Long-time Myanmar watcher Andrew Selth takes a look at early lists, popular titles and recommended reading on the Southeast Asian nation.
Many Myanmar-watchers tap into the websites of major booksellers from time-to-time, to see what is being written about the country and to find out what titles are finding favour among both the scholarly community and general public. Some also like to keep an eye on those lists, compiled mostly by travel writers and journalists, of books recommended to people who wish to learn more about Myanmar, or who plan to make a visit there.
By monitoring such websites over the years, it has been possible to identify some staple choices and discern a number of interesting trends.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, both kinds of lists were rather short. This reflected the low level of public interest in the country (then known as Burma) and the limited number of works available. Most compilations included overviews like Hugh Tinker’s The Union of Burma (first published in 1961) and FSV Donnison’s Burma (1970), or histories such as Dorothy Woodman’s The Making of Burma (1962) and Frank Trager’s Burma: From Kingdom to Republic (1966). More specialised information could be found in the US Defence Department’s Area Handbook for Burma (1968).
For lighter fare, there were travel books like Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930) and Norman Lewis’s Golden Earth (1952). Myanmar-related fiction was usually represented by Tennyson Jesse’s The Lacquer Lady (1930) and George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934). Curiously, despite their popularity, few lists included Maurice Collis’s histories, or his four volumes of autobiography, namely Trials in Burma (1938), The Journey Outward (1952), Into Hidden Burma (1953) and The Journey Up (1970).
Another notable omission was guide books. This was largely because few people visited Myanmar during the Ne Win era, and those who did were restricted in how long they could stay and where they could go. As a consequence, the market for such works was small. One exception was Ulrich Zagorski’s Burma: Unknown Paradise (1972). As the country became better known, however, more (and more comprehensive) guides began to appear, including Burma: A Travel Survival Kit (1979) by the Lonely Planet team.
As noted on New Mandala in February 2015 (‘Burma/Myanmar: Bibliographic trends’), the popular uprising in 1988 sparked an upsurge of interest in Myanmar among scholars, students, officials and travellers. This led in turn to a dramatic rise in the number of books written about the country. In 2015, the Griffith Asia Institute published a select bibliography of Myanmar-related monographs produced since 1988. It listed 1,318 titles, and this did not include books and reports in soft copy or in languages other than English.
Scholars, journalists and others are now producing a wide range of works, many on Myanmar-related subjects that have never been examined in depth before — at least not by foreigners. There has been a marked increase in the number, scope and quality of travel guides. Also, over the past 25 years foreign visitors to Myanmar have produced a wide range of publications. They have been a rather mixed bag, but many are well written and some offer fresh insights into the country and its people.
For example, there have been a large number of travelogues and memoirs by tourists and temporary residents, on whom Myanmar has clearly made a strong impression. Others have published collections of photographs, although few match Nic Dunlop’s Brave New Burma (2013). Also, dozens of novels have appeared. The plots tend to be rather predictable, with Myanmar serving simply as an exotic locus dramaticus. However, there are some notable exceptions, like The Piano Tuner (2003) by Daniel Mason.
Another development since 1988 has been the publication of numerous books in English by Myanmar authors. These include memoirs by the US-based Wendy Law-Yone (Golden Parasol, 2013) and the Australia-based Sao Khemawadee Mangrai (Burma My Mother, 2014). Several veterans of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar have published accounts of their experiences, including Aye Saung (Burman in the Back Row, 1989), Ma Thanegi (Nor Iron Bars a Cage, 2013) and Ma Thida (Prisoner of Conscience, 2016).
This is in addition, of course to the three books published under the name of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
A quick look through booksellers’ websites and recent catalogues suggests that the majority of Myanmar-related publications being bought by the general public are guide books and maps. Popular titles include the Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar (Burma), the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Myanmar (Burma) and the Insight Guide to Myanmar (Burma). Because of all the changes now taking place, most are updated every year or so. Books about the country’s distinctive cuisine also seem to be attracting interest.
