Critical Review: Smile As They Bow – John

Smile Photo

Front cover of Burmese copy

Abstract:  This paper is a critical review of Nu Nu Yi’s Smile As They Bow, a short novel chronicling transgender spirit mediums in Burma.  The Nat Pwe, or spirit medium festival, provides an opportunity for marginalized elements of Burmese society to express identities considered deviant or unpalatable by the status quo.  Homosexuality, general debauchery, and open expression of familial issues are just a few of the freedoms permitted at the Nat Pwe. This festival, which takes place at Taungbyon, occurs in a fashion that can be considered backstage, from a dramaturgical perspective, when viewing prescribed national identity as a frontstage performance. Censorship in Burma will be briefly addressed, as well as gender and identity issues, before greater dramaturgical examination of motivations for censorship of Smile As They Bow are explored.

– John

Introduction

The issue of gender and sexual identity is a complex one.  Western notions of gender and sexuality are often different than those of other cultures around the world, and there exists a discrepancy of knowledge between Western depictions of sexuality and that of Asian societies, particularly Burmese society. A clarification of these issues can be found in a fictional work by Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow, that presents conceptions of gender and sexual identity in Burma through a vibrant and approachable story.  Unfortunately, this work, which portrays the lives of a stigmatized portion of Burmese society has been the subject of persecution by the government.  The censorship of Smile As They Bow appears to have been based primarily on its exposition of nonconformist gender and sexual identity in Burma, in an attempt to suppress a marginalized community.

Censorship In Burma

Burmese authors have existed under a yoke of severe oppression for many decades.  Due to such extreme censorship on the part of the government, most authors do not include any sort of political messaging in their works.  As Anna J. Allot points out, this oppressive environment in Burma has had detrimental effects upon the collective Burmese imagination.[1]  Writers reflexively refrain from full expression, self-censoring any significant or controversial themes.  It has been reported that many authors have lost hope of producing meaningful works, and instead turned their attention to producing translations of Western literature.[2]

As of August 2012, censorship in Burma has been “officially” nullified.[3]  In fact, in February of 2013 the Irrawaddy Literary Festival took place at a prestigious hotel on Inya Lake in Rangoon.[4]  The festival was attended by Aung San Suu Kyi who lauded the event as a step in the right direction.  Some complained, however, that the venue was elitist, denying access to everyday Burmese citizens.  The nullification of censorship in Burma may or may not be mere diplomatic posturing aimed at the global community, but certainly an atmosphere of self-censorship persists due to such a longstanding culture of oppression of free speech.

Smile As They Bow

While Smile As They Bow is Nu Nu Yi’s fifteenth book, it is the first novel ever published by a living Burmese author that has been translated to English.  While Nu Nu Yi grew up near Taungbyon and around spirit mediums, she spent three years researching in a professional capacity for the novel, interviewing mediums in order to present the most realistic portrayal possible.[5] The story mostly follows the life of Daisy Bond, a transgender spirit medium, and her young husband, Min Min.  The transgendered male character of Daisy Bond, as well as spirit mediums in general, will be referred to in this paper through use of feminine pronouns.  In its original language such a distinction is not needed since to denote second-person in Burmese, the gender-neutral term “thu” is used, which means “he” or “she.”  Not only does the author, Nu Nu Yi, takes us through the events of a typical spirit festival, but she also provides a gritty, contextual view of the life of spirit mediums in Burmese culture. The book contains strong themes dealing with identity in regard to sex and gender and the ways in which expressions of such identities are rejected and permitted by Burmese society.

Smile As they Bow was originally banned in Burma by censors who decried its themes as an “offence to the country’s cultural values.”[6] A redacted version of Smile As They Bow was released in 1994, with telling aspects omitted.[7]  As with most acts of censorship, an examination of the specific elements of the book redacted by the censors reveals why the book was initially banned.  Any sort of intimacy, including conversations, between Daisy Bond and Min Min, two biologically male and wedded characters, was cut.  This particular redaction most likely reveals the impetus to delegitimize homosexuality, and to maintain the stigmatizing of such individuals.  The censors also cut elements of the story that spoke to the power of the nat spirits, probably as part of the ongoing campaign of Buddhification by the government as a key aspect of Burmese nationalism.[8]  Closer examination of the spirit mediums, and the spirit festival in general, provides insight into key aspects of Burmese culture and social structure.

