Karen Refugees Cheer “Miss Burma”

Charmaine Craig’s latest novel tells the story of Burma through the lens of ethnic minorities

Charmaine Craig and book cover

Charmaine Craig’s “Miss Burma” tells the story of Burma in the 20th century through the lens of its minority people, particularly the Karen ethnic group.

RIVERSIDE, California – Creative writing professor Charmaine Craig knew that her latest novel, “Miss Burma,” would shed light on the history of Burma and its persecuted ethnic minorities. But she didn’t anticipate the pride it would elicit from Karen refugees, who have turned out to meet her at book-signings across the United States.

“Miss Burma” is, as far as Craig can determine, the first piece of dramatic literature that tells the story of Burma (Myanmar) in the 20th century through the lens of its minority people, particularly the Karen ethnic group. The Karen (pronounced kuh-REN) estimate their global population at 10 million. The CIA World Factbook estimates that the Karen make up approximately 7 percent of Burma’s population with approximately 5 million people living within the country’s borders. The novel, published in May by Grove Atlantic, is a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, an Indie Next selection, and an Amazon Best of the Month Editors’ Pick in Literature & Fiction.

Book talks in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, Kansas City, Kansas, Seattle, Washington, and the District of Columbia have drawn scores of Karen and other refugees from Burma, many of whom drove hours to hear Craig speak.

“There is a dearth of information about the ethnic minority experience in 20th century Burma, let alone literature about that perspective,” said Craig, an assistant professor of creative writing. “The novel has been especially meaningful to Burmese ethnic nationalities and refugees because they’ve never had anyone tell their story in literary fiction.”

“Miss Burma” is based on the lives of Craig’s mother and grandparents, who were pulled into Burma’s decades-old civil war. Craig’s mother, Louisa Benson, was twice named Miss Burma in the mid-1950s and became an actress. When her husband was assassinated by the military in 1965, she took his place as a leader in the Karen resistance and was quickly labeled an enemy of the state, with a bounty placed on her head. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1967.

Writing the work of historical fiction took over a decade, as there was little scholarly research on modern Burma and its ethnic minorities for Craig to consult. “I was part historian, part investigative journalist, and novelist,” she said. Gathering oral histories as she researched aspects of Burma’s history helped fill in gaps in the story of an ethnic group that has been brutally discouraged from holding on to its history, culture, and language.

At the same time, Craig said, as a literary writer her central interest is on internal life.

“Part of the way my mother and others survived was by not looking deeply inward or backward. I am centrally interested in the emotional toll of living, in consciousness and perception. I tried to marry a loyalty to history – and to the actual experiences of my family members – with a loyalty to my own literary preoccupations, which demand imaginative leaps. It took a while to find harmony in that marriage.”

Craig dug through declassified CIA and State Department documents to accurately describe how the British and Americans helped empower Burma’s ruthless military regime after WWII.

“I had been told that my mother’s husband had been in dialog with the CIA. But I didn’t know until I did the research how the U.S. on one hand was befriending the Karen and appeared to be supporting them, and on the other was supportive of their liquidation and a more centralized government, which was also a military regime,” she said. “The Karen people had so trusted the Western parties and Allies for whom they fought and won the war in Burma. I felt that sting, too, of being grossly betrayed.”

Craig said she had known since childhood that her mother, who died in 2010, was legendary among Burmese and Karen people. “As I delved into interviewing people, I also began to understand that she had a status as a teacher, an elder, a spiritual leader. And it became much clearer to me how dramatic and important the lives of her parents were, as well, and how she was much more a product of them than I had anticipated,” the author said.

Just how significant “Miss Burma” is to Karen people became very clear at various book signings, where long lines of young Karen refugees waited to take their photos with Craig. One refugee told Craig, “We needed someone like you.”  And another said, “I have been waiting all my life for this book.”

“Before her death, my mother paved the way for 50,000 refugees to come to the U.S.,” Craig said. “Many of the refugees I’ve been meeting  were able to come to this country because of her efforts, though they probably don’t know that. My mother wasn’t a self-promoter. It was tremendously meaningful to stand in their presence and feel her presence by extension. And it was humbling to share with them a story that is, finally, theirs.”

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Charmaine Craig
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