Critical Review: Smile as they Bow
Smile as they Bow, one of very few Burmese novels to be translated to English, was published in 2008 after being censored for years by the Burmese censorship board (Behr). The novel details the Taungbyon nat festival, revealing the varied activities of worshippers, musicians, beggars, thieves, and most importantly, the nat kadaws or mediums. The role of the nat kadaws in Burma is increasingly being played by gay men, who are considered better able to communicate with both male and female nats. The central plot of the novel revolves around Daisy Bond (in the English-language version) or Daisy Jane (in the Burmese-language version), an aging nat kadaw, Min Min, his much younger sex partner/manager, and Pan Nyo, a young female singer with whom Min Min falls in love. One could assume that the themes of gay culture in Burma, mentions of illicit behavior like intoxication, sex, and birth control, the universal concerns of Burmese women about money and love, and the capitalist micro-economies surrounding the nat bwes such as Taungbyon Festival all led to this novel being banned in Burma, although the censors have avoided explicitly outlining their reasons for banning it.
History of Censorship in Burma
Burma has a long history of censoring books, art, and other publications. In the 1950s, U Nu developed the Press Review Department to keep an eye on newspapers and periodicals to make sure such publications were not criticizing his government (Allot, 3). In 1975, the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs developed a new framework of censorship for authors and publishers to abide by. These guidelines were issued by the Printer’s and Publisher’s Central Registration Board, and reads as follows:
“The Central Registration Board hereby informs all printers and publishers that it has laid down the following principles to be adhered to in scrutinizing political, economic, and religious manuscripts, and novels, journals, and magazines. They must be scrutinized to see whether or not they contain:
1) anything detrimental to the Burmese Socialist Program;
2) anything detrimental to the ideology of the state;
3) anything detrimental to the socialist economy;
4) anything which might be harmful to national solidarity and unity;
5) anything which might be harmful to security, the rule of law, peace, and public order;
6) any incorrect ideas and opinions which do not accord with the times;
7) any descriptions which, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the time or the circumstances of their writing;
8) any obscene (pornographic) writing;
9) any writing which would encourage crimes and unnatural cruelty and violence;
10) any criticism of a nonconstructive type of the work of government departments;
11) any libel or slander of any individual” (Allot, 6-7).
As Allot notes, these guidelines are made intentionally vague, so that almost any piece of writing could potentially fall under one or more of these limitations. Censorship decisions were decidedly arbitrary, a trend which continues today.
After the political events of 1988, censorship in Burma was tightened yet again. There was a new list of banned topics, including democracy and human rights; politics or the the events of 1988; government officials; the Burmese Socialist Party Program; Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; criticism of the SLORC or military; and immorality (including cohabitation, prostitution, or homosexual behavior) (Allot, 13). The continuing crackdown on any texts which violate these vague and arbitrary rules has led to an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in Burma’s publishing world, as well as in the wider public. Since publishers stand to lose significant time and money if something they publish is banned, Burmese publishers are extremely hesitant to select anything for publication which might violate any of Burma’s myriad censorship rules. Because of this, writers who write on controversial themes are effectively banned (Allot, 17), a position in which author Nu Nu Yi found herself after writing Smile as they Bow.
Themes of the Novel
There are a number of themes in Smile as they Bow which reflect significant aspects of Burmese politics and culture. The main theme in the novel is the life and struggles of gay and transgendered men in Burmese society. As noted before, increasing numbers of nat kadaws since the 1980s are transgendered gay men (Ho, 274). Gay men and women are traditionally seen as sexually aberrant in Buddhist Burmese society. Aberrance from sexual and gender norms is generally seen as “the karmic result of parental or personal misconduct in a previous life” (Ho, 294). The Burmese understanding of being gay is very different from the Western conception of sexual orientation and gender identity being separate and distinct. In Burmese culture, a man who is “gay” is a meinmasha, or a man acting as a woman. There is no concept of men acting and dressing as men but being sexually attracted to other men – in Burma, one’s sexual orientation and the gender identity are one and the same. The cultural norm is for men who are out as “gay” to dress in women’s clothing and wear makeup. For this reason, there are very few places where gay men can work and be accepted while expressing themselves and their sexual orientation. The two main careers available to meinmasha are hairdressing and nat kadaws.
