Monday, August 31, 2020

Q&A with Michelle Aung Thin

Michelle Aung Thin is the author of the new young adult novel Crossing the Farak River, which focuses on the Rohingya community in Myanmar. She also has written the novel The Monsoon Bride. She teaches writing at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: What inspired you to write Crossing the Farak River, and create your character Hasina?

A: In 2017 was doing a talk at the Immigration Museum here in Melbourne, Australia, where I live. I was talking about my Burmese heritage and a book I've been working on for a few years, which is about returning to Rangoon, Burma, the city where I was born, for the first time in 2013. My family left Burma in 1963, when I was a tiny baby.

 A commissioning editor, Lyn White, was in the audience. She got in touch afterwards asking if I would be interested in writing a book specifically for a YA readership about the Rohingya crisis.

I had to really think about it. She came to me for my expertise as a novelist and someone of Burmese descent. But I didn’t think I was Burmese enough, as I’d grown up in North America and am of mixed, or Anglo-Burmese, heritage.

However, like everybody else in 2017, I had seen the news of the attacks in Rakhine and how people were being chased from their homes. I was appalled at what was happening. I was also sad. Myanmar is in transition from military dictatorship to a democracy. It was clear very dark forces were manipulating the situation.

That was why I decided to do the book. I felt I could use my research skills and storytelling skills to dig into the situation.

I came up with the character of Hasina early on. She is based on stories of young women and girls I found throughout my research sources. So many girls were becoming the heads of their families, despite cultural traditions. They were forced to take charge and take care of the old or the young or the sick. 

The headlines were about people leaving, but many people were just not able to run. They stayed behind and faced further violence.

Hasina is a character with the strength, courage and resourcefulness to survive herself. Her challenge is to bring others along with her so they survive too. 

Hasina’s interests are also based on research. Like her love of maths – that’s a very strong cultural bias. But I must confess that I added the Iranian female mathematician mainly because I just didn't want to see more posters of actors or pop stars on the wall. I wanted something different! It’s in keeping with the culture though - education is seen as a great privilege and asset.

As for Hasina’s talent for soccer, people in Myanmar adore soccer! They’re good at it too because they grow up playing Chin Lone, which is like soccer, but you have to keep a rattan ball in the air. So, Hasina's love of sport is very authentic to the setting for the book. And, confession, I like sport too, although I am not skilled enough to play soccer like she does!

Q: Can you say more about the idea of girls taking charge?

A: When I started the research, I was following the news coverage. There was one article about two sisters fleeing across the border who were 9 and 7. I found it quite moving, and it put the idea of girls in my mind.

The idea of young girls taking care of their family with the father gone—some girls had to take over the head of the household role. They were having to do everything themselves, including negotiate [on behalf of their families]. It’s a status and gender thing—how to behave like a proper, well-brought-up person vs. doing what you [had to do].

Hasina has to be familiar to some degree to readers in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. There’s an element involved of her breaking down barriers.

Q: Can you say more about the research you did to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I did so much research! That was another one of the reasons I was so daunted by the prospect of doing the book, I knew it was going to take a lot of research to make sure I got the details right.

Details mean day-to-day things, like what people eat, where they live, what their houses and communities are like, even police uniforms! Details also means laws and other political and historical facts. The dates of attacks and events as well. There was lots to find out to make the world real. And I had just a year to write the book.

But I love research. I love immersing myself in a different world! And seeing the possibilities for stories. I do a lot of research in archives, where every record is a kind of story.  

So, I read journalism, official reports, and histories.  I also did some research into the psychology of genocide and crimes against humanity and hatred generally. That is something that I would say we human beings do not really understand about ourselves.

Another reason I did the book is that my own parents were refugees after the Second World War and had to flee Burma for India when the Japanese invaded. My childhood was full of stories about their escapes.

For example, my mother was 4 years old and on the very last plane out of Burma before the runway at Myitkina was bombed. There's a scene where Hasina, her cousin Ghadiya, and her brother Araf forage for food in the forest where they're hiding which is straight out of a story my mother tells about returning to Burma after the war.

My dad was 11 or 12 when he left. I’d never thought of either of them as refugees. I thought of them as evacuees from Burma [when it was under Japanese occupation]. I had heard amazing stories of escape. But I never connected it with being stateless.

