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Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
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Miss Burma

by Charmaine Craig

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"We are bewildered most of the time and doomed to be lost to history. And yet we find that there are others who are unlike us in every conceivable way, yet to whom we are bound."
The book has at its heart a couple, a Jewish businessman born in Rangoon, and a Karen woman, one of the minority communities in Burma (Myanmar) and their long marriage (not a spoiler!). I know little or nothing about Burma, beyond having read two books about modern Burma -one about popular protest / opposition a few years ago, which was fascinating, and Guy Delisle's GN account of living in Burma.

This novel, which is based on the author's own family history, has a very different context, exploring the long history of oppression by the Burmese majority against minorities like the Karen. It's a massive history, but by focussing on the experience of one family, Craig makes the horrors of WW2 and invasion by the Japanese, political oppression, American intervention in the politics of the region - all very human, very personal. Like all the best fiction, it made me want to understand more about the region, and read more. And it seemed terribly timely, in the light of the current situation in Burma. I particuarly admired the picture of Khin, who despite everything the world threw at her, was tough, a survivor, whilst at the same time struggling.
"...when she thought of how in desperation to provide for the children she’d started trading in peanut oil and cheroots and betel leaf, becoming part of an imprecise network of traders hawking their wares at open markets across the hot, wet, forested hills of eastern Mon State—what she remembered was the hours and hours, the weeks and months of walking. Walking without the burden of anyone or anything but what she had to trade. What she remembered was the fog, the damp, the rain that came slanting across the sky like relief, the watchful trees, the hungry mothers at the markets, the muddy paths that ruined her feet, the vastness of the peaceful sky, and the fields and fields of rice. Certain days, she would head out into the depth of those fields—unsure of whether she was crossing into enemy territory—and the lush green stalks seemed to regard her, in turn, an indistinct figure walking in an indistinct place." ( )
1 vote charl08 | May 3, 2018 |
I have finished Miss Burma, my fourth book from the 2018 Women's Literature Prize, and I very much recommend it . I don't think the title of the book, nor the book cover do the story justice. A fascinating look into the gradual emergence of Burma , through British colonialism, war time occupation by the Japanese, and the battle towards independence. Burma, or Myanmar is still in the midst of genocide of the Rohingya people. The story is told through many points of view, and it helped me understand what has happened in Burma and is continuing to happen .

It's told as a very personal story . Benny is an Anglo/Indian/ Jewish young man working for the British Customs service in Rangoon. Benny meets and falls in love with Khin, a young women from the long persecuted ethnic group of the " Karen'". After Benny and Khin marry, WW11 forces them to flee Rangoon with baby Louisa. Benny and Khin do not speak a language in common, and another man, Saw Lay, a dear friend of Benny's, and also an ethnic Karen , help Khin and Benny communicate. The story is told through several generations and we learn more from the adult Louisa and her husband. There are some scenes of war and torture , and overall , this is relatively dark read, but very thought provoking and insightful .

A fascinating and fairly complex story, well worth the read. 4. 5 stars. ( )
3 vote vancouverdeb | Mar 31, 2018 |
I found this book very disturbing and a man of Indian heritage returns to Burma to live, He marries, and along with a friend are accused of being enemies of the state. While he wastes away in prison, his wife must figure out how to keep the family together and alive. One of her ideas is to groom the daughter to win a beauty pageant. Not my favorite book, but like many things I don’t like because I would rather ignore the unpleasant history of other countries, it’s stuck with me long after the storyline of other books has been forgotten. ( )
  brangwinn | Mar 25, 2018 |
With Burma's successor state Myanmar currently in the news, this novel illustrates just how much violence and upheaval is part of the country's history. Set in the era of WWII and the following decades, this story of a family part of an ethnic minority whose daughter becomes a contestant in the Miss Burma pageant in the late 1950s. At times this book is a little hard to get into, but I hope the author continues to write and tell more stories about this part of the world. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Dec 17, 2017 |
I made it about one third of the way through this book and then gave up. The plot seemed promising in the beginning, but then it seemed to abandon the characters and devolved into a history of Burma. I enjoy historical fiction, but this was too heavy-handed for me. ( )
  phyllis.shepherd | Dec 3, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
“Miss Burma” spans nearly 40 years of Burmese history, from 1926 to 1965. The story begins when Burma is still a British colony and unfolds over the course of World War II and the Japanese invasion, the country’s tumultuous early years of independence from colonial rule, and the subsequent military dictatorship that seized power in 1962. Given this backdrop, it is, of necessity, a novel of big themes — of identity, belonging and trust....“Miss Burma” also serves as a much-needed recalibration of history, one that redresses the narrative imbalance by placing other ethnic, non-Burmese points of view at the center of its story....In reimagining the extraordinary lives of her mother and grandparents, Craig produces some passages of exquisitely precise description...If at times the doling out of history lessons feels a tad heavy-handed, with characters occasionally succumbing to soliloquy or unlikely moments of narrative self-awareness, it is ultimately forgivable: The context in which “Miss Burma” is set is not part of a common well of knowledge. By resurrecting voices that are seldom heard on a wider stage, Craig’s novel rescues Benny from his own foretelling of oblivion and brings one of Burma’s many lost histories to vivid life.
 
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Epigraph
Look at the history of Burma. We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren't colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with king and we handed him back his province and left our allies to be crucified and sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we'd stay. They thought we'd stay. But we were liberals and we didn't want a bad conscience. - Graham Greene, The Quiet American
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In memory of my mother, Louisa, and her parents. Ben and Khin - all born in Burma. And for Andrew, Ava and Isabel.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802126456, Hardcover)

A beautiful and poignant story of one family during the most violent and turbulent years of world history, Miss Burma is a powerful novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood.

Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa. After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.

Based on the story of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma is a captivating portrait of how modern Burma came to be and of the ordinary people swept up in the struggle for self-determination and freedom.

(retrieved from Amazon Tue, 06 Dec 2016 12:59:15 -0500)

"A beautiful and poignant story of one family during the most violent and turbulent years of world history, Miss Burma is a powerful novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood. Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa. After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country's history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin's eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma's first beauty queen, soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her new-found fame, she is forced to reckon with her family's past, the West's ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people. Based on the story of the author's mother and grandparents, Miss Burma is a captivating portrait of how modern Burma came to be, and of the ordinary people swept up in the struggle for self-determination and freedom"--… (more)

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