A Southeast Asian Story

Miss Burma     Charmaine Craig     (2017)


The dust jacket for Miss Burma tells us that novelist Charmaine Craig is a “descendant of significant figures in Burma’s modern history.” And Craig’s dedication for the book is to the memory of her mother, Louisa, and of her grandparents Ben and Khin. These three are major characters in Miss Burma, so right from the start, I was wondering how much of the story is factual—how much Louisa, as a participant in historic events, told Charmaine directly. Obviously, the novelist had to invent many lines of dialogue in order to create 355 pages.

Charmaine Craig’s grandmother Khin was from the minority ethnic group in Burma called the Karen (kah-REN). Her grandfather Ben (or Benny) was born into a Jewish family in Burma but raised partly in India when he was orphaned. When Benny marries Khin, he decides to identify with the Karen people. The novel follows Khin and Benny’s family through a tumultuous period in Burma’s history, as the country becomes a battleground between the British and the Japanese in World War II and then as civil war among ethnic factions causes further devastation in the following decades. Benny becomes a leading member of the Karen resistance to the majority Burmese. A key event in the narrative is the beauty contest in 1956 in which Khin and Benny’s mixed-race daughter Louisa is crowned Miss Burma. We get Benny’s thoughts at this event: “From the looks of it, these people were prepared to adore whichever girl, of whichever origins, became their queen. Perhaps beauty alone had the power to transfigure people so. And yet, Benny reminded himself with a shudder, there was something insidious about beautifying the country’s image by means of a girl, whatever her background, for somewhere in the darkness beyond the delta, innocent people continued to be shot and killed.” (226)

Louisa herself is sometimes ambivalent about the struggle of the Karen people. We learn that she had “this feeling that it was wrong for anyone to claim exclusive rights to a corner of the earth—wrong for no other reason than that everyone was passing. . . . She was suddenly sure that Burma’s most beautiful feature was its multiplicity of peoples.” (318)

A little Burmese history is helpful if you decide to read this novel. Burma won its independence from Great Britain in 1948. After years of civil war, the current military regime took power and changed the name of the country to Myanmar, though it’s still known as Burma in some political circles. Probably the best known figure in Myanmar is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now State Counsellor. Her father, Aung San, is portrayed as a character in Miss Burma. Like many other nations, Burma has long been struggling with how to bring diverse ethnic and tribal peoples together. How do you decide on proper representation? Do you set up a separate territory for every minority group? What if territory is disputed? How do you address differences of language and religion? How do you end state-sanctioned genocide and community-based thuggery?

As Charmaine Craig lays out the case for better treatment of the minority groups in Burma, she can get somewhat preachy, and the segments in which she graphically describes brutal guerilla warfare are grim. I preferred the chapters in which she explores the personal relationships of the characters and their ethnic identities, against a backdrop of national chaos, in the lush landscape of Burma. Miss Burma is for readers who like delving into history that’s less well known in the US, especially those who are intrigued by southeast Asia.