Novelists, in the popular imagination, have a certain look and life. We envision introverts standing at the peripheries of social gatherings, or hidden in their studies writing about family angst and taking stabs at the broader culture. Magazine covers show us mostly white guys with glasses, and perhaps a receding hairline.
Charmaine Craig shatters this model on many fronts. A former film actor, now a faculty member at UC Riverside, her Burmese background has led to her political activism and role in Burmese diplomatic negotiations. It also gave her the subject for her novel, Miss Burma, which refers to the beauty pageant her mother, Louisa, won as a 15-year old in 1956. Craig's grandfather, Benny, originally a Jewish British citizen, was under house arrest for his own political activism, and Louisa would pick up his mantle – one which suited her far better than that of beauty queen.
Craig’s debut novel, "The Good Men," which centers on a priest appointed “Inquisitor of Heretical Depravity for the Province of Toulouse” in 14th-century France, left her well-practiced in mining the intersections of religion, sexual repression, and political persecution for historical fiction. Where that novel explored sexual taboos and the Church’s abuse of power, "Miss Burma" traces the effects of political oppression, war, and genocide as they pry even the strongest families apart, sowing seeds of mistrust and inflicting physical and psychological violence on children, as well as adults.
At the heart of "Miss Burma" is a marriage, even its head is preoccupied with weighing the evils and advantages of colonization, independence, Western intervention, and the creation of ethnic states.
Craig’s grandparents were a striking and unlikely couple. Her father, a British Customs officer, fell for her mother, Khin, a member of the oppressed Karen minority, and proposed immediately through a translator. Bridging cultural and linguistic gaps created challenges in their early marriage, though these seem quaint beside the impact of World War II, when the Japanese invaded and Burmans, no longer held in check by British colonizers, systemically decimated Karen villages. One of the novel’s most moving segments shows a Karen village offering refuge to Benny and Khin, despite the danger of Benny’s presence there. Benny is struck by the village’s communal ways of living into which he and Khin are immediately absorbed: “Astonishing, Benny thought, how linked the value of privacy was to that of personal (rather than collective) betterment or gain.” This unconditional embrace of a stranger prompts Benny’s conversion to Karen Christianity, though he will continue to be referred to by Burmans as “the Jew.”
After the war, conditions hardly improved for Karens with Burma’s decolonization and subsequent devolution into brutal dictatorships and military coups. Aung San (father to the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the political dissident who now leads the Burmese Democratic party) might have led Burma into peaceful times had he not been assassinated, the thinking goes. Craig’s portrayal is more ambivalent, however, highlighting Aung San’s wartime alliance with Japan and remaining skeptical of his promise of unity in light of the Burmans’ longstanding oppression of the Karens.
Embedded in this political landscape, Benny and Khin’s marriage grows tragic, not only because of this brutal history, but also because of what it spawns in each – wounded pride, the irrational impulse to withhold, desperate affairs, mutual misunderstandings. Of Khin, we learn, “But as many times as she set out on any given day to shower him with gifts of her own – to make a loving remark, or even perhaps, to take his hand – that terrible twist of resentment and humiliation would stop her, and in spite of herself she would remain aloof with him, and in her thoughts she would cough up recriminating words.” The underlying attachment and intimacy each craves stand in stark contrast to their mutual withdrawal, creating a painful gap. Marriage, family, are shown to be “the ties that bind,” a double-meaning of intimacy and captivity, your fate inextricable linked to another’s – and we see this, too, in Louisa’s increasingly strained relationship with her parents.
"Miss Burma" is an ambitious novel, and perhaps for that reason, it falters at points. It’s generally hard to marry a novel to a strong political agenda and have it come out unscathed. Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in literature, recently criticized American creative writing programs for their apolitical bent, which, he argues, overvalues “showing over telling” and foregrounding individual humanistic expression over political context and concerns. I mention this because political speeches (i.e., “telling”) tend to crowd out the other action in the last third of "Miss Burma" – to its detriment, in my opinion – though I note this with a grain-of-salt-like consciousness of Nguyen’s critique of the American literary establishment (of which, I suppose, I am a small cog). But also, the affairs, entanglements, and jealous confrontation, of which there are many, start to feel a bit excruciating and soap operatic in this last section. In fairness, Craig is drawing from her family’s history. On the other hand, her choice to fictionalize this history gives her license to do a little editing, from which the book might have benefitted.
Yet, overall, "Miss Burma" is powerful in showing the relentless effect of the political on the personal while covering an important swath of history – and all the while telling an awfully good story.