Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Miss Burma is a novel by Charmaine Craig and is based on the lives of the author’s mother, Louisa, and grandparents, Benny and Khin. It is a story of loyalty, infidelity, patriotism, identity, love and loss. It is the story of Burma’s history from colonization, to Japanese invasion during World War 2 and on to the tortured times of trying to gain autonomy in a country of so many different cultural groups with their differing religions and values.
Through following the lives of one family it is a story of deprivation, of cruelty, of bravery and patriotism and most importantly one of who to trust. Orphaned at the age of seven, Jewish boy Benny was sent to live in India with relatives whose love was nothing like his mother’s. To solve ‘the problem of his fists’ (3) as his answer to bullying, Benny is sent to a nearby boarding school with a boxing program. On his return to Rangoon as an adult, he is captivated by the vision of a young Karen woman (Khin), with black shining hair reaching past the hem of her dress, standing on a pier holding the hand of a young boy.
These two marry, despite their differing cultures, language and beliefs and have several children, the oldest of whom is Louisa. At the age of fifteen she is entered into a beauty pageant as ‘the image of unity and integration (x)’. She goes on to later be crowned Miss Burma and become a film star and has to contend with all the gossip and innuendo which such notoriety entails.
The family becomes intimately involved with the struggles of the fragmented Burmese peoples as they strive to find their identity and place in the world, especially the Karen group within Burma. This includes moving at a moment’s notice to hide, Benny being arrested and tortured, Khin leaving her children with others who do not always treat them kindly to all of them seeing the devastating results of the cruelty of war/revolution.
The author uses the introspection of the key players to show the inner turmoil experienced by individuals during this time. I found this somewhat tedious at times, just like one of Benny’s visitors in his later life when he was detained under house arrest – I guess I don’t understand the value of all the time you spend on it, referring to all Benny’s writing during his time of detention. Maybe the author is of the same belief as her grandfather who says in return Don’t you see that one of the values of examining the past is that it allows you to escape the tyranny of the present? I mean the tyranny of the self in the present. A self that is diminished in the face of the past, in which it played no part (305 ).
Charmaine Craig is a faculty member in the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and as mentioned before a descendent of the significant figures in Burma’s modern history. She, like her mother, was also a former actor in film and television.
This novel, in places is very raw, where the reader is positioned to feel how lucky they are that they did not have to negotiate such harsh troubling times. This, I suppose gives the reader an empathy for the people, especially the author’s family, and helps to explain in some way some of the actions of these people. One certainly feels for the Karen group of people in Burma who seem to have been the underdog for most of their lives.
This novel, Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig certainly gives more of an insight into the history of Burma than one is likely to get from any history book. I stayed the course and finished the book and am glad that I did as it left me with feelings of wanting to know more about the country once known as Burma and now known as Myanmar.
by Charmaine Craig
Allen & Unwin; Grove Press UK