Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow
Translated from the Burmese by Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye
Hyperion Books, 2008

Reading this felt, for me, a little like reading a Katherine Mansfield short story.

You know, the way that you slip in and out of the world she creates in those few pages.

It’s all very vivid whilst you’re immersed in those pages, but it’s transitory and then it’s done.

It’s sudden and disorienting because it’s over before you were expecting it to end.

No surprise, really: both in the case of the stories and in the case of Nu Nu Yi’s novella, the works are short.

But in the case of Smile as They Bow, the world created therein is so starkly different from the world that I inhabit that I was still a little startled to slip in and out of it so quickly.

The novella is necessarily short because it reflects the time-span of the week-long Taungbyon festival, a traditional celebration dating a long way back in Burmese history, but reinstated by the British colonials who sought to propitiate the population, perhaps, as the novella suggests, to distract them from the dissatisfying elements of modern, colonized life.

Worshippers travel to make offerings in exchange for many varied kinds of happiness and the novel opens with the earliest preparations made by the literary equivalent of extras who wander on and off the novella’s stage, bargaining with the divine.

Ultimately the story focusses on the activities of Daisy Bond. Daisy is middle-aged, gay, a transvestite, and a natkadaw, who acts as a medium between petitioners and the spirits (although whether or not he only ‘acts’ the part — or truly channels — is a matter of debate).

Not only is Daisy’s professional identity and cultural position fascinating (and this is the first Burmese novel available in translation from a major North American publisher, so this is the first experience I have of this world in writing) but the novella catches Daisy’s relationship with Min Min, thirty years younger, at a critical juncture.

The questions of honour, faith and trust are considered at the societal level (the festival’s participants, supporters and supplicants) and at the personal level (between competing natkadaws, friends and lovers) as well.

Nu Nu Yi is a major writer in Burma, a country in which artists are not free to create, although she has managed to write 15 novels. She did, however, take a break following the release of this one in her native country. She was not entirely pleased with the results of that editorial process.

“I write with feeling in every story. But I knew that I would have to face reality. I got depressed as time went on and stopped my fiction writing,” she says in an interview.

“Some gay spirit mediums didn’t like how I presented them in my novel at that time. They said the spirits had stopped me from writing another novel after this book,” she said, laughing.

Some commentary suggested that the mediums felt she had betrayed some of their trade secrets and one, in particular, who bore some resemblance to Daisy Bond, apparently received unwanted attention as a result of the book’s publication.

The sense that this novella is a tell-all certainly adds some spice to the story, but it would have been a worthwhile sampling of Burmese writing in any case.

“If a writer reveals the feelings and the real lives of people when she writes, that is a political act – even though she is only writing for the benefit of our country.”

So, even though it took less than two hours of reading time, spending that time with Smile as They Bow is also a political act.

And as the novella has, since, been nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, perhaps there is a greater likelihood that her works will become more readily available in translation, so we can continue to read politically.