A Memoir’s Painful Question: Where Are You From?

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By Souvankham Thammavongsa

NAMES FOR LIGHT
A Family History
By Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint

Blank space is difficult to employ in a book. It can be read as emptiness or it can offer a reader breath, pause, reflection, meaning. “Names for Light,” a memoir by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, makes ample use of blank space, between paragraphs, strings of thought, scenes and events. When not used, what’s there is jumbled and scattered.

A writer need not be concerned with where she comes from, but for memoir this is its core project. For Myint, who was born in Myanmar before moving to Thailand, the United States and Spain, it is a painful and intrusive question. A question that, by its very asking, suggests she does not belong, a question that displaces her. She balks. Beyond the naming of places (Leymyethna, Gayan, Denver, Sittwe, Yangon, Minbu, South Bend, Hinthada, Madrid), she doesn’t get to the difficulty of the question as a writer — and by this, I don’t mean a place on a map. I mean the stink and cringe and failure and noise and laughter that make a life feel real and lived, the thing that makes a person tick.

We are told that one “can be a ghost while one is still alive … if one carries what one cannot remember. Empty memories, blank memories, absent memories.” This thinking allows the author to get away with being vacuous. When we encounter the “I” in this story, it is often at a distance, “the observer, the outsider, always in the middle of a story but never at the center of it.” She sometimes switches to the third person to refer to herself, as if afraid to speak from the first, to own the voice and power that could be. She tells us, “I do not like to make decisions, to take risks, to assert or involve myself. … I prefer to … keep myself to myself.” And this is what she achieves in her writing — she keeps herself to herself. In doing so, she makes the question of where she comes from illumined and voluminous.

Myint’s narrative shape is barely there. We get blips and cracks, “a trace, a strip, or a corner of the memories,” a “memory of a memory.” This family history is often recounted through others, like this: “My father said my grandmother said” and “My other grandmother, my mother’s mother” and “My mother said my great-grandmother and great-grandfather.” This makes the prose clunky and cluttered, and the people difficult to feel and see and hear and remember.

The language is so concerned with and looking pretty that what the story is about — political upheaval, death, heartbreak, violence, discrimination, the immigrant experience — is barely noticeable. The parents, particularly, don’t feel like real people, since we never get them in their adult mess. She takes at face value the story of her mother “discovering love letter after love letter” from her father with the unquestioning trust of a child. So often, Myint approximates with “I do not know if,” “I wonder,” “I imagine.” This is a writer who does not know and is comfortable in not knowing. The gaze flinches.

It is one thing to be able to put feelings on paper and another to make a reader feel what we write. The narrow line between being a note taker and being a writer is worth discerning. We are told:

This place repeated enough times begins to sound like displaced.

“Because the verbs are left un-conjugated in Burmese, left untouched, the same word describes the past, present and future.”

“Island. In English, the two-syllable word is paradisal. … In Bamar, the one-syllable kyun, with its elongated vowel, is dismal, claustrophobic.”

These are wonderful observations of language, but the writing does not move them beyond being duly noted. It certainly sounds like poetry, but it is not poetry.

The material Myint has before her is compelling, but they are memories and stories that are not hers. This is the problem for the children of immigrants and refugees when we set out to write memoirs. However special we think our lives are or however much we accomplish, our stories always pale in comparison — even more so when we lean on others’ to write our own. We, whom “nothing has ever happened to,” are never as compelling as our parents.

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