Far from home

Ed Yevelev/Senior Staff

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At the age of eight, Byin Pu was forced to work in the opium fields of northern Burma. At 15, she moved to China for employment with hopes of prosperity. She was never paid.

Five years later, she was kidnapped by sex traffickers and broke her spine in an attempt to escape. Luckily, she managed to free herself, and now, along with 21 other narrators of Burmese nationality, she is able to share her story in a new collection of oral histories, "Nowhere to Be Home."

"Nowhere to Be Home" is the latest from the San Francisco-based Voice of Witness series, published by McSweeney's and founded by Dave Eggers and human rights scholar Lola Vollen in an effort to illustrate human rights crises through the use of oral history. Previous volumes have addressed the plight of Hurricane Katrina victims, the displaced people of Sudan and illegal immigrants in the U.S. Now, with the help of editors Maggie Lemere and Zoe West, Voice of Witness turns to the people of Burma, a country riddled with political and social turmoil.

To this day, Burma has been embroiled in a bloody civil war for over 50 years - the longest running civil war since WWII. And since 1962, the state has been under the rule of a military junta.

Lemere and West are no strangers to the human rights problems centered in Burma. Lemere taught activists for human and environmental rights in Thailand, and West, a journalist, worked with local human rights organizations in the area. Both were contacted by Voice of Witness and asked to record the personal narratives that form "Nowhere to Be Home."

Like Byin Pu's story, the testimonies are as tragic as they are deeply informative. But these narratives require context: There are over 130 ethnic groups, and according to a 2009 estimate, 55 million inhabitants. It's a country where rape has been systematized for military control and nearly 70,000 children have been forced into the army. In this regard, "Nowhere to Be Home" is a vital introduction to Burma's struggle, and the several appendices and explanatory notes provided are indispensable.

In an email, Lemere and West explained that peace is not possible in Burma without a deep understanding of the country's complexity. And with that understanding comes a full appreciation of the risks such a project requires of both its creators and its supporters.

"Nowhere to Be Home" is clearly a labor of love and a product of the editors' steadfast commitment. Since reporting in Burma can be life-threatening, Lemere and West chose to conduct their interviews in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and the United States, with only four taking place in Burma. Along with the range of locations, the editors worked with community-based organizations, colleagues and friends to discover subjects who would provide a comprehensive view of the situation in and outside of Burma. Naturally, names were changed and locations altered.

But the quality of the narratives does not diminish with this anonymity. In fact, the focus on local people, local issues and firsthand accounts offers a richly diverse set of stories rooted in individual suffering.

The essays in this book represent the trials of journalists, human rights workers, teachers, soldiers and even a bookshop owner, all with vastly different experiences that highlight the spectrum of adversity in Burma and outside the country. Some, like Byin Pu, lived through the debilitating effects of the opium trade. Others, like Kwaw Zwar, were arrested during the tumultuous 1988 student uprisings. While the degree of violence and tragedy in these narratives seems near unbelievable, the first-person perspective grounds these stories in reality.

"The benefit of this book is that it is in ... words of the people from Burma themselves," the editors said. Through reading this book, they noted, one can "begin to understand these seemingly faraway stories at a very human level."

These people, like us, have childhood memories, petty problems, hopes and desires. And what makes this book all the more touching and profound is the optimism still present in voices that have endured so much pain.

"Sometimes my muscles stop working and go numb," says Byin Pu, "(but) I believe that I will get better; I pray to get better. My dream for the future is to have a new beginning." Like so many others in "Nowhere to Be Home," Pu still believes there is hope for the people of Burma - after all, it is still her home.

The release of this book by literary darling and publishing house McSweeney's helps bring these histories to popular consciousness in a context where they've typically been neglected. Despite its tangled and turbulent history, Burma becomes accessible with Lemere's and West's in-depth compendium of life stories. But access can only go so far. Despite the institution of a general election in November 2010 - the first in over 50 years - the military regime still holds control. "Nowhere to Be Home" proves itself essential to the cause by giving us access to people who have lived Burma firsthand.

"By sharing my story, I hope that I can prevent this kind of experience from happening in the future," Byin Pu says. "I want the whole world to know what happened to me."


Jessica Pena is the lead literature critic.

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