The Nats, Natkadaw, and Nat Pwe

The nats are uniquely Burmese, officially a pantheon of 37 spirits, former living people who died tragically.  Their continued worship is somewhat of a point of controversy in Burma, modern thinkers viewing such beliefs as backwards.  While the Burmese government has a modern history of suppressing superstition, the power elite appear to tolerate worship of the nats, perhaps partially due to the spirits’ uniquely Burmese character.  These spirits, original to Burma, and representative of Burmese localities, help to reinforce notions of Burmese national identity, most likely accounting for the allowance of their continued worship.  Nat spirits have been appropriated by Buddhism, appearing as guardians at pagodas, visible as statues.  Despite such appropriations by Buddhists, worship of the nats continues in its own right through the nat pwe, spirit festivals at which many Burmese social norms are abandoned.  Smile As They Bow portrays one of the main nat pwe at Taungbyon village.

The spirit mediums who channel the nats are usually referred to as natkadaw, a term generally regarded as “spirit wife.”  While the role was historically fulfilled by women, today most natkadaw are transgender men, which is to say men who dress as women, often effeminate, and typically homosexual.[9]  From a Western perspective, the natkadaw appear part drag queen and part ritual specialist, putting on a dramatic show while also performing very specific religious duties, though most continue to live as transgender after the performance.  Tamara C. Ho suggests that the penchant for theatrical performance by effeminate men, as illustrated in Smile As They Bow, is the reason that spirit mediums of Burma are today generally equated with homosexual and transgender identity.[10]  Despite the glamorous performances, like the transgendered in most societies, the natkadaw are a marginalized community existing on the fringe of Burmese society.

Marginalization through Stigmatized Identities

While various forms of gender and sexual identity are expressed in Smile As They Bow, two forms are most shown in the characters Daisy Bond and Min Min.  The relationship of these two characters is a complex marriage of two biological males.  In the relationship, Daisy Bond plays the role of the much older wife and benefactor of the much younger masculine Min Min, whom Daisy bond purchased as a boy from Min Min’s impoverished mother.  Min Min is at once Daisy Bond’s husband, companion, manager, errand boy, and status symbol, among other things. Throughout the story, the author employs the term meinmasha as the typical derogatory epithet to describe Daisy Bond and the other natkadaw.  According to Tamara C. Ho, meinmasha is a purely Burmese word, roughly translating to “moving toward womanhood.”[11]  Such a transition, from maleness to femaleness, is viewed negatively in Buddhism in terms of the karma cycle.  In this sense, the meinmasha are seen as incapable of reaching nirvana since they are moving in the wrong direction.[12]

It is not surprising that with such a worldview embedded within the greater social psyche of Burma, that natkadaw, and to some degree their husbands, would be labeled as deviants.  Daisy Bond expresses such sentiments in the book, stating, “Even as men, we’re one step lower down.. It’s our karma. Maybe I insulted someone’s wife in the past, so now I’m half a woman in this life… The meinmasha mark is on us from the moment we’re born.”[13]  Min Min reiterates the stigma attached to meinmasha, saying, “Do you realize how people see you meinmasha? 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.”[14] While it is clear that meinmasha carry a greater stigmata than their husbands, these romantic partners are also stigmatized to a certain degree, despite what Peletz has said to the contrary by suggesting that the masculine husbands of meinmasha are not stigamatized by society.[15]  In fact, in Smile As They Bow, Min Min summarizes his feelings of isolation and shame that result from being the partner of a meinmasha, “Do you ever think how hard it is for me to go around with someone of the same sex? Do you realize how much courage it takes for me to stay with a meinmasha?”[16]  Ultimately, it seems, both meinmasha and husband are stigmatized, being viewed as deviants, though in different forms and most likely to different degrees. [17]

Deviance is generally viewed as the transgressing of cultural norms, though as Gibbons and Jones have said that norm violations cannot be viewed through some homogenous grand theory.[18]  Erving Goffman also shared the view that no umbrella hypothesis would account for all the variance found in exhibitions of deviance.[19]  Goffman generally regarded deviants as “rule-breakers” and as such suggested that there are many ways to break a rule.[20]  This paper focuses merely on social deviance, i.e. on those individuals whom have been stigmatized by other members of society through the labeling of particular modes of identity and expression as deviant behavior.  The originating factors for such behavior is unimportant in terms of critical review, but rather society’s reaction to, and labeling of, unvalued behavior is instrumental in understanding the marginalization of those who do not follow society’s prescripts for gender and sexual identity.  Labeling theory views deviance as the product of “social judgments” forced on individuals by a “social audience.”[21] Goffman views such stigmatization as being directly detrimental to a person’s sense of identity, often equated with a moralistic flaw or weakness.[22]  More nuanced debates in academia have arisen when focusing too deeply on detailed examinations of specific terms used in Burma to describe the cultural relevance of non-conformists of gender and sexuality — such as evidenced by works on the natkadaw by Tamara C. Ho and Michael G. Peletz.[23]  While such heavy linguistic investigation may bear fruit in terms of understanding the degrees to which certain individuals are labeled, stigmatized, and marginalized, this paper merely focuses on the fact that such individuals are indeed stigmatized and forced to exist on the fringes of the greater Burmese sense of national identity.

