Guest Post: What to do when you’re an alien in a culture you belong to by M Sithu

This post is written by a friend of mine. A spec fic writer, genre mixer, and all around excellent writer, she struggles with similar feelings originating from diaspora. This is her post regarding that subject.

I’m an Australian-raised Burmese Buddhist who went to Catholic primary and secondary schools. Now, there’s a mouthful. To complicate matters, although I was born in Burma, I identify as Shan (an ethnicity from Eastern Burma). To be more precise, Northern Shan. My family came over when I was nine and, as is usually the case when you’re a PoC in a primarily western community, I’ve lost touch with my heritage. I had the choice of giving the other kids even more fodder for mockery or being as Aussie as possible. I went with the route of least resistance.

About three years ago, I became interested in writing a novel set in Burma, or rather, set in a silkpunk world that has elements of Burmese history and myths. To that end, I started archive diving. I got my hands on every academic article and books (mostly written by western academics but I took what I could get) on the subject. Hounded my parents with questions. Haunted blogs.

The trouble came when I started writing. Despite all my research, whatever I wrote felt very much like a westerner’s interpretation of things. The more I learned about my culture the more questions I had, and the more I worried about doing it justice. Worse is that the myths and legends of Burma are intricately tied into the country’s religion, which is another minefield to traverse. (Honestly, you can’t go a mile without encountering a shrine to Buddha or a stupa or a sacred objection in Burma. That could be a fun and lethal drinking game if you ever travel through there.)

Eventually, I started to wonder if I had any right to my culture, not only to claim it but to write it. I suspect this isn’t an uncommon attitude in immigrants who came over as children or the children of immigrants. I claimed to be Shan but I could neither speak the language nor understand it. Not only that, the little things that come under the umbrella of culture like food and childhood nicknames and playground games and toys and deep rooted prejudices about other ethnicities, the little things, were missing in me. If anything, I was more Burmese than Shan–and, trust me, that is an insult given the history between the Burmese Kingdoms and the Shan States throughout time–and I was more Australian than Burmese.

As a writer, I felt as if there were even more of a responsibility on me to present a perfect microcosm of Burmese culture in my novel. For good or ill, the western world’s view of Burma is very much centered around the Junta and Aung Sang Suu Kyi, and ye olde colonial times of Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay‘. I wanted to show that there was more to my home country than corruption, and to showcase the glory of Burma before the British invasion. I wanted to write about the belus with their monstrous appetites, the nats who guarded home and hearth and treasures, the weikzas who swam through the earth, the wise Princess Learned in Law, the keinayyas and the nagas and and and…

But how was I meant to do any of that when I didn’t even have a grounding in the most basic of things?

I don’t really have an answer to that. I don’t know how to recapture the connection to my culture I’ve lost by immigrating to another country. I don’t know if I ever can. In lieu of going back in time, I research and read. I’ve found books by Burmese authors either written in or translated to English that give me a window into their experiences in Burma. There are thoughtful and well written blog posts by current and former residents of Burma. There are more and more academic articles emerging about the history of Burma. I’m trying to teach myself the language again. 

In the meantime, I continue to work on my novel because diversity is important. I would rather this story be written by someone with a personal stake in it, for whatever it’s worth. When it’s done, I hope to find Burmese sensitivity readers because, as I have learned, writing based on research is different from writing based on experience. Further, experiences differ.

I’m going to miss the minor details and accidentally westernise ways of life or use western aphorisms and proverbs. I might accidentally use a very Shan sounding name for a Burmese equivalent person in my story. Do I have to take every critique on board? Of course not. But in writing about a community, any community, I think I owe it to them to do everything I can to get it right.


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