Burmese Reflections

Reading Circle

In Burma some books are forbidden. Others are just very hard to find. Access to good readings is limited despite the xerox-copy culture.
As always when preparing for a long trip I, Åsa, had planned what books to bring with me just as carefully as I had planned what medicines to pack and how much money to exchange in advance. This time it was even more important since I knew that what I brought in I could also leave for others to read.

While getting adjusted to Asian time zones in Bangkok, before entering Burma, I realised that I had to get the one book missing in my pile, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

It’s the memoires of an English literature teacher in Iran who formed a secret reading circle with some of her former students. The Thursday meetings in her home were a response to the constraints the religious leaders put on everyday lives as well as cultural expressions in Tehran.

I opened up the first pages while we were on a river boat going upstream the Irrawaddy. Nafisi writes: “Fiction’s influence on reality is invisible and intangible but essential. How can fiction open the spaces that reality closes to us?”

The book deals with issues similar to those of my own artistic practice: dialogue, storytelling, meetings and an interest in others and other people’s worlds; trying to understand, and trying to create situations where knowledge sharing can take place.

While reading I was as usual writing comments in the margins: Their reading circle is like a pause. But what about afterwards? What kind of breathing spaces do people find in Burma? Is it a place, a time or a feeling?

The content provoked questions and comparisons between Iran and what I was experiencing on my travel from lower Burma to upper Burma. Slowly I realised that I wanted to involve this book and myself in a reading circle.

The intent of this project is for the book to act as  a relay baton to be handed over from one reader to another. I instructed the first person to handle the book as if it was her own and then give it to somebody she thought would like to read it.

This kind of relay is well known to Burmese word lovers. This is how knowledge usually spreads in Burma: by word of mouth and by handing over texts in closed circles. For more about this, please read the excellent Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (a book that I didn’t dare to bring in with me), where she writes extensively about the reading culture in Burma.

My hope is that those who get involved in my reading circle will engage in a dialogue in an email list that I have set up. The last reader decides who is next to invite in the reading circle.

When the book has been scribbled in and handed over until exhaustion it will be put in a building with lots of space to breathe. I know about a hidden goldmine in this country of gems and jade, a place on a bookshelf next to other books, where there is respect for words, imagination and facts. Hopefully I can come back one day and tap into the conversation that has taken place on the pages of the copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran that I gave to a friend.

To be continued.