The role of the nat kadaw has become somewhat of a safe space for gay and transgendered men in Burma, who can openly express their sexual and gender preferences without the same level of stigma. The reason for this lies in the importance placed on the performance of the nat kadaw, who must access the nat and speak as them. Because of the Burmese concept of gay men being both male and female, it has become common for gay men to become a nat kadaw because they are better able to channel both nats. As an interviewee notes in the documentary “Friends in High Places,” “You want to know why there are so many gays in the nat world? To be frank…There are many female nats and male nats. Women can only perform female nats and men can only perform male nats….Only gays can do both nats! That’s why gays are popular in this world” (Merrison). Indeed, being a nat kadaw in Burmese society has become synonymous with being a transgendered gay man. As the character Min Min puts it in the novel, “Gays are much better at pleasing people, they put on a better show. Times have changed: To be a natkadaw today is to be gay” (Nu Nu Yi, 98).
Although gay men are the most popular nat kadaws, it still does not completely eradicate the stigma towards sexual aberrance in Burmese society, a message which is made clear in Smile as they Bow. Although the gay characters in the novel are well-known and well-paid nat kadaws, there is still the negative connotation that “The gay life carries such heavy karma” (Nu Nu Yi, 123). Not only do the gay men feel that they have bad karma from misdeeds in another life, but there is also a feeling of being lesser than other people. As the character Daisy reflects on the lower status of gay men in Burmese society:
“That’s the gay life: a life of laying low and putting up. Even as men, we’re one step lower down. Whatever the man wants, we have to payroll and provide. It’s our karma. Maybe I insulted someone’s wife in the past, so now I’m half a woman in this life. We may be men in body, but we’re really and truly women in our minds. We want to dress, eat, live, speak, sing, and think just like women. And yes, we also want husbands” (Nu Nu Yi, 42).
Despite the fact that the nat worshippers pay respect to the nat kadaws and ask them for help, the novel’s dramatic ending reveals the underlying disgust with which many Burmese still regard transgendered gay men. “Do you realize how people see you meinmashas [gay men]? They fear you, they loathe you. You disgust them. They avoid you when they see a meinmasha coming. Nobody wants you, not even your relations” (Nu Nu Yi, 137). The theme of the struggles of gay and transgendered men to find acceptance in a society which considers them deviants is one that echoes throughout the novel, and one that could be considered to violate the Burmese censorship board’s proscription against “obscene” or “unsuitable” topics.
Another important theme in Smile as they Bow is the universality of problems among women of different generations and social classes. The most common concerns among the (predominately female) nat worshippers are those relating to health and wealth, concerns which supersede class and age. Granting the reader access to the innermost thoughts of nat worshippers, Nu Nu Yi shows that while poor women are praying to be as comfortable as the rich women at the festival, the rich women have their own worries.
According to an interviewee in “Friends in High Places,” around eighty-five percent of Burmese worship nats (Merrison). The popularity of nat worship could be seen as symptomatic of the profound struggles within Burma; as Nu Nu Yi said in an interview, “Myanmar is largely pre-modern and such beliefs are very traditional. As the situation inside the country gets more and more dire, people grasp for quick desperate solutions, they want to believe in some kind of hope, anything” (Behr). This desperation comes through in the novel; reflecting on the large numbers of beggars at Taungbyon Festival, Min Min concludes that “everybody’s got to eat. In these terrible times, at least this business can feed lots of households. Begging from people who have money to spare, what’s not fair about that?” (Nu Nu Yi, 85). By showing the common struggles of both poor and rich people in Burma, Nu Nu Yi reveals a larger societal problem of poverty, as well as the universality of troubles facing women, such as concerns about the infidelity of their husbands. This theme would clearly not abide by the censorship board’s prohibition against criticism of the BSPP or the government in general.
A final theme in Smile as they Bow is the capitalist economy surrounding nat bwes such as Taungbyon Festival. Entire micro-economies spring up around these festivals as nat bwe organizers turn an ordinary village into a money-making business entity; worshippers give money and gifts to the nat kadaws, nat kadaws have to pay authorities for provisions, musicians and hawkers try to sell their wares, beggars and thieves try to get what they can. “The novel repeatedly shows that the culture of conspicuous consumption (typically associated with modern capitalism) is both alive and well in Burma” (Behr), a revelation which probably did not sit well with the Burmese Socialist Party Program or the Burmese censorship board.
Reasons for Censorship
In considering the censorship guidelines of Burma’s Central Registration Board, as well as the themes in Smile as they Bow, it is perhaps unsurprising that the novel was banned for twelve years on the basis of the guideline that it was “unsuitable for the times” (Behr). In this case, the “times” were during the rule of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military regime which ruled Burma from 1988 until the elections in 2011. However, there are a number of additional reasons which, based on Burma’s arbitrary censorship rules, the novel could have been banned.
