My mother, father, and elder sisters spent their last years in Burma, the years leading up to my birth, in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. My parents were transferred there as part of what my father described as a well-intentioned, though ultimately failed, government initiative to send educated professionals to the most remote and underdeveloped regions of the country. The initiative was a failure because many people who were transferred simply did not go and those who went did not stay. My parents were among the few who accepted their assignment, and who stayed for the full three years of their term.
When I asked my mother why they decided to go, she said, “I can’t even remember now.” Then, she repeated in English, “I don’t know why we made that decision.” Even after living in America for over a quarter of a century, my mother still pronounced certain words in a vaguely British way. The t’s in her don’t and that were crisp, precise. I always had the impression that my mother’s Bamar was sloping and rushed, while her English, learned from Anglican nuns, stood up very straight and proper. “We didn’t want to be cowards,” my mother said, switching back to Bamar. “We didn’t want to be so selfish. Maybe we felt we had a debt to repay. A duty to our country. I don’t know,” she said.
When I was a child, before I knew where or what exactly Sittwe was, I knew that it was a place of exile. For as long as I could remember, my family had lived in places where we did not belong, where people asked us where we came from—but my mother and father never spoke of the places where we lived, where I grew up, as places of exile. Sittwe alone was exilic. “It was like falling into an abyss,” my mother always said. The word she used, meaning gorge, pit, or chasm, rhymed with the word meaning fear. Like falling into fear, I heard.
My parents received their transfer orders in December of 1986, five months after my middle sister was born. At the time, my father was teaching at RC3, Regional College Three, a two-year college that had been established, as if miraculously, right before my father graduated from university with what he had thought would be a useless degree in English. My mother, who had graduated with a degree in education, was teaching at my parents’ alma mater, RASU, Rangoon Arts and Sciences, formerly named Rangoon University.
It was an iconic university, the birthplace of every nationwide anti-colonial strike, and of numerous anti-government protests. Famously, when the UN secretary-general U Thant passed away and the government refused him a state burial, students from the university kidnapped U Thant’s body and erected a makeshift tomb for him on campus. I was told this story when I visited the university the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college when I returned to Burma. By then, it was renamed University of Yangon. The campus was beautiful and decrepit, every stone facade stained with what looked like rain, but was likely mold, the peeling paint of the walls a light hospital green, and the stairs crumbling. My mother showed me her old office and classrooms, but also the places on campus where student protestors had been shot and killed, by the police, by the military. None of these places were marked with plaques or statues. When I asked questions too loudly, my mother told me to keep my voice down.
Sittwe is located on an estuarial island along the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. “A kyun,” my mother always said, drawing out the word. Kyun. Island. In English, the two-syllable word is paradisal; an island is a place of escape, of wonder, land appearing where land was not expected. In Bamar, the one-syllable kyun, with its elongated vowel, is dismal, claustrophobic; a kyun is a place trapped by water, a forsaken place, a place of banishment. By consonance it evokes the word for narrow, kyin, and the word for tight, kyat. “Sittwe was a kyun,” my mother always said when I asked her what the city was like. An estuarial island, surrounded not only by the ocean, but by rivers as well, vulnerable to both cyclones and floods.
Before the move to Sittwe, my mother had never really left home. She was born in Rangoon, and with the exception of some childhood years spent in Katha and Moulmein, she had never left the capital. Katha was in the north, in Sagaing, bordering Kachin State, and Moulmein was in Mon State, bordering Tanintharyi, the long, narrow region of the country that resembled the tail of a kite. My mother’s father was an income tax officer and had been transferred to both places in his time. On a map, Katha and Moulmein seemed as distant from Rangoon as Sittwe was, but in reality, they were much closer. At that time, Sittwe was accessible only by air or by sea. There was no land route yet through the Rakhine Yoma, the mountain range that isolated Rakhine State from the rest of the country.
My mother knew little about Sittwe and about Rakhine State, but she had heard the name of the river that ran through the state and the city. “Kispanadi,” my mother said, savoring the four syllables. “I thought it was so romantic,” she said, “such a beautiful name.” My mother held on to that name like it was a promise.
When the family arrived in Sittwe, however, they were greeted by the black waters of the Kispanadi River, and eternally gloomy skies. The apartment they had been promised was not yet available and they had to stay in a hotel until the previous tenants moved out. The hotel was expensive and my parents had to pay for it themselves. Even decades later, my mother was still angry about this. “Why didn’t they say they weren’t ready for us?” my mother asked. “Why didn’t they say, ‘please don’t come yet?’ ” Then, she answered her own questions. “They were afraid we wouldn’t come,” she said, “they were afraid that if they delayed, we would change our minds.”
The long-awaited apartment was a two-bedroom in a government-owned building. The larger of the bedrooms was haunted, so the whole family slept together in the smaller one. The apartment had a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom. Standard government housing, though luxurious by local standards. The building was full of lugyi, my mother said, big people, high-ranking officials from various departments and ministries. “Everyone thought it was a wonderful place to live,” my mother said, “but we were so unhappy.” The electricity came on only between six in the evening and midnight. Running water was available only between five and six in the morning. My father said their apartment building received more water than others in the city because the engineer in charge of the city’s plumbing lived there. He made sure the water in the building ran for the full hour.
I have never been to Sittwe, but all my life I believed I was conceived there. I imagined it had happened in the haunted room, since the children, my sisters, went to sleep early in the smaller bedroom, which the whole family shared.
Later, I learned that my parents were back in Rangoon when I was conceived. My mother had returned in March of 1988 when the government closed colleges and universities in response to protests over the death of a student at RIT, Rangoon Institute of Technology, who was shot and killed by riot police. My parents referred to the widespread protests as the Phone Maw ayekhin. Ko Phone Maw was the name of the student who was killed, and ayekhin meant demonstrations, marches. Most often I have seen it translated as uprising. It is a word whose power has no equivalent for me in English. A word that has the word ye, write, inside of it. An ayekhin was an effort to write history, with one’s body, with one’s life.
My parents knew the larger bedroom in Sittwe was haunted because the first night they tried to sleep there, my mother, my father, my two-year-old eldest sister, and my five-month-old middle sister, no one could get any rest. The children were pulled awake by invisible hands. A ghostly figure was sighted in their mosquito net. “We were haunted the whole night,” my mother said, “we couldn’t sleep at all.”
A condition of ghostliness is restlessness, which is why people who stay out too late are called street ghosts or street haunters. Later, my mother learned that someone had died in the room. In their apartment building, many people died, from sickness, old age, or natural disasters. A neighbor, an older unmarried woman who befriended my mother, said the tenants in their building died in fours, dropping off one after the other until every seat at a dining table was filled. In death, just as in life, people did not like to eat alone. Ghosts, too, longed for company. Hearing the story about the haunted bedroom, I wondered if I was the ghost who haunted my family, if I was the presence that had kept them awake with my demand to be felt and seen, to be a part of the family.
Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint is the author of The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven. She has a B.A. from Brown University, an M.F.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. She teaches at Amherst College.
This excerpt is adapted from Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s forthcoming book Names for Light, published by Graywolf Press on August 17, 2021.