Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reader's Diary #767- Karen Connelly: Burmese Lessons

One of the first things to strike me about Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons was the lack of Canadian reference. True, it is a memoir of her time in Burma (or Myanmar as I know it), but as a fellow traveler I find it hard not to compare countries I visit to Canada. In fact, Connelly spends more time comparing Burma to Greece than to her home for the first 17 years of her life (and the country which partially funded her trip there). But I'm not the patriotism police, I merely found it curious. For those who stick it out for the duration, readers are rewarded on page 425 with a bit of insight as to where the Canada avoidance comes from.

The second thing that struck me was how little I liked this book, not to mention--and I truly hate to say this-- the author. Did you ever read Corinne Hoffman's The White Masai? Admittedly, I have not, but I did see the movie and I had similar feelings watching that I as did while reading Burmese Lessons. I also had Pulp's Common People (the William Shatner cover) stuck in my head. Replace Common with Foreign in that song, and you'd almost have Hoffman's and Connelly's philosophy summed up. As if sleeping with a local and pretending it's love is somehow a superior souvenir.

Do I sound harsh and judgmental? I wrestled with that for 300 pages, trying my hardest to give Connelly the benefit of a doubt. She was young, I told myself (she was 27), and young people are supposed to be naive and make mistakes, that's how they learn. Enjoy the energy and freedom of youth, I said. But nuts to that. Her irresponsibility amounted to selfishness and I couldn't take it. Especially when

I had expected to read about Burma, not some silly pseudo-love story. One or two pages about the torture of Burmese dissidents and a couple hundred pages of the author having unprotected sex with a man she just met? Self-indulgent or what?

I can't believe this book has gotten good reviews. It even won the Governor General's Award? You people must be a patient lot.


raidergirl3 said...

I haven't read this, but it's on my mental list as I loved her fiction book, The Lizard Cage. Really loved it. We don't always like the same books, so I won't hold this review against it, yet. Now I probably have to read it, to see if I agree with you, or if I'm contrary.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: You know, so many of the positive reviews of BL that I've read make reference to that novel. It's my theory that that particular novel must be so good that it clouds all rational judgement of this nonfiction book. Lots of books I've read and disliked I am still able to see why someone else would enjoy it. I can't with this one at all. I have such a negative visceral reaction to this book that I find it hard to let go. I can't explain it. At this point I'm willing to concede that the problem must be mine, not Connelly's.

Breathe deep... relax... the book will be forgotten in time...

Franklin said...

I loved this book. I have read it twice. It's the way it is written that is wonderful, the language. And yes she falls in love, a little risque given the tale. Connelly is a poet and that comes out in her writing. I worry that a reader feels like the writer should have written what they wanted: a hard-core investigation into Burmese politics for example. This was her experience she makes no apologies for writing it. The Lizard Cage came out of her experience in Burma. The LC took her almost nine years to write and it left her very depressed (we talked about it at the Eden Mills Writer's Festival), perhaps writing in her poetic way helped alleviate some of that.

John Mutford said...

Franklin: But to me the experience itself (falling in love with a dissident) seemed contrived, plotted almost. It wasn't just me ("a reader") who wanted something different from the book, many of those she met-- and told her to write about their plight!-- wanted something different. If she makes no apologies for writing it the way she did, then I think she should. Sorry, it's my opinion. Glad you enjoyed it, even if I clearly don't understand.

Unknown said...

Dear John,

I think you are misrepresenting the material in the book. Burmese Lessons has several hundred pages in it; Maung, the dissident, doesn't appear until page 161. Much that is 'about Burma' happens in the text both before and after he appears. Connelly details, in language that is by turns stark and poetic, the poverty of the children of Burma, the work of dissidents, the tragic lives of refugee populations (in particular the harrowing death of a child by malaria), the complexities of public protest in Burma in the 90's, a vicious beating she witnesses against a civilian by a military commander, the constrained lives of women in the military and refugee populations, the difficulties of migrant workers and Burmese sex workers, the trauma but also the resilience of former political prisoners, the deep weariness felt by the Karen rebels . . . ah, what else? I actually don't have the book with me, this is just what I REMEMBER learning from it. I learned SO much about Burma from this book.

You state, very unfairly, I think, that you "had expected to read about Burma, not some silly pseudo-love story. One or two pages about the torture of Burmese dissidents and a couple hundred pages of the author having unprotected sex with a man she just met? Self-indulgent or what?"

I think this review is a little self-indulgent, actually. If I remember correctly, I think she states she had unprotected sex once, when the relationship was established and the couple was thinking, dreaming about having children.

Your review strikes me more as a judgment about Connelly's morality--yes, she was young and she fell in love, and struggled to figure out if that love was good for her, or not--not as a fair depiction of the book. Interestingly, there is precious little sex in BL--mostly there is her longing for it, because the lover is actually away for most of the story. So perhaps you have a bit of an issue with female desire?

I read this memoir more as an exploration of a young woman writer's coming of age--something that there is precious little of in the world of books today--a serious portrait of the artist as a young woman. As another reader here has mentioned, she spent a decade writing a 'serious' book about Burma, called The Lizard Cage. I think it was published around the world and is being made into a film. It was mostly ignored, though, in Canada.

Anyway, just wanted to add my two cents worth. I thought this book was important--and should be more seriously read.

Rachel A.

John Mutford said...

Rachel: I was with you until the "perhaps you have a bit of an issue with female desire" bit, which is a cheap shot and to play psychologist after you've read this one book review threatens to discredit any of your other arguments.

But, I'll bite. Yes, I did judge Connelly's morality (fortunately or unfortunately, she gave me more to go on than a single blog post). It's not a work of fiction and Connelly has made herself the focal point of the book, so focusing a review on her is completely relevant. Burmese Lessons is self-centered and shoddy journalism. Poetic language? Maybe, but it's like someone describing their hair when there's a child dying in the corner.