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

Charmaine Craig’s novel is based on her mother’s life but is also about how the personal and political intertwine.

‘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
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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.