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Burmese Lessons: A true love story Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 18, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Weaving a poignant personal love story within a larger cultural tapestry of Myanmar circa 1996, Canadian poet, memoirist, and novelist Connelly (The Lizard Cage) delivers a lyrical look at a country in the throes of a deeply pernicious military dictatorship. Although she is based in Greece, Connelly's various trips to Burma and Thailand are sponsored by PEN Canada in order to gather information on Burmese political prisoners such as short story author Ma Thida; consequently, Connelly, then in her late 20s, is easily accepted within Burmese artistic circles, gets caught up in violent street demonstrations, and even interviews the revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, now under strict house arrest. At a Christmas party, she meets and falls for Maung, a sexy Burmese revolutionary leader who shares his not uncommon story of becoming politicized after the unrest of 1988 and being forced underground. However, she comes to the wrenching realization that her lover belongs to the national struggle for Burmese democracy, and not to her. Connelly writes eloquently of having given her heart to Asia, yet her portrait is dated as the country has changed much since then, considering the recent devastation by Cyclone Nargis, well chronicled in Emma Larkin's Everything Is Broken. (May)
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Finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction!
“Karen Connelly’s passionate and poetic memoir begins with her arrival in Burma in 1996 at the age of 27. Brash, naïve and bubbling with confidence, she is enchanted by the country, but also determined to ‘catch at least a glimpse of the truth—something beyond the beautiful images that are so readily available to the foreign eye’ . . . . Burmese Lessons is an intimate account of a country, a relationship and a man—all three of which remain elusive.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Burmese Lessons is a polished, literary memoir that includes, along the way, an account Burma's turbulent history. . . . Ms. Connelly is a hugely engaging writer. Burma itself—as Ms. Connelly well knows—is rather more complicated than one difficult love affair.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Connelly isn't a hard-nosed journalistic observer. She’s intelligent and curious, also emotional, self-deprecating, openhearted. When she meets Maung, a handsome Burmese dissident, at a Christmas party in Chiang Mai, she begins a passionate and complicated cross-cultural romance. We know things can't end well, but we're with Connelly all the way on this journey. There's no resisting.”
"[A] heartbreaking romance set among the temples and verdure of Southeast Asia."
—The Seattle Times
"A generous dollop of poetic chick lit combines surprisingly well with criticism of Burma's half-century of bloody dictatorship in Canadian Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons."
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A sensually acute writer, Connelly describes the lush pleasures of losing oneself in a romantic, foreign place, but also details the bitter act of renunciation involved in realizing that her lover belonged not to her but to the larger struggle for Burmese democracy.”
“Karen Connelly has given her heart to Asia. I bow in gratitude to this writer whose love story is personal and political — and true.”
—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace
“Burmese Lessons is a tour de force. At once beautiful literature, an intimate account of a moving journey, a nuanced portrait of another country, a complex yet quietly honest reportage, this book is also a page turner. It will, I believe, become a classic in the new genre that mixes personal memory with public events.”
—Susan Griffin, author of A Chorus of Stones and Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy
"Weaving a poignant personal love story within a larger cultural tapestry of Myanmar circa 1996, Canadian poet, memoirist, and novelist Connelly delivers a lyrical look at a country in the throes of a deeply pernicious military dictatorship.... Connelly writes eloquently of having given her heart to Asia."
"Putting both her safety and heart on the line, Connelly renders deft passages on sexual longing and satiation that help anchor the book’s harsh sociopolitical themes. Burmese Lessons examines Burma’s tumultuous climate and nuanced cultural ethos with colorful prose and gritty self-reflection.
"Treading the boundary between romance and politics, Connelly presents an evocative account of passionately living the revolution, shedding light on those who give everything to the cause, and those who love them. Piercing and raw."
“Burmese Lessons shows us more than a place, or a person in a place: it shows us a way to be in the world: open, seeing, breathing, awake.... In virtually every encounter, Connelly shows us that there is no escaping the political: the reach of the regime is pervasive and poisonous. The political is there in the personal.... This is the greatest lesson in Burmese Lessons, and the most important moment: the realization that the whole history of Burma is reflected in every individual life. The small story is the Bigger Picture.”
—Literary Review of Canada
"Haunting and poetic.... Connelly fans will be enthralled."
—Quill & Quire
“The recounting, re-imagining, of Connelly’s immersion in the mid-90s [in Burma and Thailand] reveals a brave, even foolhardy, idealistic, beautiful young woman utterly seduced, co-opted, transformed by Burmese culture….”
—Globe and Mail
"Connelly compels admiration for her brave intrusions into dangerous and awkward situations, and above all for her candour."
