City of Asylum Pittsburgh, and their online magazine Sampsonia Way, are among ICORN and Shahrazad - stories for life's good friends and important allies. We are happy to share an excerpt of this interview with their current writer-in-residence, burmese Khet Mar - a truly inspiring "story for life".
By Silvia Duarte, Photo (c) Than Htay Maung
Since she was 19-years-old, Khet Mar has been persecuted by the Burmese government. She has been arrested, tortured, incarcerated, and threatened, but she has remained a warrior without guns. She fights with her writing, her political activism, and her social work.
In 2009, she was interrogated by intelligence officers for 20 straight hours and released. Afraid she would be arrested again, she left her country to become the writer-in-residence in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. Sitting in her living room on Sampsonia Way and sipping a green tea, she told me how the Burmese government has impacted her life, oppressed the Burmese people, and created a reign of terror.
Even while relating these disturbing stories, Khet Mar never raised her voice or lost her calm-except when she mentioned the military government in Burma. "The generals don't deserve mercy," she said.
In this interview Khet Mar details the crucial moments in her life and offers a rare glimpse into life under the secretive regime of the Burmese military junta, including how the publishing industry operates under the thumb of government censors.
This is the first time Khet Mar has been able to tell, for print, her life story, openly and without fear of repercussion.
In your essay "Night Flow" you describe the poverty in Maletto, the village you grew up in. You write about how your adolescent friends worked cutting chillies instead of going to school. They were paid with a small amount of chillies, which they then sold as the only way to help their families to survive. How was it that you were able to attend school?
I was able to go to school because my grandparents were the principals of an elementary school in Maletto and then my mother became a teacher there. My family was one of the few for whom education had a great value, even though they were poor too. Another important aspect was that Maletto didn't have a high school and most of my friends didn't have the money to travel to another town's school every day.
The first military junta came to power in 1962, before you were born. You grew up under a dictatorship. Was the country of your childhood different than the country today?
Today, most of the kids don't have a chance for education and instead they do many jobs to survive, just like my friends in Maletto. However, my friends and I were not as threatened as children are today. Now children are forced to be soldiers. The military sexually harasses, assaults, and even rapes children. Also, children are afraid their parents will be killed or arrested any moment.
Stories for Life is an open space in which writers from all over the world can connect and release their stories. Over the next five years of the Shahrazad project, these narratives will be created and disseminated by poets, journalists, novelists, editors, cartoonists, translators and essayists throughout Europe and beyond. They will be introduced to European children and young people in schools and local communities and they too will be invited to respond.
On December 8, Lucas Catherine will be discussing his book Rijstpap, Tulpen en Jihad (Pudding, Tulips and Jihad) at Passa Porta house of literature. Rijstpap, Tulpen en Jihad is a vibrant book about the Arab and Turkish influence on the European history.