It’s easy to become a hostage of fortune when your home is no longer tenable. It struck me that people thought they’d be back in a couple of weeks, and then when they came back their house was gone.

I interviewed Rohingya families here as well as getting details of life in Rakhine state from Arakanese contacts in Myanmar. I spent a lot of time with one particular family, who still invite me to their parties.

My main contact, Tara Begum, spoke at the launch of the book here. She wanted everyone to know that access to quality education was her top goal for her children. She herself had been denied schooling, as had her mother. I think that is tragic as she is one of the most naturally intelligent people I’ve ever met, with a gift for languages. 

Research is pretty key. Writers have to be as fair and even-handed with every single character and every single perspective in the book as possible. We’re about the truth, and the research is crucial to working out what that truth is.

There are some outright villains in the book. And yet if you ask them if they were doing the right thing they would say they were. Because the “right thing” in their view may be to survive and prosper and if that means exploiting other people, well, they would say that was just the way things were.

There were surprises in the research. I was astonished at the significant role technology played in the conflict. Social media and mobile networks were really important. Smartphones only became more affordable in 2014, but they’re common now. Their use is still banned in Rakhine.

Q: Can you say more about the role technology plays?

Communications technology is particularly important. In 2014, inexpensive SIM cards were introduced. The market penetration of smart phones in Myanmar by 2018 was pretty good. The phone was the internet and a means of communication. There still isn’t robust newsgathering or the quality of news services you have in Australia, the U.S., or Canada. The phone became crucial.

Although phones are still banned in Rakhine state, people have them, to contact relatives or get help. The military was sending messages to Buddhists that Muslims were out to get them, and to Muslims that Buddhists were out to get them. The exact same thing. It’s a classic method of instilling fear.

Facebook introduced the Burmese alphabet early on, and people are on there all the time. It’s become an instrument of hate speech. It’s become problematic.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: Hasina is based on actual events and actual experiences. I realised halfway through that this was a story about the most extraordinary resilience where just surviving and trying to make a home is an act of immense courage. I would like people to understand how the burden of war is borne by the frailest shoulders. 

For me the process of writing the book was moving from feeling from pity for the plight of the Rohingya through what I saw in the news to feeling compassion because I knew more about their circumstances and history. For readers, students and teachers in the classroom, that is the process of reading this book. And once you feel compassion for someone, you're able to act in a different way in the world.

Q: What do you see looking ahead for the Rohingya?

Due to the current pandemic, things seem to be getting worse rather than better. There has been a crackdown in the region on illegal migration. The camps are still full and the situation of most Rohingya inside Myanmar and in the camps is still precarious.

There’s an election coming up on the 8th of November, which could see some shifting of the political landscape. Internally, there’s a greater awareness of what happened there. There’s some soul-searching going on, which is a good thing. But there’s still a constant looking for refuge, and there’s a ban on mobile phones. I’d like to say something more positive, but I don’t think it will change much.

There are good stories as well, though. The difficulty is that you’re always looking at the high level of genocide, but specific stories are going to represent a range of things.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am finalising a book about returning to Rangoon, Burma for the first time. As mentioned above, it's where I was born. A big part of the book is the history of the Anglo-Burmese and Anglo-Indians, the mixed-race groups in colonial Rangoon. One part of the story is about Rangoon on the eve of World War II, at a moment when life changes forever. A bit like now!

The story overall focuses on the complex social setup in the city, revealing what life was like for the Anglo-Burmese. But through my research, I found the city was also a haven for people who seemed to be escaping violence in Europe and Japan.

One segment of the story follows a Japanese photographer who may or may not have been a spy; a German doctor, expelled from Berlin due to his Jewish heritage; and an Italian violinist on the run from ethnic conflict – all of them real people.

I’ve done oodles of research, and now I’m putting it all together.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wrote in my blog about why it’s worthwhile to read a book like this, and to write it. For me, I could see what happened in the news and I felt terrible, but by finding out more, my perceptions changed forever about the Rohingya and the complexity of statelessness.

It’s important to try to engage with these books on as human a level as possible. I wanted the book to be entertaining and dramatic, as well as informative. Engagement is a way of feeling compassion toward people.

And thanks for reading and asking questions. The book is about big questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s amazing that readers, teachers, and students take it on.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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