‘Father of Myanmar’ Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi is his daughter) in 1947. Miss Burma explores the ethnic conflicts that affect the country to this day. Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
‘Father of Myanmar’ Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi is his daughter) in 1947. Miss Burma explores the ethnic conflicts that affect the country to this day. Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Book review: a beauty queen becomes a revolutionary in Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig



Charmaine Craig's new novel, Miss Burma, tells the extraordinary story of a beauty queen-turned-revolutionary leader.

It might sound unbelievable but Craig’s fictional warrior woman is closely based on a real life figure: her mother Louisa Charmaine Benson Craig. Born in 1941 in Rangoon (in then British Burma), Louisa was a two-time winner of the Miss Burma contest, who married a commander of the Karen National Liberation Army when she was 23, was widowed only a year later, after which she led his brigade before eventually emigrating to the United States in the late 1960s.

Although Louisa is the star of the show, Craig chooses not to depict her commander years, starting the book in Rangoon in 1926 – with the birth of Louisa's father Benny – and drawing the narrative to a close in 1965, on the banks of the Salween River, just after the grieving widow has embraced her military duties. Thus, rather than producing a more traditional straightforward fictionalised biography, instead Miss Burma charts almost half a decade of the country's political and civil unrest, as experienced by this one family caught "in the eye of the storm". The formative events in Louisa's life do not take place in a vacuum but rather as the direct result of what's come before; her choices are a product of those her parents made before her.

When Benny and Khin meet in the late 1930s, he’s a young official working for His Majesty’s government and she’s a nanny. Benny is Jewish, born in Rangoon, although a childhood in Calcutta where he was brought up by relatives after his parents’ deaths has left him estranged from his community; while Khin is from the Karen ethnic group, one of the country’s many persecuted minorities.

They are married before they’ve even learned each other’s language and their early days together are a time of awkwardness and frustration. The “deficiency” of Benny’s Burmese, which Khin speaks so fluently (itself “utterly distinct” from her native Karen language) results in “sputtering exchanges” that leave an “aftertaste of disappointment in his mouth”.

Yet despite these communication problems, their newfound intimacy is also a balm to them both, “a reprieve from loneliness beyond measure”.

There is love between the two but theirs is a relationship caught up in the larger geopolitical power play at work. Already estranged to his own Jewishness, Benny fully embraces his wife’s heritage, reinventing himself as Karen, and so too Khin’s own ethnic identity is oddly reinforced by their union. This happens initially through the realisation of just how different she and her new husband are – “She had not known how very Karen she was until there was Benny – boisterous, belligerent Benny, who big-heartedly trammelled all over her preferences for gentleness and humility and silent attunement to others” – and thereafter via the horrors of civil war, the individual suffering of each trapping them in separate prisons of their own trauma. After the Second World War the Karen community is targeted by the militia of the Burmese government of the newly independent nation.

Miss Burma is a novel heavy on politics, and Craig's characters aren't sitting on the sidelines. This is a country which has been "fashioned" by "ethnic hatred". Craig's characters expend much energy on long, colourful conversations about about how those in charge – from politican U Saw to future prime minister of Burma Ne Win, to assassinated Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi's father), to the CIA – might push forward.

When Louisa marries her husband Lynton, it's because he's "the embodiment of hope and lightness during a desolate time", the fantasy she has of him intimately entangled with "her fantasy of a cohesive nation untainted by centuries of prejudice". In Craig's hands, her characters become the embodiment of politics – as Miss Burma Louisa is flaunted as a "symbol of integration, assimilation, subjugation"; of false "harmony" in a country violently divided. As such, Miss Burma is a Bildungsroman of a kind; Louisa's journey of formation from innocence to experience a metaphor for the larger struggles of Myanmar itself.

Despite all the politics, Craig is still an evocative storyteller; the way she flits back and forth between the different points of view of her protagonists strengthening our sympathies for this family cleaved beyond repair, “slaves to their circumstances, living a kind of permanent estrangement within these walls they shared”.

Admittedly, the lyricism of her proses occasionally tips over into slight hyperbole but then she rallies and pulls it back on track. Miss Burma is a richly-drawn portrait of how the personal and political entwine and how loyalty takes many different guises.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.

Coming 2 America

Directed by: Craig Brewer

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones

3/5 stars

TWISTERS

Director:+Lee+Isaac+Chung

Starring:+Glen+Powell,+Daisy+Edgar-Jones,+Anthony+Ramos

Rating:+2.5/5

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Xpanceo

Started: 2018

Founders: Roman Axelrod, Valentyn Volkov

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Smart contact lenses, augmented/virtual reality

Funding: $40 million

Investor: Opportunity Venture (Asia)

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylturbo

Transmission: seven-speed DSG automatic

Power: 242bhp

Torque: 370Nm

Price: Dh136,814

The team

Fashion director: Sarah Maisey
Photographer: Greg Adamski
Hair and make-up: Ania Poniatowska
Models: Nyajouk and Kristine at MMG, and Mitchell
Stylist’s assistants: Nihala Naval and Sneha Maria Siby
Videographer: Nilanjana Gupta

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)

A QUIET PLACE

Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Joseph Quinn, Djimon Hounsou

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Rating: 4/5

What is an FTO Designation?

FTO designations impose immigration restrictions on members of the organisation simply by virtue of their membership and triggers a criminal prohibition on knowingly providing material support or resources to the designated organisation as well as asset freezes. 

It is a crime for a person in the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to knowingly provide “material support or resources” to or receive military-type training from or on behalf of a designated FTO.

Representatives and members of a designated FTO, if they are aliens, are inadmissible to and, in certain circumstances removable from, the United States.

Except as authorised by the Secretary of the Treasury, any US financial institution that becomes aware that it has possession of or control over funds in which an FTO or its agent has an interest must retain possession of or control over the funds and report the funds to the Treasury Department.

Source: US Department of State

The biog

Favourite hobby: I love to sing but I don’t get to sing as much nowadays sadly.

Favourite book: Anything by Sidney Sheldon.

Favourite movie: The Exorcist 2. It is a big thing in our family to sit around together and watch horror movies, I love watching them.

Favourite holiday destination: The favourite place I have been to is Florence, it is a beautiful city. My dream though has always been to visit Cyprus, I really want to go there.

Sarfira

Director: Sudha Kongara Prasad

Starring: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Madan, Paresh Rawal

Rating: 2/5

Things Heard & Seen

Directed by: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, James Norton

2/5

The specs

Engine: 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V8
Transmission: eight-speed auto
Power: 617hp
Torque: 750Nm
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Herc's Adventures

Developer: Big Ape Productions
Publisher: LucasArts
Console: PlayStation 1 & 5, Sega Saturn
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Mia Man’s tips for fermentation

- Start with a simple recipe such as yogurt or sauerkraut

- Keep your hands and kitchen tools clean. Sanitize knives, cutting boards, tongs and storage jars with boiling water before you start.

- Mold is bad: the colour pink is a sign of mold. If yogurt turns pink as it ferments, you need to discard it and start again. For kraut, if you remove the top leaves and see any sign of mold, you should discard the batch.

- Always use clean, closed, airtight lids and containers such as mason jars when fermenting yogurt and kraut. Keep the lid closed to prevent insects and contaminants from getting in.

 

Disposing of non-recycleable masks
  • Use your ‘black bag’ bin at home
  • Do not put them in a recycling bin
  • Take them home with you if there is no litter bin
  • No need to bag the mask