Q&A: The inspiration for Charmaine Craig’s novel ‘Miss Burma’: a beauty queen turned revolutionary

Author Charmaine Craig, whose new novel is "Miss Burma."
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

In its opening paragraph, the lights of Charmaine Craig’s epic new novel, “Miss Burma,” come up on Louisa, who is based on the author’s mother, taking the pageant stage. Louisa Benson Craig, a woman who after being crowned went on to become a political revolutionary with a price on her head, is one of many fictionalized characters whose lives are so full of loss and perseverance and incident that to follow their story is to follow the history of the country itself. The sweeping, multi-generational story of a family belonging to the Karen ethnic minority, “Miss Burma” charts both a political history and a deeply personal one — and of those incendiary moments when private and public motivations overlap.

Craig, a former actress who lives in Los Angeles and teaches at UC Riverside, met me at cafe to talk about “Miss Burma”; our conversation carried over to a walk around Echo Park Lake. We discussed the literary bias against so-called historical novels, her relationship with her mother, who died of ovarian cancer in 2010, type-casting in Hollywood and why the near decade that Craig spent working on a book about her family became less about excising the story from herself than excising herself from the story. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

When did you first discover that your mother had been both Miss Burma and a political revolutionary?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know. My American dad was a dreamer, and he painted my mother in these oversized terms — she was Miss Burma, she was the most famous actress in Burma for a time, she was a woman warrior. So I knew all of that. But as I was writing the book, I would put pieces together in an almost journalistic way, and I would figure out how her story fit into a bigger political picture. It was almost like having a conversation with the dead.

“Miss Burma” is based on the lives of your mother and grandparents; it’s a story that is, in some sense, a real part of you. What was it like to get that story out and onto the page?

I should tell you that the first version of the book was much more about myself and my mother. It was first person, it was much more of the expected immigrant story. I wrote an entire version of that book as my mother became sick, and it was cathartic to write that version, which was so much about the traumas she had lived through and how I inherited some of that, and about her conflict over giving herself over to motherhood in the United States when I think she felt, to some extent, that she had abandoned the call of a whole people back in Burma, what’s now Myanmar. What became clear to me after I finished that book was given the fact that I was writing this for a Western readership I had been too solipsistic in my approach. The book wasn’t about me, it needed to be about a country and a people and a family, and I needed to exist in the margins of the story and get myself out of the way.

Why write a novel and not nonfiction?

I am more called to write fiction, period. My literary interest is in the experience of consciousness. Even though I would consider myself someone who takes plotting more seriously than perhaps many of my peers, what I’m most interested in is capturing the experience of being. When I received the story from my mother — an epic, dramatic story that we spent two years talking about before she died — absent from that was the internal, the motivations. There were times when I could feel that she was talking around the heart of the matter. It just made sense to take the novelistic leap.

Charmaine Craig will discuss her novel "Miss Burma" with Jane Smiley at Live Talks LA on May 10th at 8:00 p.m. »

The book begins with Louisa on stage as Miss Burma in 1956, and then vaults backward in time, to her parents’ story.

As a literary writer I felt a certain pressure to write autobiographical fiction. I was succumbing to some bias against the political novel and the historical novel. It took getting past those biases for me to see that I’d been living under the myth of my mother, but in fact her father and mother’s story were equally dramatic and perhaps even more revealing of the story of Burma. They were born during the colonial era and were both involved in Burma’s transition from colonialism to independence to the civil war. I needed to open myself up to telling more of what now is a multi-perspectival book.

What was your approach to braiding the political plot with the familial one?

The political history became a kind of backbone of the plot, and it was made easier for me by the fact that my family was very involved in that history and politics. Part of my process was about finding the intersections between family members and history itself. One of the tensions of the book is how much are we helpless before the crushing and impersonal forces of history, and how much history can be made to succumb to the personal stubbornness of any individual who wants to stand up to it.

There were a number of passages in the book where the detail with which you rendered a character’s facial expressions as a means to reveal their internal world reminded me that before becoming a writer you were an actress. Can you tell me about that transition?

I was drawn to acting — and to writing — at a young age because in both of them you’re called to empathically embody another. My experience of going through the world is that I’m acutely sensitive to the signals that other people are putting out, to human behavior. Writing and acting are ways of making art out of the way I’m wired. The reason that I’m not acting now is not that I stopped loving the craft but that I came up in the profession at a time when there was more overt typecasting and racism than even now, and there’s still a lot of typecasting going on. I was really tired of the kinds of roles that were open to me as a person of mixed race. It was always, “Well what are you? You’re not this, you’re not that. Maybe you’re a sexy girlfriend.” It just felt rather demeaning, and I wanted to be able to hold the reins a little more in terms of the stories that I was telling and the characters I was portraying.

Are there are skills that you learned as an actor that you use as a novelist?

