In this episode my guest is Kenneth Wong - author of A Prayer for Burma (Santa Monica Press, 2003). His short stories and essays have appeared in Grain, AGNI, and San Francisco Chronicle magazines. Ko Kenneth is also a lecturer at UC Berkeley teaching Introductory Burmese.
In this episode, Kenneth talks about how he fell in love with Burmese literature as a child before moving on to reading James Bond and Agatha Christie in English.
Upon arriving to California, he experienced a memorable moment at the airport which confirmed to him that America was a land that would welcome those escaping tyranny.
The first part of the conversation is in English.
ဒုတိယအပိုင်းမှာ မြန်မာလို ပြောပါတယ်။
➤ Can you tell me - how did you get into writing? Were you always interested in the literature or the language side?
I've always liked reading so when I was growing up, I grew up on 48th street in Yay Kyaw district and at the corner of the street where I grew up, there was a little bookshop.
When we were growing up very few people can afford to buy books and most people rent books for a couple of days for a reasonable fee - or magazines. We rent them, we read them and then we would return them so I remember going to that bookshop almost every two days or so picking out my favorite burmese comics books -- သမိန်ပေါသွပ် for example.
And as my literary tastes got a little more sophisticated, I started reading Chit Oo Nyo, Min Theinkha - all these classic Burmese authors.
So I think reading formed the basis for me eventually becoming a writer because if you read long enough you feel like you want to write the kind of thing that you love to read.
➤ So the books you started reading, they were all Burmese books. When did you first get interested in English?
Oh, I remember my dad liked to read a lot, being somebody who was educated at the tail end of the British colonial era at St. Paul by missionary school teachers, he liked English language books a lot and he was pretty good at writing in English as well. So I remember exploring his bookshelf - his book collections.
And there were a lot of Ian Fleming's James Bond books, so that was the beginning. I remember trying to read one paragraph from Goldfinger and it took me about three hours because almost every second word I had to look up in a dictionary. And even though I knew every word that was in the paragraph I still couldn't make sense of it.
Later I learned, of course, that Ian Fleming was writing with a very specific kind of vocabulary. His stories were set in the Cold War. It was about the world in which spies and counter spies lived and the code words that they used, the terminologies were very specific to that era. And no wonder it required a lot more than just understanding what the word means to make sense of those kind of stories.
I eventually started exploring other things like Agatha Christie, whose murder mysteries were fascinating and the vocabulary was a lot easier for me to handle - no political terms, just stories about greed and jealousy, inspiring somebody to kill somebody else with a dagger or poison. Those were easier to read and so I remember reading, for example, Murder on the Orient Express several times because I liked the characters and I liked the dialogue and I liked the logic that the detective used to solve the puzzle.
➤ Let's talk about moving to the States. So you were 19 when you moved. I'm so surprised because your English is impeccable. Did you learn English before you moved?
I started learning English before I moved and I think, again, I have to thank the books that introduced me to the language and the authors that inspired me to look at words more closely and look at the way you can use words to move people, produce certain emotions. I think when you read enough you start to learn the tools of the trade, you know. You understand that an author chooses the word ‘isolation’ for a reason even though he could have chosen ‘loneliness,’ for example, so all those tools of the trade you start to notice them when you read enough.
So I think if somebody feels that I have a good command of the English language I must say it’s probably because I read a lot of classic authors that pay attention to what they write and how they put together sentences.
➤ That is inspiring. Okay so tell me what was the main reason you left at 19?
In 1988 there was a student uprising and that was a pretty traumatic event, not just for people who witnessed it but also for the entire country. My parents decided rightly so, at the time, that the military regime didn't show any signs of loosening its grip and if that was the way it was going to be for the foreseeable future in Burma, my parents decided that for me and my sister's future, things didn't look particularly bright. So they decided that they were going to pick up the family and immigrate to the U.S where we had some cousins.
Because most of us already had a basic command of English language, an English speaking country seemed like a logical choice to restart one's life, so that was the primary reason, I suppose. We didn't want to live under a military regime. One might say that was the primary reason for moving 8 000 miles across the world to San Francisco.
People who grew up in Burma you know, if it weren't for the political situation, if it weren't for the injustice, we would still be there.
➤ Yeah we would still be there.
We love our laphet, we love going to tea shop and chatting with our friends, we love going to Shwedagon at 6 o'clock, just as the sun is breaking and looking at the sun rising over this pinnacle and listening to somebody hitting the bell and saying ‘thar du’ because you know that somebody has done something good.
All of those experiences make the inconveniences of growing up in Burma worthwhile. If it weren't for the military regime I don't think a lot of people like us would have thought about leaving.
➤ Okay so can you tell me your first experiences in the U.S? Did you arrive in ‘88?
I arrived in ‘89.
➤ What do you remember? When you arrived in the early days - how did you find America?
One particular thing that I remember about being in San Francisco airport was that we had been flying for more than 24 hours and we had made several transfers so we were all pretty tired.
➤ When you say we, who is that?
Oh that means my father, my mother, my sister, and me. We're pretty tired and we saw a coke machine.
And that was the first time we came across an automated Coke dispensing machine. We were standing there like those stone age people standing in front of the obelisk in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey trying to figure out how to work this supernatural thing to give us a can of Coke.
And I remember there was a passenger who walked by, who looked at us and saw that we were lost. Not only did he help us get our first can of Coke, he actually paid for it.
That was our first introduction to America and then it made us feel like this is the country that welcomes people who are running away from injustice and tyranny. This is the country where people are willing to give you a chance to reboot your life and make something of yourself. That was my most memorable experience.
➤ I'm just picturing that scene. It's so beautiful. It's such a beautiful story. I love that!
Okay and then at age of 19 you were kind of just past college age, what did you do right away? Did you go to school or did you get a job?
Listen to the full conversation on the podcast.