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Pretence: A Poem by Mae Yway

Where shall I write their name down? / Whose name will be published / on what side of my memory?

No one wants to be weepy.
Each time I hear a name,
I wonder which list it’s from—
from the register of the dead,
or the survived.
Tiny little insects, which live for a day
to go away in the night, may be mocking us,
our ephemeral lives!
The deceased or the living?
Where shall I write their name down?
Whose name will be published
on what side of my memory?
How long will it last?
Will it be washed away with soap?
Will it be clawed out with scabs?
If I can’t have chicken, can I have pork?
In this country, that’s become a celebrity
of a country all the world over,
a chicken egg may be a cele while it lasts.
Things must be preserved in resin.
When corpses were piling up,
fortunately, shall we just say “fortunately”,
while the crematorium was available for a while
my uncle turned into smoke.
I was happy-sad.
‘happy’ or ‘sad’,
I didn’t know where to begin.
I hid behind a face covering
I got away for a while.

“Pretence” was first published in Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring: Witness Poems and Essays from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021, an anthology edited by Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman, published by Gaudy Boy this February, alongside the one-year anniversary of the violent military coup in Myanmar.

Since February 1, 2021, the military junta in Myanmar has enacted terrifying violence, disappearing and killing protesters, silencing media outlets critical of the coup, and clamping down on other forms of free expression. Poets, filmmakers, painters, musicians, and other artists have led in the denunciation of the coup, and Picking Off New Shoots collects the work of dissenting poets and essayists, some of whom have been targeted and killed. Read PEN America’s report Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup to learn more.

On February 5, 2022, in partnership with PEN America and Singapore Unbound, AAWW hosted a bilingual reading of work from Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring, followed by a conversation with the anthology’s editors, and contributors Ma Thida and Mae Yway.

Below, watch Mae Yway read her poem “Pretence” in both Burmese and English. Watch the full event on AAWW’s YouTube channel.


Describe a memory you have from when or where you wrote this poem.

Mae Yway

I wrote this poem last August in Yangon, at a time when a lot of people were dying almost every day from Covid-19 and the military coup. People are dying because of the lack of oxygen. People are dying because of the gunshot in their head. Whenever I hear a name, my reply is “Is he/she dead?” instead of “How is he/she?” We lost so many people in one year—our beloved ones, relatives, friends, and the people we only knew online and hadn’t met in person yet.


Where are you now? What place and/or time do you imagine?


I’m very far away from home. I’m homesick. 


Who or what are you reading?


I’m reading the American poets Dean Young and Frank O’Hara. And the book Of Scripts and Life by Jan Fleischer, too.

The poem “Pretence” appears above with permission from the author and publisher.