Top customer reviews
I'm less keen to meet her face to face though, at least not the 28 year old version narrating this book. For one, she seems dismissive of most of the women she writes about in this memoir. In her beautifully written memoir, Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story, the word "bitch" comes up 6 times, once in reference to herself, once in reference to a Thai woman on a jeepney, once in reference to a friend trying to warn her about her lover, and 3 times describing another woman. And it is not just women she rages about. Her lover is a bastard, twice! She's a wild hungry woman, who recklessly gives herself over to lust and love for a people and a man she barely knows, ranting, crying and exulting through the whole experience.
But one doesn't read a memoir to like a writer, or to approve of his or her choices. One reads for the subjective experience of a particular time, place and events, seen from a specific writer's perspective. I wanted to enter the mind of a North American woman, perhaps Asian-American, seeing the refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border for the first time and trying to live as one of them. Seen that way, Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story, was an entirely satisfactory read from which I emerged sated from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.
Karen Connelly is a poet, accustomed to suggesting multiple layers of meaning with just a few words. This memoir is not just a record of a love affair between the author and a leading Burmese dissident sometime in the second half of the 1990's. I take the book to be a record of the lessons Ms. Connelly learnt after becoming captivated by Burma and the Burmese.
Ms. Connelly is an acute observer, with a piercing intelligence and a sensitive heart. She sees through herself and writes about her own dilemnas with acuity. "My emotions for him are tangled up with my thoughts and feelings about his country... Am I just a parasite, falling in love with this man because he brings me closer to his country?"
Regardless, she does fall for him, despite her friends and acquaintances warnings that he is not quite who he seems and a cross-cultural relationship between a North American woman and an Asian man is fraught with difficulties.
On the way to resolution, these are the Burmese lessons Ms. Connelly learns: What it means to wait for "a man who comes to me from no fixed address and who will depart from me, in all likelihood, for an equally unspecified location".... To understand that in a refugee camp "making a home safe enough for a child is the ordinary miracle" because among refugees and exiles "it's no small act to make a home." She learns "Tragedy is a climate" and believes she has "acclimatized" like the displaced who "forced to live in a prison, under a piece of tarpaulin, in one place then another, and another" learn to build their lives "on a fracture"; something she proclaims, perhaps too early, that she too can do. "A shelter within a broken shelter is another version of home. I can live there, if I want to.
In some ways, I already do. And the company is fine."
But it is a bout of malaria caught from a trip into a jungle guerilla camp that provides the ultimate Burmese lesson, when we see that Ms. Connelly's affair with Burma that started with an exotic encounter in a temple, a scintillating literary meal and pretty tourist excursions becomes a fire that consumes and transforms her, with an unexpected result.
"Is this not what I wanted, what I have always craved - to be transformed? The change I sought when I first went to Burma is complete. It is an irrevocable alteration: the fever has seared something into me, burned something out. She is gone, the one who could go forth so easily, so readily, wishing to enter another world and opening herself to it completely, like a door or a flower."
This is the ultimate lesson, that loving is also suffering, and with suffering we learn to be careful for ourselves. The carefree 28 year old who first gave herself to Asia when she was seventeen and came back to Asia ripe for the taking, learns, she cannot go on forever. She learns there are boundaries she must hold on to because they are necessary to preserve her sense of who she is.
Ms. Connelly's renders the world she entered with such clarity we're caught by it as much as she was. The men picking their noses, spitting phlegm, chewing betel; the cheroot smoking women; the flesh market in the gem-trading town of Mae Sot; Ms. Connelly's sweaty encounters with her lover; are all served up piping hot. Some may argue that it was too much, especially the sex. "Not everything or everyone is for the artis's palate," some may quote Ms. Connelly's friend Marla. But I did not feel squeamish about what was offered. It was what I wanted, to enter into the experience of a North American somewhat Asianized woman on the Thai-Burmese Border. That the woman was in love, with the culture and a man of that culture was an added bonus.
This is not a book to read for objective historical analysis of the whys and wherefores or rights and wrongs of the Burmese Border dissidents' wars or their internecine battles. Hundreds of thousands of refugees still languish in the border camps but the number of fighters in the jungle are dwindling as Myanmar inches towards democracy. Institutions and structures have changed. In August 2012 many of the dissident leaders including Ms. Connelly's lover and his rival were allowed to return to Burma to attend talks with the government on how they might contribute to a future democracy. The heart of the story though, how a young woman fell in love with a Burmese man, his country and his people and the lessons she learnt remain.
Highly recommended for those who like their memoir writers as they are, real and raw; and the words they read as crafted and gleaming.
For readers who enjoyed Marguerite Duras' The Lover and Lynn Sharon Schwartz' Disturbances in the Field, both about strong women who love whole-heartedly and with unashamed bodies.
Most recent customer reviews
Flawed by its addiction to a fictional image of life in contemporary Myanmar, Connelly's work is plausible as a "true love story."Read more