The best-selling maps of Myanmar are by Periplus, Odyssey and Nelles, although sales of the National Geographic Society’s adventure map are growing. Caroline Courtauld’s annotated large scale maps of Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and the Myeik Archipelago also seem to be in demand, doubtless encouraged by the burgeoning tourist trade. This year, Myanmar expects six million foreign visitors, up from 800,000 in 2011.
Probably for the same reason, introductions to the country by recognised Myanmar scholars are selling well. These include David Steinberg’s Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (2013), Thant Myint U’s The Making of Modern Myanmar (2005) and A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times (2013) by Michael and Matrii Aung Thwin. According to one major bookseller, Caroline Courtald’s Myanmar: Burma in Style (2012), and Denis Gray’s 7 Days in Myanmar (2014), are also enjoying good sales.
A few titles appear on almost all lists. One is Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma (2011). Another favourite is Andrew Marshall, The Trouser People (2003). Christina Fink’s Living Silence in Burma (2009) is still selling well, as are Zoya Phan’s Little Daughter (2010), Pascal Khoo Thwe’s From the Land of Green Ghosts (2003) and Peter Popham’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock (2012). New editions of all these books have been released to meet the continuing high demand.
For some years now, various websites, travel agencies and magazines have published lists of books about Myanmar that have been recommended by scholars, journalists and sundry other pundits. Also, a few blogs have compiled such lists on the basis of reader responses. As might be expected, they are all highly subjective, reflecting the different reading habits, unique perspectives and personal preferences of their compilers, but they do have some things in common. A few contain surprises.
On the basis of one customer survey, for example, ‘Goodreads’ recommends 72 books, ranging from The Glass Palace (2001) by Amitav Ghosh and Sao Sanda’s Moon Princess (2008), to Amy Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning (2006) and B.R. Pearn’s History of Rangoon (1939). In 2012, the New Yorker magazine offered a much shorter list, starting with the Asia Society’s report Advancing Burma’s Transition: A Way Forward for US Policy (2012) and ending with Thant Myint U’s Where China Meets India (2012).
The ‘Trip Advisor’ website lists ten books to read before visiting Myanmar, among them Burma/Myanmar: Where Now? (2014) edited by Mikael Gravers and Flemming Ytzen, and Defeat Into Victory (1956), William Slim’s memorable account of the Burma campaign in World War II. ‘Indochina Travel’ puts Rudyard Kipling’s 189o ballad ‘Mandalay’ at the top of its list of recommended reading. ‘Daunt Books’ advises tourists to read Rory Maclean’s Under the Dragon (1998).
A few individuals have also made selections. For example, the ‘Five Books’ website has posted a list of works recommended by veteran Myanmar-watcher Bertil Lintner. He names a few of the books noted above, but adds Thant Myint U’s River of Lost Footsteps (2006), Donald Seekins’ Burma and Japan Since 1940 (2007) and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear (1991). Another choice is Inked Over, Ripped Out (1993), a study of censorship in Myanmar by Anna Allot.
On the website of The Guardian newspaper, Rory Maclean lists his ‘top ten’ works about Myanmar. In addition to some obvious titles, he recommends ‘A Hanging’, an essay written by George Orwell in 1931, The Burman (1882) by George Scott and Burma Chronicles (2010), a graphic book by Guy Delisle. A more unusual choice is Bones Will Crow (2013), a collection of poetry edited by Ko Ko Thet and James Byrne.
Other lists can be found online. Also, Griffith University’s 2015 bibliography includes an essay on the best books to read before travelling to Myanmar for the first time.
There are some books that appear in almost all online lists, either as bestsellers or as recommended reading. There are also obvious gaps, in terms of both subject matter and specific authors. Important works by respected Myanmar-watchers are not mentioned. Key issues like the country’s religious and ethnic tensions, its efforts at political and economic reform, and its foreign and security policies, are paid scant attention.
Yet, what is striking about these lists is their enormous range and diversity. Both fiction and non-fiction works are included. The publications named stretch from popular novels and cookery books to serious academic studies. They cover subjects from Myanmar’s architecture and cuisine to biographies and histories. No one list is the same as any other. Clearly, Myanmar’s books, like the country itself, have something to offer everyone.
Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and the Coral Bell School, Australian National University. The second edition of his select bibliography of Burma/Myanmar can be found online here.