Pascal Khoo Thwe’s memoir, From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey is a powerful and powerfully-written representation of Burma just before the war for independence (the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi and establishment of Myanmar).
Thwe begins his odyssey as a child in his home village. He invites the reader into the customs and the trials of his family and their small community. We gain insight into how the locals worship, somehow merging at least three religious traditions–Christianity, Buddhism, and pagan animism–into a cohesive practice, and we learn much about the people’s relationship to their government, which at the time was a kind of military socialism.
The turning point for Thwe is when he earns the opportunity to continue education beyond the 5th or 6th grade. He somewhat dishonestly tells the priests at his school that he wants to go to seminary, which means he needs an advanced education. His performance encourages them to sponsor him, though the road to university is still immensely difficult for such a poor young man from a poor family in a poor village. He meets difficulty after difficulty, from being robbed on his way to university, to finding himself in the middle of social protest and a military crackdown. But he also finds love, he meets one professor who helps his students learn around and beyond the university’s strictly government-sanctioned curriculum, and he meets a visiting professor from Cambridge, whose friendship will change the course of Thwe’s life forever.
From the Land of Green Ghosts reminds me much of Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan’s own memoir, America is in the Heart, but where Bulosan’s childhood ends in the Philippines and continues in the United States, Thwe’s story takes place almost entirely in Burma, whether in the village, at the university, or in the fighting fields up north, where he joins the rebellion for independence. Only the later chapters are devoted to his arrival at Cambridge and eventual graduation. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these memoirs, for many of the same reasons, but it was a treat to read them both back-to-back in order to compare not just the similarities as Southeast Asian memoirs, but also the remarkable differences in style, voice, perspective, and theme (though many of the themes truly are shared across these two.)
“My mother couldn’t speak my father’s language, Padaung, when she married him, only Karen. I myself ended up speaking Burmese, which is neither my father’s nor my mother’s tongue.”
“I began to notice that something was changing in our lessons. We seemed to hear more and more about obedience and good citizenship, at the expense of traditional teaching. Instead of our own, or even Burman, stories and legends, for instance, we were told about the heroic deeds of the Thirty Comrades . . . amongst which those attributed to [dictator] Ne Win figured prominently.”
“If someone was murdered or died in an accident . . . the belief was the deceased would become a ‘green ghost’ — the most feared of all the spirits.”
“The student did indeed take a holiday — which is to say that he disappeared from classes for several months. Later, I learned he had been sent to a hard labor camp. He never came back . . . he ended up in an asylum.”
“This was the ‘human zoo’ I had heard about, run by Thai business men and guarded by armed men, in which half a dozen families of my tribe, who had fled across the border at the same time I did, were being detained to be displayed for money to tourists.”
Federico Garcia Lorca is a giant in poetry, especially in the gay canon. He wrote Sonnets of Dark Love & The Tamarit Diván in the final years of his life, and it shows both in the influences and inspirations he channeled and emulated poetically, but also in the themes he dared to explore.
As Christopher Maurer notes in his introduction to these collections, Lorca grounded his work in these poems in Arabic poetry rather than his traditional Spanish heritage. Maurer suggests that he does so because in Arabic poetry he was able to locate “cultural precedents for homoeroticism” in the ghazals, or what we might call “love poems.” He is able to use the Spanish language, though, much as Arabic could be, in order to elude grammatical gender, something that is possible in the Romance languages but not in languages like English (at least not yet). Lorca suggests same-sex male love, though, in his masculine imagery.
I have never read much Lorca, save for a few poems here and there that have appeared in collections or popped-up on one or another social media feed. It’s no surprise that his work, even Sonnets of Dark Love, has been widely praised by critics and other powerhouse poets, such as Cernuda and Neruda.
One of my favorite poems is the first ghazal, “Of unforseen love.” It begins, “No one understood the perfume / of the dark magnolia of your bell. / No one knew that you martyred / a hummingbird of love between your teeth.” The imagery and metaphor in this first stanza is stunning, and it sets the tone for what the rest of the poem, and indeed the entire collection, will follow.
While some of the poems are surprisingly tender, and others too abstract to perhaps be taken at first reading for as sexually explicit as they are, others are beyond suggestive. In “Of desperate love,” for example (ghazal III), he writes of a lover’s “tongue burned by a rain of salt” and believes that his lover “will come / through murky sewers of darkness.” There is indeed a lot of coming in this particular poem, but no going.
He also simply stuns me with his metaphors. I’m reminded of a discussion thread recently posted by Jericho Brown, describing the jubilant surprise of a well-done metaphor, how it catches one off guard while simultaneously speaking the truest truth. Lorca does this over and over again, as in “Of the dark death,” when he begins by saying, “I want to sleep the sleep of apples.” What a thing to say! So strange, and yet it makes perfect sense.
I will say, all of my favorites from this publication come from the first collection, The Tamarit Divan, but Sonnets of Dark Love is enjoyable, too. I think I learned more from the first, though. Finally, I very much appreciated that this particular edition is bilingual, so one can read the original Spanish on the left, and the translated English on the right. Translations are never perfect, so reading it in the original is an especially wonderful experience, but to be honest, these translations are rather spectacular.
Ellen Hopkins’s latest release, Closer to Nowhere, is her first middle grade novel in verse. I’ve been a fan of Hopkins’s young adult work for a long time, so I was excited to see what she would do with the middle grade level, and I was not disappointed.
The story is told through the perspectives of two protagonists, young cousins who suddenly find themselves living together. One cousin, Calvin, is neurodiverse and finds himself in a new home, in a new neighborhood, following the death of his mother and imprisonment of his father. The other cousin, Hannah, is a typical young girl who now finds herself coming-of-age amid the disruption of Calvin’s arrival. She must also navigate the fallout this arrival has on her parents’ marriage.
What Hopkins always does well is create distinctive character voices and motivations, even–or perhaps especially–when writing her stories in free verse. This time is no different. Although their stories intertwine intimately, Calvin and Hannah are two very different young people and they relate their perspectives on these events in wholly unique ways. Calvin playfully presents the readers with a “fact or fiction” take on whatever is happening in the moment, while Hannah introduces her narratives through the lens of “definitions.” On their own, these might not be such extraordinarily interesting or novel ways of allowing a character to interact with his/her audience; however, in tandem, these are excellent devices for creating personality and definition for the two leads.
Hopkins is also a profoundly daring voice in young people’s literature. I mentioned in my brief Amazon review of the book that hers is a necessary presence in this genre. She understands young people very well, but she also knows how to communicate very adult issues, those we would like to pretend do not concern our young people, in ways that are relatable and realistic for young readers, and older ones. What Hopkins does here with themes of prejudice, parental neglect, neurodivergence, and good old fashioned coming-of-age, is absolutely wonderful.
It begins in the quiet,
but there’s the only reflection.
Sunrise is not the rowdy, rollicking refusal;
not the last gasps and grasps
at tasks and entertainments.
This quietness is softer.
Slower. An un-slumbering
of spirit and of mind.
Here, now, sunrise, with
all your calm quietude.
We can’t call it rest–
we’ve none of that–
but a little quiet
I’ll be seeing you.
Despair not the death of giants;
Upon their broad shoulders, we are gifted—
A magnificent vista; view to possibility.
Their memory is lamp and key,
Tempered tools of heart and soul,
To see what we cannot see alone;
To unlock a future that is ours to make.
Let the beat of our hearts meet the sound
Of the millions’ feet against the ground.
To work, now. To work.
“Burn the White Flag” and all other original writing and artwork on Roof Beam Reader is copyright of its author and owner, Adam W. Burgess, 2020.
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