Art Books

Author struggled to put her Burmese family’s story on paper

Charmaine Craig tried for years to write about her family’s history in Burma, now known as Myanmar. But it took her four tries to get it right, which she achieved in her 2017 novel, “Miss Burma.”

First, as a teenager, she tried writing about the lives of her mother and maternal grandparents in poetry. Then, she tried her hand at a screenplay. Next came a novel set in the United States in which a mother tells the story to her American-born daughter.

After five years, she tossed that book aside and recast the story as a third-person account set in Burma from 1926 through 1965. The result, “Miss Burma,” was published this year by Grove Atlantic. The novel is Craig’s second.

“It was the greatest challenge of my life and something I knew I had to do,” said Craig, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Craig spoke to a reporter and also met with a Torrey Pines High School creative writing class on Thursday, Nov. 2, before addressing the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort in Carmel Valley.

An editor who read the earlier version of her book urged her to bring out the story of Burma in her novel, which freed her to tell the story of her family in a way that felt right to her.

“It closely cleaves to the actual story of my family members in Burma,” she said. Her grandfather, who was Jewish, married a woman who was a member of Burma’s Karen minority, a group that was persecuted by the majority ethnic Burmans.

Her grandfather, Benny, was an architect of the Karen revolution, which led to a long-running civil war between Burma’s ethnic majority and several of its minority groups. Along the way, her grandfather was “disappeared,” tortured and imprisoned, and later put under house arrest. Her grandmother, Khin, struggled to raise the couple’s four children, including Craig’s mother, Louisa Benson Craig.

Her mother’s story was also fascinating; as a teenager, she entered beauty pageants and twice won the title of “Miss Burma.” She went on to star in Burmese films.

“She became kind of like the Marilyn Monroe of Burma. Wherever she went, people recognized her,” Craig said.

Later, after her rebel husband was assassinated, she cut off her hair, donned a set of fatigues, and took over command of her late husband’s militia group.

In 1967, she remarried (an American she had met while attending college in the U.S.), and emigrated to the United States. In the late 1980s, she worked as an activist for Burmese causes from the U.S. She died in 2010.

During her research for the book, Craig spent about two years interviewing her mother, who tried to describe her experiences, but had difficulty relating the emotional toll that she endured or her motivations, Craig said. At one time, the government of Burma had put a price on her mother’s head.

“I took the novelistic leap and really imagined my way into her skin,” Craig said.

She also pored through de-classified CIA and U.S. State Department documents, building a picture of Burma during the years before her mother, and later her grandfather, came to America.

The result is an intimate look at the lives of her mother and grandparents, against a backdrop of war and political turmoil in Burma.

The book’s first chapter begins, “When, nearly twenty years earlier, Louisa’s father saw her mother for the first time, toward the end of the jetty at the seaport of Akyab – that is, when he saw her hair, a black shining sheath that reached past the hem of her dress to her muddy white ankles, he reminded himself, God loves each of us, as if there were only one of us.”

At the same time, she sought in the book to tell a story of an ethnic majority’s persecution of minority groups.

‘“Miss Burma’ is a story about the consequences of ethnic majority nationalism,” Craig said, a tale that continues in Myanmar today, with the persecution of the Muslim minority Rohingya people.

The country’s de facto leader is Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, who led the battle for independence from the British, which was achieved in 1948. In spite of winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her pro-democracy work, Suu Kyi has been criticized in recent years for failing to speak up for the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, and against their mistreatment at the hands of the nation’s powerful army.

Craig followed in her mother’s footsteps, launching a career as a television and film actress in the 1990s. But she stepped away from the camera in favor of the pen when she kept getting cast as an “exotic” girlfriend and outer space alien, she said.

“Writing afforded me dignity,” she wrote in an article published earlier this year.

For more, visit charmainecraig.com. “ Miss Burma” is available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Copyright © 2017, Rancho Santa Fe Review
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