A Burmese American Family History That Weaves Legacy, Mythology, and Ghosts

Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, author of "Names for Light," on writing an experimental memoir about what binds a family together

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

It’s hard to summarize Names for Light, which is exactly what makes it so compulsively readable. But here are the basics: told in lush, lyrical language, the story follows Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s family across multiple generations, starting with her great grandparents in Myanmar all the way to her and her siblings’ present-day lives in America. What powerfully binds all these lives together is the narrator of Myint herself, who, alongside retelling her ancestors’ stories in vivid detail, also offers dispatches from the various places her life has taken her—Denver, Madrid, and of course, Myanmar, to name a few—that read less like travelogues than moving reflections on what it’s like to inhabit a world that alternately fetishizes and invisibilizes a body such as hers. But we get the sense that Myint is neither young nor alone in her explorations: the sense of her ancestors accompanying her, guiding her, and indeed, living alongside her, is present on every page, in every paragraph and line. 

Names for Light

It would be easy to summarize Names for Light as a tale of a family surviving dictatorship in Myanmar to eventually immigrate to America. But to do so would not only be simplistic, but profoundly wrong. Rather, in this book, Myint interweaves memories, dreams, and mythology to create a haunting story that raises profound questions about identity, movement, time, and what binds a family together. 

I chatted with Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint over Zoom about the things that haunt her, the instability of memory, and, of course, her family.

Raksha Vasudevan: It’s so interesting that you call this a family history. Even if you were talking about yourself, it was a lens of talking about your family.

Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint: It’s hard to separate my sense of self from my sense of my family. And in the same way, I think most of these stories are my reimaginings of my parents’ retelling of events, and so it’s already totally filtered through my body and their bodies. These ancestors that we’re conjuring are already part of us, they already live inside of us and that’s part of the reincarnation stories too. It’s a way for my family to have our lives be simultaneous with the ancestors.

RV: The narrative of this book is kind of haunted by the early tragedy of your brother’s death. Did you know that would be the case when you started writing?

TMKM: Yeah, absolutely. That’s definitely a big shadow over not only my childhood but over my family, and it was something I never really understood that well. Whenever I fought with my parents growing up, they would be like, “you have to remember, we’re not normal because we lost a child and [that’s why] we’re a little protective.” That was always something that was a big part of my life and my sense of self. Especially because there were three of us girls, and he had been this Brother, this boy, and that was always very mysterious to me because I just didn’t know any boys growing up, especially being homeschooled. And my parents have endured a lot of traumas, like living under a dictatorship, and their parents having lived under one. But somehow, the only one that they would focus on was my brother’s death. So it became this magnetic force that drew all these other different tragedies into it.

RV: Towards the end, when you go see a bestselling author talk about their immigrant experience, it didn’t feel like you were bashing them, but you were expressing your doubts about any kind of authoritative voice on a certain type of experience.

TMKM: I don’t want to be an authoritative narrator of these events, and at the same time, the whole reason I started this project—the reason I started interviewing my parents, recording them, and writing this book—is because I was thinking about mortality. I was thinking about my parents being the last people in my family who have actually grown up in Burma and who actually are fluent in Burmese. And I was starting to feel this sense of loss even before they had passed away.

And so in a way, I wanted to write the book so that my children and my future grandchildren would always have this connection to where my parents and grandparents had come from, and where I was born. I wanted them to have that connection, but I think too often people lose that in this country and we’re forced to lose it through assimilation. And so I wanted to have my kids and grandkids not be able to escape it because they have this like, weird published author grandma. [Laughs]

RV: I wanted to talk about how you use myth in this telling of your family’s story. Do you remember interpreting events as they happened through Buddhist and Burmese mythology, or was that something you pieced together as you were writing this book?

TMKM: I think those are just the stories that I just use to interpret the world. There are just certain stories that I have internalized. They just came out in the book. But things like the story of the Buddha’s birth and how he was born somewhere that was not his mother’s hometown—I don’t think that’s something I ever thought about until I was writing the book. I always knew that myth and it always touched me. But it wasn’t until I was writing the book that I realized, he also didn’t belong to a certain place.  

