the majority of our global neighbors. But still I had never met someone quite like this. He passed across an essay—”My Life,” it was titled, as the sign on his trishaw was—and I read of how he had grown up with parents who could never imagine an education for themselves. They had despaired when their eldest son went off to the city— and then had shaken their heads when he took to digging holes for a living, and washing clothes in a monastery. When they heard he had become a trishaw driver, usually sleeping in his vehicle, they never wanted to hear another word, imagining the lowlifes and street girls who must be his companions now.
Still, Maung-Maung told me, he dreamed of the day when he would buy an English suit and invite his old parents to his graduation, as he received a “Further Certificate” in mathematics. Possibilities were scant in brutally oppressed Burma, and since the government had closed every door and locked every window, all that remained were such imaginings.
And, I began to suppose, people like me. I added to Maung-Maung’s collection of addresses and photographs, and after I returned to California, I often heard from him, just as I heard from other Maung-Maungs I had recently met in China, the Philippines, Nepal. Every few weeks, so it seemed, a worn blue envelope would arrive, with his looping script—”Maung-Maung, Trishaw Stand, Mandalay, Burma”—on the back, and stamps that must have cost a day’s wages or more to buy, even when the letters were smuggled out through foreigners traveling to Thailand.
He was still at his trishaw stand, my friend wrote, in carefully inscribed English (I thought of the dictionary, the almost lightless room from which they came); he still hoped to become a teacher of mathematics. “Sometimes I don’t even get one kyat for a day,” Maung-Maung wrote. “Anyhow, I will try to improve for my living and I will support to my old parents. I have to try for success, then happiness. But I don’t want to wish for what is impossible.”
He never asked me for money or presents or support for a visa; he asked only that I never mention politics in my letters, and that I remember how often letters got intercepted and devoured by the wrong eyes. I followed every precaution, but still, at some point, I realized that the letters had stopped. I shuddered to think what might happen to a curious and intellectually engaged man in Burma, where the government was fearful of everything and ruled on astrological whimsy, at one point outlawing all currency notes in denominations of 10 and 5—because 9 was a more auspicious number—and thus effectively robbing the people of all their savings.
I scheduled a trip to go back to the country, partly to see my friend again. But one day after they issued my visa, the consular officials at the Burmese embassy in Tokyo happened to see my photo in Time magazine, realized I was a journalist, and called me up to ask if I would mind if they canceled the visa (since the alternative was going to Burma and being arrested on the spot, I accepted). That same month, demonstrations broke out in the capital and three thousand people or more were killed.
This is a story that every traveler will recognize; I would come to know it by heart as I traveled to North Korea and Ethiopia and Laos and Haiti. Words cannot easily do justice to the lives that crowd in on one in most countries in the world, and ask why they shouldn’t receive an answer. Burma, after the demonstrations, became Myanmar, even farther from the notice of the world; occasionally it would slip into the news, as a factor in some geopolitical equation, but for most of us it disappeared entirely behind a curtain, just as its government hoped it would. Of the government, indeed, we heard now and then; of the people, cloudless, good-natured, and as sweet and kind as any I had met on my travels, we never heard at all.
“How can you go to a country where your very presence there counts as a vote of confidence in its oppressors?” friends sometimes asked me. “Every penny you spend goes towards the oppression.” It was never an easy question to answer, but when I thought of Maung-Maung, and all his neighbors, I imagined that if they were asked, they would nearly always vote for our presence. Without us, they were essentially condemned to solitary confinement for life.
The years passed, and I thought constantly of Maung-Maung, and his unmet neighbors in Yemen and Cuba and Bolivia. Occasionally, friends would head off to Mandalay, but after 1988 none of them reported meeting my friend. Then, fourteen years after our meeting, I received a letter, from an unknown address in London, saying that the sender had met someone I knew in Myanmar—he recognized him because he’d read about him in a book I’d writ-ten—and had a letter he wanted to pass on.
I waited anxiously, and nothing came.
Then, a few months later, another envelope arrived, from Montreal, and when I opened it up, the familiar handwriting tumbled out. “Dear Pico Iyer,” Maung-Maung wrote, and told me of how, not long after we met, he had met some other visistors, from Texas. This elderly couple had been so moved by my friend—his essay “My Life,” the presents he bestowed on them—that they had decided, then and there, to give him two hundred dollars, to realize his lifelong dream of buying his own trishaw. He could not believe his good karma, and he had gone home to his wife and five children and told them that now their lives would be transformed. Even his parents, he thought, might hold him in higher regard now.
Then, Maung-Maung wrote, he met another visitor, from Italy, who was so moved by his story that he had promised to give him the money to realize his secret wish, the one he had confided to almost nobody, of buying a camera and becoming a photographer. “Just get me some old coins,” the visitor had said, “and I’ll give you a camera in return.”
Maung-Maung raced around Mandalay, emptying his savings to acquire old Burmese coins, and sent them to the Italian. But when he traveled across Burma to the capital, and waited at the appointed place to receive his camera, nobody showed up. He waited and waited, and then traveled home and told his wife that they were broken. They would have to return to their village in shame and start the whole process again.
It was twelve years since that moment, Maung-Maung wrote, and at last, through hard work and determination, he had got back to where he started. He was a trishaw driver again, sleeping in his vehicle outside the station in Mandalay, and he looked forward to my return. He was too old now to expect further certificates or graduation ceremonies, but at least we might meet again one day. I’d written about him in a book, he knew, so there were others now who knew of the details of “My Life.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was on a blacklist in Burma, perhaps because of writing about people like himself, suitably disguised. A colleague had seen my picture up at the airport, as a criminal to be arrested if ever he showed his face. The important thing was that we had contact at last, and a window, a tiny window, had opened again where before there had seemed no hope.
It’s almost a quarter of a century now since our paths crossed, but I think of Maung-Maung often, especially when I meet the other Maung-Maungs who become the protagonists of a traveler’s life. Sometimes it seems that my mailbox is mostly full of their letters (people like Maung-Maung have incentive to write, and the Internet is all but banned in such countries). I walk down the street outside my apartment in rural Japan, and send a letter back, or buy a book about their country, or even write a piece like this. Every one of those simple acts is impossible for them. The things I take for granted are the stuff of science-fiction fantasy for most.
For all the derelictions and brutalities of his government, though, Maung-Maung is still waiting at the station, and we are the only freedom he knows. Without us—the stories we take to him, the stories we bring back from him—there wouldn’t be anything, except years and years of further struggle, and then nothing at all.