Smile as they Bow (2008) by Nu Nu Yi is set during the Taungbyon festival, which celebrates the worship of nats. Burmese nats are the spirits or ghosts of important people who died violent or traumatic deaths. Nat worship predates Buddhism in Burma, and while Buddhism is the main religion in the country, nats are still revered and worshipped at festivals such as Taungbyon today. Worshippers pray to their nat of choice for money, luck, or good health, and make offerings as part of the prayer. During the festivals, nat kadaws or mediums (literally “nat wives”) channel the nats to help worshippers communicate with the nats. Traditionally, women were usually nat kadaws; however, in more recent times, it has become typical for “gay” (i.e. transgendered) men to act as nat kadaws, since they may channel both male and female nats.
The novel has many narrators representing the myriad of characters surrounding the Taungbyon festivals, including nat kadaws, worshippers, thieves, musicians, beggars, etc. The main plot revolves around an aging nat kadaw, known alternately as the male name U Ba Si and the female name Daisy Bond. Daisy Bond has a much-younger straight male sex partner/companion/slave/manager named Min Min, who in turn falls in love with a young female musician named Pan Nyo. The tension between these characters shows the often confusing and decidedly non-Western view of gay men in Burmese society as being both male and female. Men like Min Min who dress and act like men but have sex with other men are not considered gay. Gay men are treated with respect when they are acting as nat kadaws, one of the only careers available for gay men in Burmese society. However, the gay men in the novel feel that they have “heavy karma” or are a step lower than other men because of their confused identities. Smile as they Bow is an important novel because it grapples with the Burmese conceptions of sexual orientation and gender identity, while also highlighting the tradition of nat worship for a Western audience.