Backstage-Frontstage

Viewing the natkadaw portrayed in Smile As they Bow through a dramaturgical model, they are permitted to exist backstage in Burmese culture.  Contrarily, maintaining the impression of Burmese social norms constitutes frontstage in this critique.  Frontstage is the area in which individuals work to foster a perpetual impression of maintaining social norms through politeness, direct social protocols, and decorum, indirect social protocols.[24]  To use dramaturgical parlance, the social audience provides a consensus reality in which the actor exists, acting upon cues in the form of social norms that dictate the parameters of the role.  The strongest role of the audience is that of social reinforcement, either applauding or rejecting the role being played through continual observation.[25]  This reinforcement has been said to be most efficacious when the drama involves the mysteries of life and death.[26]  The impetus toward self-preservation and existential fulfillment is a powerful motivator, allowing for the easy adoption of worldviews that provide solutions to such aims.

In Burma, as in most societies, clearly demarcated gender boundaries for men and women, as well as societal expectations of transgendered men, appear to be the main vehicles employed to reinforce frontstage social norms of this nature.  Whlle Daisy Bond and the other natkadaw may be forced to exist backstage of Burmese society, within this backstage exists another level of frontstage, as is often found in examples of dramaturgy.  Though allowed to express herself freely, Daisy Bond must nonetheless keep up appearances before other natkadaws, illustrated in the story through her frustrations with maintaining her primary status symbol within the community, Min Min.  During the spirit festival itself, Daisy Bond must also perform, quite literally, presenting the pilgrims with that which they have journeyed in order to experience.  Daisy Bond’s decorum is disrupted in the end of the story, her own personal backstage briefly exposed upon hearing Min Min with girl, causing Daisy Bond’s costume to unravel both literally and figuratively.[27] This break in decorum results from the societal expectation of meinmasha to behave as women at all times.

In Smile As They Bow, Taungbyon village stands as an example of backstage, a locale somewhat distanced from major populations, but which becomes a sort of city during nat pwe.  Goffman suggests that backstage the performer may subsist with false personas and behave on impulse.[28]  Most clearly the nat pwe offers homosexual and transgender men the opportunity to express inner identities in a safe space.[29]  Daisy Bond recounts this experience in Smile As They Bow, explaining that in the village of his youth (frontstage) he was expected to wear male clothing regardless of gender identity.[30]  Daisy says, “when I heard about the boys in Taungbyon, how they dressed and put on makeup whenever they pleased, all very happy and, well, gay, I just had to go see this Taungbyon for myself.”[31]

As Abner Cohen suggested, the most important aspect of a theatrical production is the costuming; a performer’s clothing can conceal or reveal aspects of identity.[32]  In the case of the natkadaw, Cohen’s words take on a very literal meaning.  The backstage provided by nat worship and physically manifest in Taungbyon village allowed for at the very least a marginalized legitimization of Daisy Bond’s impulse toward feminine expression.  Living in the village, Daisy Bond (at that time called U Ba Si, his birth name), eventually experienced role fatigue, having grown tired of playing a false part after such a long duration.  This role fatigue led Daisy Bond to engage in deroling, dropping the pretense of her socially accepted false identity as a masculine straight male.[33] The transformation of U Ba Si into Daisy Bond seems to directly represent the various attempts individuals may employ to conceal stigmata, as outlined by Manning.[34]  Some may choose to simply hide it, as U Ba Si first did in his village by dressing in masculine garb, and secondly to create a cover by adopting a decorum of societal norms, such as acting masculine or pretending not to be homosexual; ultimately, individuals may decide to simply reveal their inner identities, even flaunting it, much in the manner of Daisy Bond when she first discovered Taungbyon.[35]  Beyond the obvious example of Daisy Bond, other people are also able to transgress social norms at Taungbyon; attendees of the festival engage in drunkenness and casual sex, while pilgrims reveal familial secrets to the natkadaw that they would never otherwise voice frontstage.

