Isabel Lwin May Khine
Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar
Art by Livi Prendergast https://liviprendergast.wordpress.com/
TW: Suicide, Sexual assault
The study of migration is interdisciplinary. Despite this, I have not come across much discussion in literary studies about the role that contemporary human migration plays on the way we read and what we choose to read. While universities would like to present themselves as progressive through a nod to Postcolonial Studies, in the arts we fall into the trap of discussing migration as if it is a static thing of the past and not alive today. This is because most discussion in the arts about migration is retrospective and looks to history for examples of human migration and migration crises, rather than looking at the situation today. I would like to move away from the institutional focus on the history of human migration. Instead, through analysis of The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone, I will be focusing on what the migrant has to say about themselves, their own existence, and their experiences in a contemporary context. By doing so I hope to centre conversation on the migrant’s agency and personhood.
Na Ga, the fictional woman through which the novel is focalised, was born to a small ethnic minority in Burma called the Lu. Even though the Lu in this novel are fictionalised, the Lu are a real indigenous people living across China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and primarily Vietnam. The Road to Wanting begins with Na Ga’s musings about the trajectory of her life as she contemplates committing suicide in a dingy hotel room in Wanting, a fictional border town on the threshold between Burma and China. The text shifts between her current situation and past experiences, providing the reader with an incredibly visceral insight into Na Ga’s life. The brevity of this article cannot cover the complexity of Na Ga’s life, but to summarise: Na Ga is sold into slavery at a young age. A few years later she is deceived by a fixer and is forced into prostitution in a brothel in Thailand. She winds up in a refugee camp and is “saved” by an American named Will, who describes himself as her “sponsor”. For a number of years she is a companion to Will, whose base for his travels around Asia is Bangkok. Na Ga is forced into leaving Bangkok, “back” to a volatile Burma she has not seen in years when Will decides to return to America. It is at this point that the novel begins.
A key theme in the novel is clarity. When Will tells Na Ga that he has to leave Bangkok, Na Ga says cryptically, “I knew from the start that I would never be able to make it across the border, never want even to try…I knew it in Bangkok, on the day Will came to tell me it was all over.” (Law-Yone, 5). “It”—the thing that is over—is not defined. “It” could refer to her life as a whole, or her time with Will. “It”, I believe, refers to her immobility in the space of Will’s life and house. For Na Ga, her extended time with Will where she had the physical space of a house to remain within, that she could clean and keep in order is synonymous with clarity. The “it” denotes the clarity of her position in Will’s house that now no longer exists. She is being forced from the concreteness of a specified space into the intangibility of being constantly moved. Since Na Ga has no choice but to leave this concrete space of clarity, the text begins to expose her abject uncertainty about herself.
Na Ga has always existed in relation to other things and as a representation of something else; she represents the Lu, the sexually objectified woman, and the migrant. Na Ga has never existed as an individual in her own right. In contrast, the other people that control her movements do exist as individuals, but that individualism is defined by Na Ga’s closed experiences with them. The people that she comes into contact with are tied to a specific space and time because that is when she physically sees them and interacts with them. She gives value to physical space, therefore that is where their individualism stems from. Even though Will is constantly travelling, he is not a migrant in the same sense as her. He is tied to his existence in the house where they interact and chooses where, how, and when he moves. Although this association with a specified space is a luxury that is not afforded to Na Ga, Law-Yone does attribute individualism to her through the subtle, yet deft first-person perspective that she uses. Law-Yone uplifts Na Ga through showing the reader that she does have concrete opinions, perspectives, and reflections. To Law-Yone and the reader, Na Ga’s lack of association with physical space does not negate that fact—even if she does not know it herself.
Furthermore, Will says that “In Kunming, someone will meet you and put you on the bus…you’ll take the old road.” (Law-Yone, 6). However, Na Ga is not taking the “old road” at all. Similarly to how other people are ascribed individualism through Na Ga’s interactions with them, Law-Yone places Na Ga in a world that exists because of, and for, her movements alone. The physical spaces of the novel evolve out of Na Ga’s lived experiences of them. Nothing exists outside of Na Ga’s life because every space in the novel is constructed only for the purpose of Na Ga telling her story. Thus, the bus might be “old” in the objective timeframe of the outside world, but because the world of the novel grows from Na Ga’s experiences, it must be new. No space in The Road to Wanting exists for just aesthetic purposes. All spaces exist for Na Ga’s narrative—a feat on Law-Yone’s part of ascribing agency, life, and outlook to the migrant woman who is always bypassed in literature.
Inalienable human rights—such as the right to move at one’s will, the right to dignity, and the right to safety and body and mind—cannot be realised until we humanise migration through discussing its intersection with literature, literature being a fundamental form of human expression. In light of this, it is unsurprising how frustrated I have become at the disconnect between theory and practice throughout the course of my English Literature degree. We study postcolonialism as a theoretical stance and discuss the importance of a few, now often-quoted and depoliticised texts to “diversifying” literature. There does not seem to be anything happening on an institutional level to actually put these discussions in practice and include living authors of colour on syllabus, rather than rehashing discussion about the same authors and texts over and over again.
I am Burmese, but was raised in Hong Kong. Aside from my family’s “Little Burma” within the house and the small diasporic community in Hong Kong, I had little contact with Burmese culture growing up—and much less so with Burmese literatures. It was coming to university to study English Literature—and consequently feeling frustrated at the lack literature that was relatable, or relevant to me—that opened my eyes to the immense richness of Burmese literatures in English. I thought university would be a change from school—but what I have seen for the past three years is the continuation of the neocolonialist tropes that myself and my peers of colour were subjected to at international school. I was pushed to search for Burmese literatures on my own accord by sheer frustration and disillusionment. So rather than feeling bound by the racial hierarchies of my international school upbringing and racialised childhood in Hong Kong, I began the journey of not rejecting my heritage in order to conform. By exploring migrant literatures and pushing the boundaries that my schooling and university have imposed, I have tentatively started reclaiming my diasporic Burmese-ness instead of pretending to be a white person in brown skin. It is therefore with sincerity that I hope this brief article can be the beginning of someone else’s personal journey towards a reclamation of their identity. Institutions are unlikely to do the work for us—it is our responsibility to reclaim space, and radically reject our neocolonial educations to build an education that includes us in conversation.
Law-Yone, Wendy. The Road to Wanting. Vintage, 2011.
Note: If you would like more information on global migrant and refugee crises, these sites provide valuable information on how systemic change can be achieved (in no particular order):
About the author:
Isabel Lwin May Khine is a Hong Kong-born Burmese student studying English Literature at the University
of Glasgow. She hopes to pursue further interdisciplinary study of the relationship between the body politic,
mobilities and migration studies, and literature post-graduation. She sometimes daydreams about a career in
civic/political engagement and education.