RV: Now I see I was asking the question from an assumption that you could clearly differentiate between a myth and “reality,” but of course stories are part of our realities too. 

TMKM: Yeah, there are certain things that are just my worldview, like reincarnation, or dreams having prophetic qualities or ghosts and vomit being associated with each other. It’s not a superstition, that’s just how the world works in my eyes.

RV: Can you talk more about your relationship to an inherited history of colonialism and dictatorship?

TMKM: Those two things are separate, but they’re also interconnected and similar in the way they impact me.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of pride in my family around the history of Burmese resistance against British colonialism, starting with the Anglo Burmese wars, extending to the nationalist movement and the war for independence during World War Two. Both of my grandfathers fought against British and Japanese occupiers during WWII. To give you another example [of this pride], the worst insult in my family when I was growing up was ဗိုလ်ရူး, or bo yuu which means literally to be white crazy. It was an insult used to describe someone who was seen to be Westernized or wanted to be Westernized or thought highly of white people. And we often used it against each other. The funny thing is, the insult wasn’t even directed towards “white behaviors.” It was just directed towards any behavior that was deemed inappropriate.

But on the other hand, the British were in power for so long that they were these hated masters, but they were still the masters. Like the word “bo” which I always thought meant “white” in Burmese actually means “major” or “lieutenant” or “boss,” because that’s what the British were. And so even the word we’re using to describe white people or British people is still the word for boss.

I feel like the traditional immigrant narrative places so much emphasis on that moment of immigration as the most important moment in someone’s life or even as a rebirth for a person.

So, on the one hand, there is a lot of pride in resisting colonialism. On the other hand, there is a weird nostalgia for colonialism, because it was a time before the dictatorship and the dictatorship was so bad. And it was so anti-imperial on its surface that, for certain people, it’s this difficult choice between two evils. You can see that even with the language surrounding Burma / Myanmar. In a sense, the two names come to represent the two evils: Burma is the name that the British colonists used, and Myanmar is the name that the dictatorship gave the country. Many Western countries did not acknowledge Myanmar as the new name for a long time. But I always thought that was ironic, because they’re still acknowledging Burma, which is a name that was given by the British colonists. So it’s this choice between colonialism or dictatorship. Which one do you think is worse?

For me as a Burmese American person, the history of colonialism and the history of dictatorship still impact my life, because I have encountered many people who treat me as an archive, and who will ask me questions about Burma and colonialism and dictatorship. And so that’s annoying. But on the other hand, when I’m not being forced into talking about it on someone else’s terms, those histories are a useful nexus for me to connect to a variety of other people. For example, when I lived in Madrid, a lot of my friends there ended up being children of Argentinian refugees in Spain. And there was this strange connection that I had to those friends because even though we were from foreign countries, even though we’re speaking different languages, there was still the strange connection of having parents who fled a dictatorship. It’s not the same as being an immigrant who leaves their home country for economic reasons.

RV: How do you think about addressing the colonial legacies inherent in the English language and traditional narrative structure in your writing? Do you have any advice for other writers who are struggling with similar questions?

TMKM: It’s something that I’m continuing to figure out as I write, but for me, the writing leads me in answering that question. I don’t have a theoretical answer that is separate from the actual process of writing. And by that, I mean that when I write, it’s a choice that I’m making to use English, which is the only language that’s available to me to distill or contain something that the language historically was not made for. So when I write, I’m choosing to basically not be silenced. The choice isn’t between writing in English versus writing in Burmese, because I can’t write in Burmese, I can hardly read in Burmese.

What I’ve discovered is that the English language is flexible, it’s changing. And even if the history of the language or its origin of language was not made for a person in my body, the fact of the matter is that it is my language now, and so I am remaking it with my body. I’m remaking it in the way I use it. I’m remaking it in the way that I am trying to get it to contain my experiences and thoughts and feelings.