While backstage is viewed as a relatively safe space, it is nonetheless marginalized by frontstage agency.[36]  Tamara C. Ho goes as far as to blatantly say that nat worship “is very much a modern, dialectical phenomenon,”  encompassing a clear contrast between what she calls the status quo “heteropatriarchal hierarchies” and the transgression of social norms that occurs at nat pwe.[37]  A key point of interest lies in examining why nat worship is permitted if it runs so perpendicular to the social norms of the frontstage status quo.  Benedicte Brac de La Perriere has suggested that nat worship is merely ritualized distancing and re-embracing of central power in Burma, which seems a somewhat oversimplified explanation, though perhaps not entirely untrue.[38]  Cohen suggests that backstage activities such as nat worship are tolerated since they in some way serve the interests of those in power.[39]

Some anthropologists have suggested that while nat worship functionally institutionalizes past social confrontations between localities and centralized power, the rituals also serve to mitigate disputes between these same two forces.[40] Worship of the nats may also constitute a sort of social pressure release-valve, providing an offset to the ascetic, patriarchal, and hierarchal frontstage of Buddhist Burma.[41]  The most likely motivation for the allowance of the continuation of nat worship by the power elite in Burma is outlined by Peletz, who suggests that the allowance is a specific tactic employed by the state to keep citizens from experiencing the global flows of the modern world.[42]  Given the modern history of the Burmese power elite, this notion may be at least partially true.  As stated earlier, however, the main motivation of the allowance of nat spirits seems to be the physical ties to localities within Burma that help to confirm notions of Burmese national identity.

As academics debate the role of nat worship in terms of central and local power, less focus has been placed by scholars on natkadaw  in terms of gender and sexual identity.[43]  The reasons for this lack of examination may stem from the difficulty in understanding the nuances of Burmese stigmatization of gender and sexuality, especially from a linguistic standpoint. Tamara C. Ho cites the sometimes interchangeably used terms of natkadaw and “Burmese queen” as evidence of the parallel between the struggle for gay and transgender rights on a global scale.  The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York city, seen as the pivotal commencement of the gay rights movement in the United States, is referenced by Ho in relation to the meinmasha standing up to police.[44]  This correlation seems solid, especially considering that the Stonewall Riots began by a drag queen throwing a brick at a police car, as the police attempted to raid a gay bar.  The suppressed, stigmatized gay community had finally reached a tipping point, refusing to be marginalized any further.

In Smile As They Bow, a similar event takes place, largely orchestrated by Daisy Bond who defiantly goads police in full drag, taunting, “Hi, boys, I’m gay.  Look at me, I walk anywhere I please. I’m not afraid of you bullies.”[45]  Daisy Bond goes on to create situations of defiance that force the hand of authorities to concede, such as through dancing at public spaces and creating unmanageable drama in jail cells.  Ho goes as far as to describe the meinmasha as engaging in “queer defiance.”[46]  She cites the normal greeting of the meinmasha, “What’s it to you, fatherfucker?” as evidence of certain rebelliousness.  Ho describes such actions as “counterhegemonic” and as a direct challenge to “autocratic power” in clear defiance of “masculinist hierarchies.”[47]  Through such challenges to authority, marginalized groups gain power, both in terms of economic freedom as well as in regard to living a self-determined lifestyle.  Anthropologist Sarah Berker, however, is keen to call attention to the function of natkadaw as bridges in society, connecting disparate worlds, such as the spiritual and the mundane, the historic and the modern, as well as the homosexual and the heterosexual.[48]

Conclusion

Ultimately, the censorship of Smile As They Bow appears to have been based primarily on its exposition of nonconformist gender and sexual identity in Burma, in an attempt by the status quo to suppress a stigmatized community.  While defiance of central authority has helped the meinmasha to achieve a certain degree of economic and expressive freedom, seemingly in the confines of the organized spirit festival, the Taungbyon gay community remains marginalized to the backstage of Burmese society.  Due to cultural conditioning, particularly through religion, the meinmasha retain a strong degree of social stigmata.  The groundbreaking work of Nu Nu Yi has revealed key aspects of the cultural realities of gay existence in Burma, as evidenced mainly through the natkadaw and their husbands.  Through the story of Smile As They Bow, a picture emerges of an all too familiar scenario in which members of society are marginalized due merely to issues of gender and sexual identity.

Bibliography

Allot, Anna J. Inked Over, Ripped Out: Burmese Storytellers and the Censors. New York: A Pen American Center Freedom to Write Report. September 1993. Last accessed April 27, 2013. http://burmalibrary.org/docs/inked-over-ripped%20-out.htm.

