Sunday, June 25, 2006

More from the Myanmar trash travel literature genre

Land of a Thousand Eyes: The Subtle pleasures of everyday life in Myanmar, by Peter Olszewski, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005. P253

"But that's the only sort of book that sells."

Trashy travel books on Myanmar seem to be popping up like mushrooms in a dank forest while books on Burma's rich history like San Lwin's translation of Razadarit Ayeidawpon remain in unpublished manuscript form.

Yet another item in the trash travel literature genre for Myanmar. Like exploitation films that "sacrifice traditional notions of artistic merit for a sensational display, often featuring sex, gore, and violence" or paracinema trash travel literature sells like hot cakes and masquerades as profound truth as the author takes a swig of beer at the local brothel. Here's another horrible specimen that has yet to be reviewed by Irrawaddy Magazine.

Running the risk of criticism for being a foreigner who lived in Burma, not as a foreign aid worker helping the poor, but largely trying to make money the same way Burmese people make money with a Burmese family, speaking Burmese everyday, not even speaking to a fellow foreigner for more than a year.

"What were you doing there?" my politically correct interrogator asks.

"Reading history books in Burmese," the slightly eccentric expat replies.

"What right do you have to do this while Burma suffers?" my interrogator asks.

"Why is this even an issue? When I personally choose to do this in other places no finds an issue in this. Why is this an issue in Burma?" the eccentric expat observes.

"You are like the author of the travel book who 'moves through the expatriate and local elites scene of Rangoon with the moral immunity enjoyed by many foreigners who frivolously retain their freedoms at the expense of a people largely deprived of rights.'"

"How could I have removed my freedoms to please you?"

The implicit assumptions in the book review seems to be that a foreigner living in or travelling to Burma has to have a certain correct attitude to everything and a correct way of doing everything. This simply does not wash in the real world, any real world, even Burma.

One day, hopefully, Burma will be a normal country. We might as well start practicing for that now. That's means applying the same criteria to Burma as you would to other countries. Like this sort of travel book is trashy whether the author was doing all his dirty travel stuff in Kathmandu, Goa, or Beijing as well. What does Burma really have to do with why this book is trash.

In defense of the book (which I personally hate) if you are a travel writer this is what you have to write to survive because that's what the great mass market wants. The plentitude of books of this ilk is the single best argument for funding more ivory tower academic work on Burma so people can the understand the place, its history and culture better. Travel literature will always be travel literature. Personally, I can rarely get through the first page.

Quotes from the review:

"The book’s narrative structure is like being cornered by a stoned, middle-aged hippie at a party who starts to mumble inanely: you are never too sure where the story is going or what, if any, point there is to it. One minute we are at a beach in Arakan, the next at a Thingyan water festival."

"There are dozens of descriptions of shopping expeditions, Olszewski’s favorite cafes and feeling homesick. He complains about the food, the problems of finding hot water in Kengtung and Shan virgins."

"He caps off this 'tour de farce' with 50 pages of a love story as he finally meets a Burmese woman who can stand his obnoxious Australian sense of humor."

"He provides us with his odious views on female social subservience as equality and strength, on modest clothing as sexually alluring, and on the virtues of certain points of the female Burmese anatomy. It is in descriptions such as these that the book descends sharply to misogyny, and transforms from boring autobiography to Bangkok go-go bargirl literature."

"The book’s most revealing passage is when the author refuses to help the sick street child he patronizingly pretends to care for. He has been giving her pocket change for months for helping him to carry his shopping and to bargain for him at the market. But when she falls painfully ill with stomach worms he refuses to help her get hospital treatment because —under what he terms 'the unwritten law that forces people to ignore the suffering'— assistance could have jeopardized his own position."

It's sad, but this is what sells.