The theme of the struggles facing gay and transgendered men in Burmese society would certainly be threatening to the Burmese censors. Tamara Ho notes that the important role played by gay nat kadaws represents “queer defiance against institutionalized state violence and heteropatriarchy” (Ho, 274). Although nat worship is tacitly accepted by the Burmese authorities, it also serves as a way for women and sexual minorities to defy the traditional cultural norms and the dominance of the abusive centralized authority of the Burmese government (Ho, 277). The depiction of gay life in Smile as they Bow probably violated the ban against “obscene” writing, especially when considering the stigma in Burmese culture against sexual aberrance such as homosexuality or transgendered behavior.
In addition to homosexual behavior, Nu Nu Yi also references sexual behavior which may be considered obscene in Burma’s traditional society. She writes about intoxicated people having sex after being titillated by nat music, transgendered men taunting police, and “Ladies who wanted to trade toy boys or sell bracelets and necklaces or buy birth-control pills and injections” (Nu Nu Yi, 89). Since Nu Nu Yi depicts nat bwes as sites of sex work, drug and alcohol abuse, and a “‘range of risky male-to-male sexual activities’ that ‘occur with a high degree of social tolerance,'” (Ho, 279), this may be why the Burmese government banned the novel on the grounds of “obscenity” or being “unsuitable for the times”.
There were also political themes which may have led to the censorship of Smile as they Bow. In addition to objecting to the themes of homosexuality and the beggar character of Pan Nyo, the censors deleted anything that portrayed rural Burma in abject poverty, such as scenes in which rich people driving in big cars passed begging children, “since the big cars were presumed to refer to the privileged position of the military, and thus taken as a critique of the military government” (Behr). Additionally, Nu Nu Yi stated in an interview that the censors believed the mention of the two Taungbyon brothers who became nats was a reference to Secretary One and Secretary Two of the Military Council (Behr). Even minor passages may have been sufficient to threaten the censorship board; there is a passing reference to “when the August 1988 protests shook the whole country” (Nu Nu Yi, 76). While this quote was not cited as a reason for the censorship of the book, any mention of the 1988 protests would certainly be inked out or removed by the censorship board.
Critique on the Censorship of the Novel
From a typical Western viewpoint, censorship of literature is abhorrent. Nu Nu Yi’s novel was banned for a number of reasons, all of which are laid out in the Burmese censorship board’s guidelines for publication. When considering the themes of issues facing gay and transgendered men in Burma, the daily struggles of the Burmese population, and the underground capitalism at nat bwes, it is unsurprising that the novel was banned in Burma. However, the censorship of Smile as they Bow also reveals the inherent problems with censorship boards, and the censorship of literature and art in general.
The goal of many authors is to bring attention to issues which are overlooked or disregarded in society. In Nu Nu Yi’s case, her novel revealed the relatively unknown world of nat kadaws and the personal struggles facing these gay men in Burma, as well as the many problems shared by Burmese citizens of all walks of life. Her novel is especially important because it was translated into English, making the work accessible to Westerners as well as Burmese readers. However, when such a book is censored, the author is unable to share his or her message with the world. Westerners are generally unfamiliar with Burmese culture, which makes Smile as they Bow an especially enlightening novel. Western tourists might go to a nat bwe without knowing what it is, who the mediums are, and why people worship nats in a predominately Buddhist country. Nu Nu Yi’s writing brings these answers to light for a Western audience, while also prompting Burmese readers to question society’s norms against gay and transgendered people. By censoring this novel, the Burmese censorship boards effectively snuffed this light out.
Burma is currently going through many changes, including the recent dismantling of the Press Scrutiny Board. Smile as they Bow was finally published and is available for both English-language and Burmese readers. While it remains to be seen whether the political, economic, and social changes will persist, the ending of censorship in Burma is extremely important for the cultural and social enrichment of the country. In the past, the threat of censorship prompted publishers to reject writings that may have violated censorship guidelines, regardless of their literary merit. Authors such as Nu Nu Yi were silenced, and their commentaries about life in Burma went unheard. Now that it is possible for novels such as Smile as they Bow to be published, novelists and other artists may find their voices after staying silent for so long.
Allot, Anna J. Inked Over, Ripped Out: Burmese Storytellers and the Censors. A Pen American Center Freedom to Write Report. 1993.
Behr, Linda. “Smile As They Bow: Book Review.” Mizzima News. Accessed online April 28, 2013 at http://www.mizzima.com/others/book-reviews/1165-smile-as-they-bow.html
Ho, Tamara C. “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Spirit Cult of Burma.” Discourse Journal, 31(3); Fall 2009. 273-317.
Merrison, Lindsey. “Friends in High Places.” Documentary film. Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 2001.
Nu Nu Yi. Smile as they Bow. New York: Hyperion East, 2008.