Cohen, Abner. The Politics of Elite Culture. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1981.

Ford, Emily. “Burma Holds Its First Global Literary Festival.” BBC. February 4, 2013. Last accessed April 27, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21322997.

Gibbons, Don C. and Jones, Joseph F. The Study of Deviance: Perspectives and Problems. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. 1975.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin. 1959.

Hare, A. Paul and Blumberg, Herbert H. Dramaturgical Analysis of Social Interaction. New York: Praeger. 1988.

Ho, Tamara C. “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Cult of Burma.” Discourse 31, no 3 (2009): 273-317. doi: 10.1353/dis.2009.0001.

Manning, Philip. Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1992.

Peletz, Michael G. “Transgenderism and Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia since Early Modern Time.” Current Anthropology 47, no. 2, (April 2006): 309-340. 

Yi, Nu Nu. Smile As They Bow. New York: Hyperion. 2008.


[1] Anna J. Allot, Inked Over, Ripped Out: Burmese Storytellers and the Censors, New York: A Pen American Center Freedom to Write Report, September 1993, last accessed April 27, 2013, http://burmalibrary.org/docs/inked-over-ripped%20-out.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emily Ford. “Burma Holds Its First Global Literary Festival,” BBC, February 4, 2013, last accessed April 27, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21322997.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tamara C. Ho, “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Cult of Burma,” Discourse 31, no 3 (2009): 280.

[6] Ibid, 302.

[7] Ibid, 302.

[8] Ibid, 276-277.

[9] Ibid, 286-287.

[10] Ibid, 290.

[11] Ibid, 288.

[12] Michael G. Peletz, “Transgenderism and Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia since Early Modern Time,” Current Anthropology 47, no. 2 (April 2006): 319.

[13] Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), 42.

[14] Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), 137.

[15] Michael G. Peletz, “Transgenderism and Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia since Early Modern Time,” Current Anthropology 47, no. 2 (April 2006): 318.

[16] Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), 137.

[17] For further discussion on degrees of stigma, see Philip Manning, Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).

[18] Don C. Gibbons and Joseph F. Jones, The Study of Deviance: Perspectives and Problems (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 125.

[19] Philip Manning, Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 96.

[20] Ibid, 95.

[21] Don C. Gibbons and Joseph F. Jones, The Study of Deviance: Perspectives and Problems (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 124.

[22] Philip Manning, Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 97.

[23] Tamara C. Ho, “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Cult of Burma,” Discourse 31, no 3 (2009): 273-317, doi: 10.1353/dis.2009.0001. Michael G. Peletz, “Transgenderism and Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia since Early Modern Time,” Current Anthropology 47, no. 2 (April 2006): 309-340.

[24] Erving Goffman, The Study of Self in Everyday Life (London: Penguin,1959), 110.

[25] Paul A. Hare and Herbert H. Blumberg, Dramaturgical Analysis of Social Interaction (New York: Praeger, 1988),  49.

[26] Abner Cohen, The Politics of Elite Culture, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 164.

[27] Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), 135.

[28] Erving Goffman, The Study of Self in Everyday Life (London: Penguin,1959), 115.

[29] Tamara C. Ho, “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Cult of Burma,” Discourse 31, no 3 (2009): 289.

[30] Ibid, 290.

[31] Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), 27.

[32] Abner Cohen, The Politics of Elite Culture, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 208-210.

[33] Paul A. Hare and Herbert H. Blumberg, Dramaturgical Analysis of Social Interaction (New York: Praeger, 1988),  87.

[34] Philip Manning, Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 98-99.

[35] Ibid, 98-99.

[36] Tamara C. Ho, “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Cult of Burma,” Discourse 31, no 3 (2009): 295.

[37] Ibid, 295.

[38] Ibid, 276-277.

[39] Abner Cohen, The Politics of Elite Culture, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 219.

[40] Tamara C. Ho, “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Cult of Burma,” Discourse 31, no 3 (2009): 277.

[41] Ibid, 277.

[42] Michael G. Peletz, “Transgenderism and Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia since Early Modern Time,” Current Anthropology 47, no. 2 (April 2006): 318.

[43] Tamara C. Ho, “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Cult of Burma,” Discourse 31, no 3 (2009): 277.

[44] Ibid, 274.

[45] Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), 30.

[46] Ibid, 289.

[47] Tamara C. Ho, “Transgender, Transgression, and Translation: A Cartography of Nat Kadaws: Notes on Gender and Sexuality within the Cult of Burma,” Discourse 31, no 3 (2009): 282.

[48] Ibid, 297.

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