Monday, November 12, 2007

From The Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Twe

HarperCollins, Canada Pages: 336; $17.50(CAN)
Genre: non-fiction, memoir, adventure,Burma

The 2002 winner of the Kiriyama Book Prize

I remember reading one time that memoirs are our modern fairy tales, where a child through sheer grit, determination and a fairy godmother/godfather escapes his/her evil destiny and emerges triumphant.

In Pascal Khoo Thwe's case, his demons were not wicked witches or ogres but poverty, dictatorship, sickness, starvation and war but he overcame them all and escaped Burma to study at the University of Cambridge—the first Padaung tribesman to do so.
Khoo Thwe tells the story of his wonderful tribal childhood and his daring escape in his amazing memoir "From the Land of Green Ghosts" .

Padaung women
Picture courtesy:anoexorcism

Pascal Khoo Thwe had a childhood few can boast of having. He grew up in a remote, (part-Christian, part-animist, with elements from the Buddhist religion) tribe in the remote hills of a tribal Shan state. His grandmother on his father's side belonged to a remote hill-tribe, the Padaung, most famed for its 'giraffe-necked' women. Infact, in 1930 his grandmother joined a troupe of Padaung women who toured England in a circus freak show. The author’s grandfather was a powerful tribal leader, the last one of the clan. Thwe goes on to introduce readers to some of the traditions, cultures and delicacies enjoyed by his tribe - including a recipe for smoked pigeons with marijuana sauce!

In the central portion of his book Khoo Thwe describes his attempts to enter the Catholic priesthood and his days as a student of English literature in Mandalay. In Mandalay, Pascal came up against some of the hard political realities of living under regime of General Ne Win which put him on the dangerous path of a guerilla fighter in the movement for democracy. Also in Mandalay, while working as a waiter at a famous Chinese restaurant he had a chance encounter with Dr. John Casey, a celebrated Cambridge professor. The two shared a fascination with the writings of James Joyce and struck up a scholarly correspondence. This chance encounter was to change Pascal's life.

In 1988, the year that pro-democracy demonstrations ignited by economic instability and political oppression led to the massacre of hundreds by the Burmese security forces, and the declaration of martial law, Pascal joined the resistance against the SLORC dictatorship, and was forced to flee from his home. Eventually he joined the Karenni rebels in a camp near the Thai-Burma border and his escape through Thailand to the United Kingdom was with the help of Dr. John Casey who used his contacts to get him out of Burma and into Cambridge on a scholarship...

This is a fascinating, and at times, harrowing story, but it must be read, not just for the adventure aspects of the story and the brutality inflicted by Burma's repressive regime on its people, especially on its minority ethnic groups of which Khoo Twe is one, but also for the beautiful imagery that Khoo Twe creates when he writes about his Padaung village and its beautiful people. Also, for anyone that has left his home to live in a country other than his own, let me just share with you what John Casey told Pascal Khoo Te when he felt extremely lonely and isolated in this new strange land. "Don't forget that being an exile is one of the hardest things there is. The ancient Greeks thought that exile was a sort of death. Hold on to your traditions and your faith. Remember what your faith means to the Padaung and your family. You are bound to be disorientated. In a way you are luckier than many undergraduates you will be mixing with in that you know exactly what your traditons are. Most of them don't. You're a Catholic and a tribesman, you will have had hugely more experiences than your peers. I think you should write down your life experiences and all that you can remember about your tribe" pg 279-280

Very sound advice...when I first came to this country (Canada) I was told to do the same thing to cure my homesickness and it worked.
Oft late I've aquired an insatiable appetite for books on Burma. Recently I read Emma Larkin's "Finding George Orwell in Burma" and next, I hope to read "The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U.


Dana said...

Sounds like an intriguing book.I too have been hit by the Burma bug after reading The Glass Palace

Sanjay said...

Hey there my friend!!!!! How are you? Back from hiatus? :-) . I have missed your wonderful posts, although you did keep us sated with the mini reviews. :-)
I so hope that you are not snowed under today!
Lotus, I must compliment you on a very well written and an excellent review of "From the land of green ghosts". You have captured the heart of the book and as always you managed to captivate me, your reader with your distinctive style. The cultural/anthropological take that you bring to the book reviews always makes it ever more exciting! I also say this because thanks to you, I have been listening to the abridged audio version of the book from radio Australia and what you say about Pascal's experiences is so very true.

Pascal's story is truly remarkable. I was completely captivated listening to the book. His description of his schools days including the teacher (Mr. Thomas?) with red eyes and betel nut stained mouth that reminded him of a lizard, took me back to my first days ever as a kid although my teacher was not remotely like a lizard. :-)

including a recipe for smoked pigeons with marijuana sauce! Now that is an interesting recipe!

While I have not completed listening to the audio version of the book, I am glad to see that Dr. Casey played an important role in his life. I was also fascinated by how they got to meet the first time thru their love of James Joyce. I am sure Dr. Casey was fascinated to hear about a Burmese waiter who loved Joyce! For me the most chilling part of the story (so far) was listening to Pascal lose his girlfriend to the Burmese authorities and the change that Pascal undergoes after she comes back briefly before vanishing for good.

Does the book talk about how Pascal was further transformed? How well was he accepted within his peers at Cambridge? Has he managed to go back at all? His love of family and the land was so very palpable from his writing. Are there more references to "green ghosts" in the memoir or does he use them as a metaphor for the malevolent authorities that rule Burma today?

I am glad John Casey's advice worked for Pascal and I am thrilled that you got the same advice. I wonder why no one told me that? :-) But that is sound stuff!

I can hardly wait to finish the rest of this engrossing book.

I am sure your read of "The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma " will be an enjoyable one. Thank you for telling us about these wonderful books!

Sugarlips said...

Lotus...How you doing my dear?
I'm back :)

Your reviews are always fascinating. I just started reading The Sound of Language, will add others to my TBR :)

Stay Beautiful...!!

Gerlinde said...

Hi Pascal,
glad you finally did it.
Read your book and liked it a lot.
congrats on the prize.
Gerlinde x