For me, writing is about trying to unlearn or momentarily forget the rules that I have been taught about how to use English. So instead I allow myself to have it come out of my body however it comes out without too much judgment. And oftentimes, how it comes out is what people have described as lyrical or poetic. But really, I’m not trying to write poetry in the tradition of Western poetry, I’m just trying to use English in a way that resists certain structures and forms that are taken for granted. So maybe that’s the advice that I have for other writers is to let your body do the writing. With my students, for example, I get them to do writing exercises that are somatic, or that take chance or luck into account. Keep trying different things, try anything that’s going to unstick you from your patterns and your habits.

RV: Was addressing and complicating “the immigrant narrative” something you wanted to consciously do from the start of writing this book?

TMKM: Absolutely. I feel like the traditional immigrant narrative places so much emphasis on that moment of immigration as the most important moment in someone’s life or even as a rebirth for a person. The immigrant narrative has this temporal relationship where there’s a past and a present, and then and now, here and there. That all exists for people to understand in simplistic terms what it means to be an immigrant, but my lived experience has never been that simple or easy.

For too long, I felt like as a Burmese American, as a Bomar American—of which there are few in this country—I wasn’t included under that umbrella of ‘Asian American.’

In this book, I wanted to give equal weight to all the different movements that I have made in my life and the movements that my ancestors have made. So rather than just taking for granted that moment of immigration [as all-important], it doesn’t even appear in the book. I wanted to foreground the fact that my life and my ancestors’ lives are complicated. We’re not defined simply by the one move, or the one migration that we’ve made from some other country to this country. And I didn’t want to give too much weight to the social constructs of nations. Instead, I wanted to show that even within Burma, people were moving around a lot. Even within America, people are moving around a lot. For me, that was also a subversive answer to people always assuming that the move from Burma to America is what defines me. That’s why the word immigrant even exists. 

RV: Can you say more about your relationship to Asian American identity? Do you consider this book to be a work of Asian American literature?

TMKM: In general, when I was younger, I don’t really think I identified as Asian American. And part of that has to do with the fact that I didn’t really identify as Asian because my earliest memories were formed in an Asian country. I just took my Asian-ness as for granted because I was living in Asia among Asian people. So when I was younger, I identified as Bomar or Burmese, but I didn’t identify as Asian. And then when we moved to California, we settled in a very diverse—I hate that word—let me say instead that, we settled in a community where many people were also immigrants from Asia, or whose parents were immigrants from Asia. And so weirdly, that was the norm of my high school too.

When I was in high school, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about how my high school was so Asian—it was 70% Asian, I think—so all the white students were leaving my public high school and going to private high schools, basically to be with other white people, or to not be with other Asian people. And that was the first time that I even had awareness of me and my classmates being lumped together by outsiders. I had friends who were either from or whose parents were from many countries across that continent: Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Korea, Pakistan, India, Iran. I never thought “we’re all Asian American.” So that was the first time that I started to become aware of the fact that we were Asian American, but in a negative way, because it was through the Wall Street Journal writing this article about people, basically, fleeing us. And so it took me much longer to start to identify as Asian and Asian American in a positive way, as a way of building community. And that only happened in college or in graduate school, when suddenly I was in majority-white communities for the first time in my life.

When I was writing this book, I definitely wanted it to be read as an Asian American work of literature. For too long, I felt like as a Burmese American, as a Bomar American, of which there are few in this country, I wasn’t included under that umbrella of “Asian American.” Even stereotypes about Asian Americans or Asian people like the model minority myth often did not apply to my lived experience or to Burmese people. So I want it to be a work of Asian American literature, because I wanted to expand what that could mean. But moreover, I want it to be a work of American literature. Even though so much of it takes place in Burma, I’m an American person, and this is a book about me and my family. And I really do want it to be read as a work of American literature.

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