I’ve been interested in Myanmar/Burma for ages now, and I was finally able to visit last summer. Before the trip, I read all I could; here are the highlights (and one lowlight.)
Letters from Burma
Aung San Suu Kyi’s vignettes on her country and culture. The book is meant to introduce Westerners to her homeland — a place that, as she was writing, it didn’t seem like many would ever be able to visit. Her stories about tea rituals, regular dinners, and family norms make a foreign-seeming place more familiar.
Voice of Hope
A series of interviews between Aung San Suu Kyi and Clements, an American ordained as a Buddhist monk in Burma. Worth skimming for answers, many of which are quite good. Skip over the questions though (Clements inserts himself too often.)
Another charming graphic novel from Guy Delise, who could probably make anywhere seem lovely and interesting. This book’s got his hallmarks: confusing bureaucracies, unthinking police, friendly neighbors, interesting culture, etc.
The Glass Palace
Long fiction about several generations of an Indian-Burmese family, beginning during the British invasion of Burma in 1885 and continuing about a hundred years forward. Insanely detailed and researched, and it’s the places, not the characters, that I thought made this book.
Finding George Orwell in Burma
Larkin uses George Orwell’s memoir and his famous 1984 (“the second book he wrote about Burma”) to make sense of the police state. I found that Larkin used Orwell too much as a crutch; she wrote about finding him everywhere (a Burmese teashop, a university, a backwater administration point .. ) and shortchanged, I thought, what was happening. (I know that was the book’s conceit, but even still — too much!)
The River of Lost Footsteps
Well-researched history of Burma’s last hundred-ish years, written by someone whose family has played a large part in it. The best, most accessible history I found, and only a bit of a hagiography. Of all the nonfiction on this list, I’d most recommend this one.
Young Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) in the British Empire’s military, becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Empire through much gin and curry at the European Club. Worth reading for the historical perspective alone, as nearly every other Western-oriented book about Myanmar will assume you’ve read this one.
Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know
A nonfiction book structured as a Q&A about the headlines. Don’t read this book cover to cover — it’s not meant for that. This book’s mostly hawkish American foreign policy with little nuance. Eminently skippable.