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" .
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.