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Minbu: An Excerpt from Names for Light

There is a name for every kind of violence.

In this multigenerational family history, Names for Light (Graywolf Press), Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint moves among the many places she, her parents, and her grandparents variously lived. Weaving oral narratives into the official and mythic histories of Myanmar, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s poetic sensibility touches on explorations of home, belonging, and identity against the backdrops of postcolonial violence and racism.

My grandmother’s golden childhood came to an end with the war. The night before her city, Minbu, was bombed, the larger city across the river, Magway, was bombed first. The people in Minbu had never seen explosions before and mistook them for fireworks. The city did not have many electric lights yet, and it was beautiful to see the night sky lit up. The river was very wide, the Irrawaddy, the lifeblood of the country, and the two cities were far enough apart, with an island between them, that the explosions were muted, and the sounds of people crying out in fear and pain did not carry across the water. In Minbu, people gathered at the riverbank and clapped.

Years later, after the war, my grandfather would sail up the same river, the Irrawaddy, which connected Gayan and Minbu, and countless other villages and towns and cities, to court my grandmother.

River is a noun derived from a verb, that which rives, which splits, rents, or severs, which tears asunder. River, splitter, renter, severer, tearer or terror. To be a river is to carve up the earth, to tear it apart, violently, with water, which has no hands. Even the sound of the word pricks the tongue. The v in the middle, which splits the word itself in two, ri and er, beginning and ending with an r, almost a palindrome. I repeat the word again and again, tasting the sharp point of the v, the suffix that follows parting my lips.

The Bamar word for river is myit. Or, the English word for myit is river. Myit, the word I learned first, meaning root or river, rhyming with pyit, the word for thick, and only one letter off from my name, in both Bamar and English. Myit, meaning deep and myint, meaning high. Bamar speakers must have known that opposites are not vastly different, but often almost the same. Like a shadow, or a reflection.

The morning after Magway was bombed, planes dropped flyers over Minbu. They were going to be bombed that night. The story my father told was not of my grandmother, who made it safely to the beach, which was the designated evacuation site, but of her relative, an uncle, who had forgotten something back at his house. He told his wife he would catch up with her at the beach, but he never showed. When the bombings ended and they returned to the city the next day, they found the uncle’s body blown apart at the threshold of his house.

My grandmother’s mother died during the war, when the family was hiding in the countryside. I asked my father what she died of, and he said, she was a very fragile sort of person. It was said she died because she could not endure the fright and shock of the war. But it’s hard to say, my father said, in those days, during the war, they couldn’t take her to see a good doctor.

My other grandmother, my mother’s mother, had also lost a parent during the war, when she was about the same age. For a long time, I thought it was a strange coincidence that both my grandmothers would have suffered the same fate. Both great-grandparents were in their early forties when they passed away, and both grandmothers were teenagers. It was only later that I realized it was not a coincidence at all, but simply a common fate for many families.

The British invaded through the rivers, through the myit, which they renamed river. The roots of the country became that which tore the country apart, that which split, rent, and severed the land. The British sailed up the Irrawaddy with their Trojan horse of a fleet, with their decoy prince, and the people lined up along the banks to watch it pass. In Bamar, the words for invasion, conquest, and occupation are everyday words, the same words I used as a child while playing. To invade is to butt in, to conquer is to boss, and to occupy is to hog. I do not know if the Bamar words were meant to soften the shame of being colonized, of falling for a mean trick, or if it is the English words, our euphemisms, that allow English-speaking children to grow up and colonize others without shame.

If the English word for river had not been river, but had been something else, root, for example, or depth, I think the British would have sailed up the Irrawaddy all the same. Roots too can be parasitic. There are plants that extract nutrients and water, not from the earth, but from the bodies of other plants. There is a name for roots that do this: haustoria. There is a name for every kind of violence.

I never asked my grandmother about how the war affected her, except once when she was already losing her memory. We were seated at the dining table at my aunt’s house. My father, me, and my two aunts who lived with my grandmother. My grandmother acted as if she did not hear my question. Maybe she did not, or maybe she did not want to answer. My father and my aunts filled her silence with their own stories.

At the end of her life, my grandmother no longer recognized me. The last time she spoke to me, she said, Who is this child? Who is this pretty child? I did not know how to answer her. It’s me, I kept saying. Don’t you remember? It’s me. But my grandmother did not remember. She could not even remember her own children.

My grandmother had seven children who lived. Three boys and four girls. I remember hearing once, as a child, that she had had as many as a dozen pregnancies. She had spent over two decades bearing and birthing children. My youngest aunt, who was a decade younger than my father, said it was because my grandfather loved children so much he always wanted to have more. I wonder at what point a woman begins to lose herself to her children. At what point her body is created from them, by them, rather than the other way around.

After the war, after my grandmother’s mother passed away, my grandmother’s father married his mistress. I cannot imagine that either my grandmother or the mistress could have been too happy with this arrangement. My grandmother, my father said, married my grandfather young so she could escape her new stepmother.

My grandmother and grandfather were half first cousins. My grandfather’s father and my grandmother’s mother were half brother and sister. The two that died young. The two from the family that lost all their land. My great-grandmother’s older sister, who had played matchmaker for my grandmother’s parents, was the same woman whose husband gambled away their family’s land. Because my grandmother grew up in Minbu, in the north, and my grandfather grew up in Gayan, which was in the south, almost by the ocean, they did not see much of each other growing up. The one time my grandmother visited Minbu as a child, my grandfather, who was older by a few years, made her cry when he stole her snack and ate it. He received a good spanking for that, my father said, laughing.

Right before the war broke out, during the Japanese occupation, the grandfather that my grandparents shared was dying, and my grandmother and her mother returned to Gayan to be with him during his final days. My grandfather had also returned to Gayan from Rangoon, though he had not yet joined the independence army, not yet left for the mountains. My great-great-grandfather took a few months to die, and during that time, my grandmother and grandfather got to know each other, for the first time, as teenagers. I do not know what was exchanged between them during this liminal time, this time of suspended death and imminent war, but a few years later, after the war, my grandfather sailed up and down the Irrawaddy to court my grandmother, and soon, they were married.

When I was young, I used to think about all the babies my grandparents had who did not live. I asked my mother once why they did not live, and she said she did not know. My mother said, in those days, right after the war, many babies died.

I have an image in my head of a baby drowning in a shallow tub. Not the built-in, porcelain-enameled kind found in American homes, but a large steel basin, used for collecting rainwater. The baby is one of my grandmother’s babies who died. It is dying now. I see its little head slide under the water. I see it but no one else does. I do not know if my mother said one of the babies drowned, or if I imagined it all on my own. I see the baby drowning, dying, and I think I understand my grandmother better, her timidity, her distrust, the way she held her lips or her shoulders, tightly, like she had something to protect.

Adapted from NAMES FOR LIGHT (Graywolf, August 17, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint.