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The Irrawaddy Literary Festival isn’t exactly like Cheltenham or Hay. For a start, it’s unlikely that a British literary event would be invaded by thousands of adoring fans (until, obviously, Justin Bieber’s long-awaited historical trilogy appears) but that’s exactly what happened at the plush hotel in Mandalay where this Burmese celebration of writers took place.
The star attraction was Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar opposition leader and the festival’s patron. The diminutive 68-year-old, hair tied up with traditional sprigs of jasmine, is mobbed everywhere she goes and loyal supporters came in their thousands just to catch a glimpse. I chaired a session with her in English, which was so crowded that most had to watch on a large screen outside. They were by all accounts rapt, even though they didn’t have the benefit of the simultaneous translation inside.
Aung San Suu Kyi was taking part in a discussion on literary heroes and heroines. Other guests were the British novelist Louis de Bernières, who takes his guitar everywhere (strains of Albinoni could be heard gently wafting through his hotel door in the afternoons); U Thaw Kaung, Myanmarese man of letters; and Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, whose glamorous outfits left the rest of us feeling even more crumpled than usual in the heat.
I began by asking Aung San Suu Kyi for her thoughts on the subject of heroines. She immediately replied, “Lizzie Bennet”, with an affectionate tone that suggested a much-loved friend rather than a character from Pride and Prejudice. This was a woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, she said, who was prepared to challenge the rigid conservatism of her day. I think the resonance for that audience was clear. Another of her choices, Les Misérables’ former prisoner Valjean, provided similar parallels.
Other nominations from the panel included the little boy who challenged the emperor with no clothes, George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver from Mill on the Floss and a Myanmarese homage to a good housewife, chosen by U Thaw. That met with a retort from Aung San Suu Kyi: “Typical man!”
My favourite moment came at the end. There was a rather tricky question from the audience: who would the panel pick for an anti-hero? Louis de Bernières questioned whether there was any real difference between a villain and an anti-hero. Then, just after I wound up the session, Aung San Suu Kyi turned to me and whispered, “Molesworth, isn’t he an anti-hero?”
As I laughed, I realised that the memory of the miscreant schoolboy must have come from her earlier incarnation as a mother and housewife living a domestic life in Oxford before her world turned upside down.
The festival might not have taken place at all, I learnt, after an episode that gave a glimpse of the uncertainties in modern Myanmar. The original site had been the Kuthodaw pagoda in Mandalay, home – suitably enough – of the world’s largest book. Tents had been brought from Yangon, mobile toilets from China, and extra water and electricity supplies arranged.
On the eve of the event, however, the organisers got a letter from a committee of the Ministry of Culture saying the gathering couldn’t go ahead because it would set a bad precedent for other groups wishing to use the holy site.
Rumours circulated of other forces at work, from a piqued planning committee to a writers’ boycott to more powerful influences manoeuvring ahead of next year’s presidential elections. “Orwellian” was how one guest described it, which was an interesting choice of adjective in this setting. Burmese Days, George Orwell’s excoriating attack on empire, seemed almost as popular as the Lonely Planet guide among British travellers we met.
Organiser Jane Heyn could have defied the ministry’s letter as she had other official support but she was worried people might be hurt when soldiers arrived on the site. Drawing on the doughty spirit of ambassadors’ wives down the ages (her husband Andrew was posted in Yangon until last year), she managed, instead, to move the venue and the show did go on.
Away from Mandalay, we had a strange encounter on a tiny island that, in one of those vestiges of British rule that crops up from time to time, went by the name MacLeod.
While swimming in the bay, we found ourselves surrounded by six or seven dugout canoes, paddled by what seemed like members of the same family – from a teenage boy to a toothless grandmother in a battered sun hat. They clearly found these pink westerners an amusing sight and started laughing.
But the island was 40 miles off the coast in the Andaman Sea. There were no villages for many miles. “Moken?” we asked and they nodded yes. They were sea gypsies, people who live entirely on the water, ranging round the archipelagos that dot the Thai, Myanmar and Malay coastlines.
Communication proved similarly tricky on a visit to one of the 1,000-year-old temples in Bagan on the banks of the Irrawaddy. As we climbed a dark stairway inside one pagoda, I heard the guide tell us to look out for the beam, so I duly ducked my head a little. It was only later, after we had watched the sunset and started to make our way down, that I realised that he had said, “Look out for the bees.”
There was a swarm of several thousand hanging precariously from the stone roof. One brush of our heads and the result would have been a painful souvenir of what had certainly been an eventful trip.
Martha Kearney presents ‘The World at One’ on BBC Radio 4