Yes, getting a book published is hard everywhere, but a chance encounter in Myanmar gave me some perspective on just how hard it can be.
I met Min Wun* at a Buddhist monastery in Yangon. He showed my family and I around the prayer halls and living areas. We got to talking (he speaks English very well) and discovered, to our pleasure and surprise, that we are both writers.
He asked me if it’s hard to get published, in the West. I said yes, and summarised the decade long apprenticeship that preceded my fiction deal with HarperCollins. I asked him the same question.
Min Wun comes from the north, from one of the six Kachin tribes who have been fighting the Burmese military for independence, for decades. His family were too poor to offer him more than a cursory education, but he was determined. He worked hard, and read every book he could get his hands on.
His excellent results, and single-minded determination forced his parents to find the money to send him to a school beyond the usual fifth grade. He dreamed of university and beyond. He dreamed of being a writer.
When he was sixteen however, the Kachin Independence Army had other ideas. Min Wun’s English skills and intellectual aptitude made him a hot property. He was drafted into the rebel forces, an assault rifle thrust into his hands.
For two years he was sent on hazardous undercover missions. He went on armed raids, and scouted out military bases. He saw his people’s villages razed and bombed by government forces. He lost friends and family members to the war.
Finally, however, he saw an opportunity. Min Wun was able to leave, walking eight hundred kilometres to Yangon. As a Buddhist, he was welcome to stay at the monastery where I met him, and was able to enrol in a literature degree at Yangon University.
In the darkened rooms of the monastery at night, he found time to start the novel he had always dreamed of writing. But publishing, in Myanmar, is controlled by state-run publishers. Min Wun didn’t want to write sycophantic stories praising the government. He had seen terrible things. He wanted to expose. He wanted to write the truth. (See example below of the standard regime propoganda in the frontpapers of Burmese books)
Foreign publishers are his only chance, and Min Wun now writes in English, working to finish his novel and saving enough money to submit his work to an English language publisher overseas. Another problem looms in that now, as his university course is almost finished, he has to pay the monastery back for years of free board with two years of service as a Buddhist monk. The demands of this life will make writing very difficult.
It’s amazing how travel can teach us that things aren’t so hard for us, after all. I’m in touch with Min, and will help him as much as I can with his dream. After all he’s been through, it’s the least I can do.
* I have changed Min’s name for his own protection.