Dispatches

Karen Connelly explains how her travels in Burma and Thailand inspired her novel, The Lizard Cage.

April 14, 2008

I was educated abroad.

Not in universities or private schools, but on the streets and in the markets of northern Thailand, in a shepherd’s hut on an island in the Aegean, in the refugee camps and cramped rooms of political exiles on the Thai-Burma border. Living abroad and writing a novel are very similar experiences. Both involve entering other realities, constructing new identities. If you want to have a profound experience of a new place, the mind has to be open, vulnerable, and spacious enough to undergo a violent invasion of the other.

I could not have started writing The Lizard Cage if not for my long education of trying to know the other, and, in all those foreign places, of being the other. Absorbing and living so much in a state of actual foreignness prepared me for the most galvanizing experiences of my life so far: events in Burma and on the Thai-Burmese border. Writing the novel was a continuation and a deepening, an internalization, of those experiences.

Contacts in Bangkok had given me the numbers of many people in Burma’s major centers: political activists, artists, writers, editors, musicians, doctors. On my first visit to the country, I met with them several times over a period of three weeks, and met other individuals through them. I had never heard people speak so passionately about freedom and art and political oppression. Burma was different than the other countries I knew: it was ruled by a dictatorship. It was an entire country flayed by its symbolic parents, its rulers. This was dysfunction and disaster on a national level, and that is exactly how the people described it to me.

Actively suffering the destruction of their human rights, my newfound Burmese friends were keenly aware that I had come from a place of great openness and wealth. They also knew that I was a writer. We discussed various painful and dangerous aspects of living in Burma under military rule. I learned much, and I asked many questions. But the one and key question Burmese people asked me was, “Will you write about this?”

Artists prohibited to exhibit their paintings, the famous writers whose works never pass the Press Scrutiny Board. Hundreds of people gunned down on the street, the school girls who were bayonetted in 1988. “Why don’t you write a book about that?” The children carrying loads of wet concrete at the construction sites of new hotels. Whole villages of women raped by soldiers. Men taken away, enslaved as weapon porters on the frontlines. “Will you write this story down?” The outspoken father, brother, sister, mother who disappears at night, and eventually is sentenced to seven, ten, twenty years in a prison infested with tuberculosis, dysentery, and rats.

Confronted with these stories, and with so much intelligence and indignation, the very least I could do, in my great freedom as a writer, was to reply Yes, I will write it down.

Of course I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into. Writing The Lizard Cage was profoundly painful, just as researching the book was physically and spiritually exhausting. After I was denied a visa to reenter Burma, I sought out dissidents and revolutionaries who live on the Thai-Burma border. I could already feel the shape of the novel I was to write, but I needed to get the details right, and live longer with my subjects.

I spent almost all of my time with Burmese people who had left Burma for political reasons. The stories they most wanted to tell, it seemed, were the stories of how they became political, and then how they ended up and survived in prison. Metaphorically, the story of modern Burma is one of violence, incarceration, isolation. Living on the border, among Burmese people who had lived that story, who had the marks of it on their skin, I learned the questions I still ask myself: What am I willing to see? What am I willing to feel? How well can I know this world that I live in, this world that I love?

The real people I met in Burma and on the border enabled me to create characters who often surprised me, and who did things I could never do. So many of the people I met were so brave. So many of them had whimsical, zany senses of humor. On the heels of bad news, jokes rushed in, and laughter was a liberal, free-flowing tonic. Wherever I was—the military and refugee camps, them cramped and cluttered rooms of dissidents, the shantytowns of Shan migrant workers—I lived in the realm of their kindness.

But after my research was finished, I had to go into Teza’s prison and live there, alone, in my imagination. After I started writing the novel in earnest, I wrote in tears every day for two years, distraught by the process of internalization that would make my characters and their experiences authentic in writing. One must feel what one writes; at least, I have to feel what I write. But it is another thing entirely, a terrible, necessary act to enter the darkest places in the human world and to stay there for long periods of time, to commit to living there spiritually and mentally.

All people who live in prisons become at least partially, if not fully, invisible. Whether political or criminal prisoners, we do not see them; we do not look for them. To abuse their detainees, governments depend on our blindness. Working on a novel about a man who lives in prison, I had no choice but to look inside, to imagine the world of the prison as well as I could, and to spend a lot of time talking and listening to people who had lived there.

Slowly, I came to understand that the most useful thing I could do as a writer was contribute to the history of kindness. It may seem strange to look for kindness in a prison, but a prison is just a microcosm of the world we live in every day. The details are different, but the human struggles and needs are the same. To eat properly. To be clean and safe. To live with dignity. To live in choice, in truth. To love and to be loved. To die with grace.

I don’t know why some abused people become violent and cruel, while others manage to survive their experiences, even becoming kinder and more compassionate. In Burma and on the border, people who had been brutalized and hounded and violated repeatedly—sometimes for most of their lives—were still kind, and open, and hopeful. And if they were not quite hopeful, they were determined. Sometimes they were also very angry, but their anger did not obliterate their humanity. Every day I would meet such people and the mystery of their goodness seemed as great to me as the mystery of the very real evil of the interrogators and the imprisoners.

That is our mystery, the human mystery. That is also us, the possibility of us, if the wonderful accident of our birth had taken place elsewhere: you could be the refugee, I could be the torturer. To face that truth is also our burden. After all, each of us has been the bystander, the reasonable person who just happens not to hear, not to speak, not to see those people, the invisible ones, those who live on the other side of the border.

Karen Connelly is the author of The Lizard Cage.