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Smile as They Bow
Synopses & Reviews
As the weeklong Taungbyon Festival draws near, thousands of villagers from all regions of Burma descend upon a tiny hamlet near Mandalay to pay respect to the spirits, known as nats, which are central to Burmese tradition. At the heart of these festivities is Daisy Bond, a gay, transvestite spiritual medium in his fifties. With his sharp tongue and vivid performances, he has long been revered as one of the festival's most illustrious natkadaws. At his side is Min Min, his young assistant and lover, who endures unyielding taunts and abuse from his fiery boss. But when a young beggar girl named Pan Nyo threatens to steal Min Min's heart, the outrageous Daisy finds himself face-to-face with his worst fears. Written in lyrical, intoxicating prose, Smile as They Bow is, like the works of Arundhati Roy and Ha Jin, an unexpectedly whimsical, illuminating, and above all revealing portrayal of a culture few Westerners have ever witnessed. Over the past twenty years, Nu Nu Yi has become one of Burma's most acclaimed authors--and in 2007, she became the first person living in Burma to be nominated for an international literary award. Smile as They Bow was censored for more than twelve years by the Burmese government. It is fitting, then, that this is her American debut.
"Myanmar novelist Yi, in her first work translated into English, gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of a gay, transvestite spirit medium caught up in a midlife crisis amid the currents of an annual summer Buddhist festival. A full array of pilgrims, along with their attendant pickpockets, musicians and peddlers, gather in the Burmese village of Taungbyon, eager to throw money at the various shrine natkadaws-mediums, mostly transvestites, who channel spirits known as nats. The narrative offers the stream-of-consciousness voices of several of these travel-worn festival visitors, but mainly dwells on the shrill sadness of one natkadaw in his fifties, Daisy Bond, weary of the obsequious wheedling that his job requires and terrified that Min Min, his bonded assistant of seven years, is going to leave him. A 16-year-old peasant when Daisy bought him from his mother, Min Min has become indispensable as Daisy's factotum, dresser, gofer and lover, but he's met a young street girl musician and is resolved to marry her. Yi convincingly portrays the bathos of Daisy's ludicrous gender-bending charade, though his mercenary quest for love is fully fleshed and affectingly portrayed." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, this mesmerizing story is set among the gay spirit mediums of Burma (now Myanmar). Censored for more than 12 years by the Burmese government, this work is an illuminating portrayal of a culture few Westerners have ever witnessed.
About the Author
Nu Nu Yi was born in 1957 in the village of Inwa near Mandalay; as Burmese customarily have no surnames, she affixes the village name as an identifying part of her pen name. Since her debut in 1984, she has written over fifteen novels, a hundred short stories, and various diaristic magazine articles. Now one of Myanmar's (Burma) leading writers, she currently resides in Yangon (Rangoon), although her writings are more often set among the rural poor and social outcasts. She has traveled abroad only briefly: once to the Oxford University Centre for Cross-Cultural Research on Women and once to the University of Iowa's International Writers' Program, as well as working with BBC World Radio in Chiang Mai to script Burmese language radio plays to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. Translators:
Thi Thi Ayewas born in 1966 in Yangon (Rangoon), but raised in Wazi and Mandalay. She has been living abroad since 2001, first in Seattle and now in Tokyo, writing articles for Burmese magazines about various experiences in the "outside world." This is her first published team translation in English.
Alfred Birnbaum, born in 1955 in Washington DC, has lived over half his life in Japan. He began translating professionally in 1980 on subjects in Japanese art, architecture, design and contemporary fiction. Between 1993-1996, he studied Burmese at SOAS (Univ of London) and at the Institute of Foreign Languages (Yangon Univ), then lived in Yangon (Rangoon) from 1996 to 2001. He currently resides in Tokyo.
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