Smile as they Bow
By Nu Nu Yi
(Hyperion, Hardcover, 9781401303372, 160pp.)
Publication Date: September 2008
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As the weeklong Taungbyon Festival draws near, thousands of villagers from all regions of Burma descend upon a tiny hamlet near Mandalay to pay respect to the spirits, known as nats, which are central to Burmese tradition. At the heart of these festivities is Daisy Bond, a gay, transvestite spiritual medium in his fifties. With his sharp tongue and vivid performances, he has long been revered as one of the festival's most illustrious natkadaws. At his side is Min Min, his young assistant and lover, who endures unyielding taunts and abuse from his fiery boss. But when a young beggar girl named Pan Nyo threatens to steal Min Min's heart, the outrageous Daisy finds himself face-to-face with his worst fears. Written in lyrical, intoxicating prose, Smile as They Bow is, like the works of Arundhati Roy and Ha Jin, an unexpectedly whimsical, illuminating, and above all revealing portrayal of a culture few Westerners have ever witnessed. Over the past twenty years, Nu Nu Yi has become one of Burma's most acclaimed authors--and in 2007, she became the first person living in Burma to be nominated for an international literary award. Smile as They Bow was censored for more than twelve years by the Burmese government. It is fitting, then, that this is her American debut.
Nu Nu Yi was born in 1957 in the village of Inwa near Mandalay; as Burmese customarily have no surnames, she affixes the village name as an identifying part of her pen name. Since her debut in 1984, she has written over fifteen novels, a hundred short stories, and various diaristic magazine articles. Now one of Myanmar's (Burma) leading writers, she currently resides in Yangon (Rangoon), although her writings are more often set among the rural poor and social outcasts. She has traveled abroad only briefly: once to the Oxford University Centre for Cross-Cultural Research on Women and once to the University of Iowa's International Writers' Program, as well as working with BBC World Radio in Chiang Mai to script Burmese language radio plays to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. Translators:
Thi Thi Aye was born in 1966 in Yangon (Rangoon), but raised in Wazi and Mandalay. She has been living abroad since 2001, first in Seattle and now in Tokyo, writing articles for Burmese magazines about various experiences in the "outside world." This is her first published team translation in English.
Alfred Birnbaum, born in 1955 in Washington DC, has lived over half his life in Japan. He began translating professionally in 1980 on subjects in Japanese art, architecture, design and contemporary fiction. Between 1993-1996, he studied Burmese at SOAS (Univ of London) and at the Institute of Foreign Languages (Yangon Univ), then lived in Yangon (Rangoon) from 1996 to 2001. He currently resides in Tokyo.