Whispers at the Pagoda
Portraits of Modern Burmaby
1999. 150 pp., 13 b & w photos, map, and glossary. 21.5 X 15.2 cm., softbound.
ISBN-10: 974-8304-36-1 $17.00
Book review by Derek Brooke-Wavell
(Planet Myanmar Website, November 1999)
Whispers at the Pagoda is a series of short conversations between American journalist Julie Sell and Myanmar people from many walks of life and at many geographical locations, including the USA. At the front of each chapter is a black-and-white photo to illustrate its theme—though the interviewees are not themselves seen.
In her preface, the author points out that there are two very different popular images of Myanmar. One is the delightful and alluring land, with picturesque pagodas and charming people. The other is a darker image—of military repression and widespread suffering.
Myanmar is not the only country to have such a dual image, and western newspapers can produce a duality without meaning to, simply by catering to the demand of their readers. The eye of the newspaper reader is attracted by an interesting holiday destination or a shocking atrocity story, but when it comes to everyday life—evenings out, family life, or grumbles about traffic, bureaucracy etc - readers are more interested in hearing about their own country than somebody else’s.
It is a virtue of Whispers at the Pagoda to move away from the more extreme and oft-repeated stereotypes of Myanmar. We see plenty of real people in their own day-to-day context. We meet a waiter, an 80-year-old grandmother offering tea, a retired soldier, students, Chinese people and minority tribes, and plenty of Myanmar children. We visit the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay for an hour to participate in the morning’s prayers. The retired soldier is particularly interesting—he talks at some length about his life. He is a Gurkha, and remembers British days with fondness. He had loved the bugle every morning. Since then he has fought on several fronts, against different insurgents. He has a wife and children. He now thinks the army has degenerated, with officers making money on the side—but he continues to give it his loyalty.
Julie Sell has collected her interviews into groups according to the subject. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gets a section to herself; other subjects include students and education, publishing and the restrictions on it, and the younger generation. Her faithfulness to the words of her interviewees, together with the detail of her descriptions, give this book freshness and life. However, the book does carry an overall political message. This is evident from her choice of interviewees, a high proportion of whom have suffered under the present government. And it comes through in the potted backgrounds that she provides for each chapter. These accounts are conventional depictions of a government persecuting its citizens, which do not make much attempt at understanding the complexities of the situation.
Whispers at the Pagoda is one of the best books of its type so far, but it makes me hope for the emergence of better books to come. Today’s historians have a talent for bringing their sympathetic imagination to almost any situation that has existed, at least in the past. Every historical character, even Atilla the Hun or Jack the Ripper, can be understood if we make the effort; they are the product of certain stimuli within a particular environment, and to understand them makes us wiser and better able to cope with the world. Why cannot we apply the same understanding to the painful two-way interactions between rulers and ruled in Myanmar to whose pain we ourselves have no doubt contributed in greater or smaller measure, and to whose healing we may yet make a contribution?
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