I was a teenager, studying in England at the British American Drama Academy, with a man named Earle Gister. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Play every line the exact opposite of what it says.” So, if it says “I love you,” you’re thinking in your head, “I despise you.” If you say “I’m perfectly fine,” you’re really saying “I am the most miserable I’ve ever been in my life.” It was like a switch turned and I immediately began to understand this fundamental lesson of mixed motivations. We’re all feeling 10 things about the same thing at any given moment, and the more we can bring that out in our characterization, whether we’re acting or writing, the more real that character will feel.

"Miss Burma" by Charmaine Craig.
"Miss Burma" by Charmaine Craig. (Grove Atlantic)

Your sense of setting is transporting. You grew up in Los Angeles; how much time have you spent in Myanmar?

I’ve only gone twice. (My mother had a price on her head — it wasn’t safe.) The first time I went I was in my early 20s. It was an important trip because I learned much more about my mother’s legend and about the Karen people, and I also learned more about my own — I hate to use the word “identity” because it’s such shorthand — but growing up here I never felt that I really fit in. I was encouraged as a child to call myself Karen because I got the question “What are you?” a lot from other kids. (When I said Karen, they said, “You mean Korean?”) When I went to Burma a bunch of children came up to my sister and me and said to us in Karen, “Good evening, white people.” It was a homecoming and a kind of underscoring of my difference. The second time I went was after my mother had passed away. I went inside Burma, but just to the border areas, to participate in the Karen election process.

While those trips were helpful, I do believe as a fiction writer that we should in some ways limit our research and default more to the imaginative. That’s not to say that I didn’t try very hard to get the details right — the history, the politics, the setting — I did. But I wanted to treat this just as I would treat a contemporary novel, or a novel about my hometown, Los Angeles in the ’80s — I only wanted to include what would be significant, and not stuff it with information and details for the sake of edifying the reader about this particular world and place.

Did you conduct historical research?

I spent two years interviewing my mother and her family members before I turned to some scholarly literature. That was when I began to really understand how many holes there are in the literature and how skewed a lot of it is, in my opinion. The ethnic nationalities, the indigenous peoples of Burma — there’s a complete lack of information out there because, for example, for centuries the Karens’ hands were cut off if they were found with writing implements. So they lost their alphabet, they lost any kind of written history, there was an absolute effort on the part of the majority leadership to force them to integrate to the point that they lost their culture. It began to feel like part of a mandate for me to get the history right, to get the politics right, and I began to feel a little bit like an investigative journalist.

I had heard during these interviews that my mother’s first husband, who was assassinated during peace talks for the military junta because he was a resistance leader, had been in dialogue with the CIA, but I couldn’t find any scholarly research about this, so I began to look into declassified CIA documents. It’s hard to really understand what happened, but my take is while the CIA was meeting with pro-democratic forces, including my mother’s husband, the U.S. State Department was working with the government in Burma to liquidate those same forces.

You’ve been an activist on behalf of ethnic minorities in Myanmar as well as a writer. Are those impulses distinct or inseparable?

While I didn’t initially want this to be a political novel, writing it became a political act. I think that the novel resists any easy answers to questions such as “is ethnic nationalism the best response to genocide?” The last time I was in Burma I became that much more aware of the incredible vacuum my mother had left when she died, politically and as an activist. I felt all of the heaviness of not only not being able to step into her shoes, but of not really wanting to. I’m a writer, I’m not a politician. And yet it was at that moment that I began to conceive of how the novel could be a kind of political act as well.

In the book you write, “The world of the dead now was something he could reach out and touch; he had only to give it the slightest attention and it reached back out and met him.” Was that your experience while writing “Miss Burma”?

It’s funny, I’m glad you brought that up. My husband’s a writer too, and he suggested I cut that line. I was like, “I can’t cut that line” because that’s so much of my experience. After my mother died I went through a period where I was desperate to make contact and was coming up with nothing. But there have been moments since then that I felt I was in her presence in some way I can’t explain.

There’s another passage that’s stuck with me. “One man’s wife and child … could be worth sacrificing a war for.” What is it about that tension that cuts right to the quick?

A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the de facto leader now of Burma, here in Los Angeles. I was invited to an event where she was going to be, and I had talked with some Karen leaders at the time about, “If I have a chance to sit down with her, what do you want me to say?” So I had come armed, if you will, with a message from pan-ethnic persecuted minorities. And Edward Norton very nicely got up and let me sit in his seat — he was sitting right next to her — and I told her who I was and I started to relay the message and she stopped me and said, “You’re Louisa’s daughter.” She knew my mother had died. She wanted to reminiscence. Tears came to her eyes, and it was a lesson to me in the tension that you’re asking about: There are the wars, the almost unimaginable hundreds of thousands of lives lost or the displacement right now of over a million people in and around Burma, but then there’s the equally unimaginable loss of a single person.

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