About a month ago, my sister and her husband and their (as yet unborn) first child moved to Myanmar (formerly Burma), to teach at an International School. With their limited Internet connection and my nonexistent travel budget, I wondered how we were going to stay connected. I knew that my sister had been reading abou the country to prepare for the move. On her recommendation, I picked up Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma, which I found conveniently on hand in our Destination Literature section at Booksmith, along with a surprising number of other books about Burma. I may not have the means to visit my sister, I reasoned, but I could follow her (and, coincidentally, George Orwell) at least as far as these books could take me.
Myanmar proves a fascinating country to read about. Soon after Burma became independent from the British in 1948, a dictator sealed the country off in order to promote Burmese Socialism. The country became poor, isolated, and its people neglected. Larkin reports that some Burmese refer to Orwell as "the prophet," and consider his novels Animal Farm and 1984 to be just as much about their country as his first novel, Burmese Days, which takes place during the last days of British rule (Orwell served with the Imperial Police).
I've discovered several other novels set in Burma during this time, including Daniel Mason's Piano Tuner, in which a taciturn piano teacher must travel through Burmese jungle on a commisson from the British War Office to tune a piano. Amitav Ghosh's Glass Palace, also set during the British invasion of the 1880s, follows a poor boy who befriends a woman in the court of the exiled royal family.
Reading these novels becomes even more exciting in light of the changes that have been taking place in the country over the past few years. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi was recently released from a house arrest that was inflicted by the military junta in 1989. The letters of this extraordinary human rights activist, who left her family to return to Burma and fight for democracy there, are available for order.
With so many vivid descriptions, historical explorations, and compelling anecdotes told by extraordinary guides, I feel not only better connected to my sister's experience, but to the world of many others I would not have otherwise encountered. Feeling disconnected? Find more engaging reads from around the world in our Destination Literature section, located between aisles two and three at Booksmith.