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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

Saffron Shadows
and Salvaged Scripts

Ellen Wiles

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts

Title: Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts
Author: Ellen Wiles
Genre: Various
Written: 2015
Length: 256 pages
Original in: English and Burmese
Availability: Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts - US
Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts - UK
Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts - Canada
Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts - India
  • Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition
  • Illustrated with thirty-three black and white photographs
  • With examples and excerpts of the authors' work; translated by Wiles, based on initial translations by the authors or by Myat Noe

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Our Assessment:

B : good introduction to current situation; useful overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Star . 13/2/2016 Joe Treasure

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n engrossing and eye-opening book (.....) Though Wiles is absent from these narratives, their seamless clarity is evidence of her skill as an interviewer and editor. Her introductions are invaluable in setting these writers in the context of their physical and cultural environment." - Joe Treasure, Daily Star

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Disappointingly, information -- much less actual literature in (English) translation -- from quite a few parts of the world remains almost tenaciously out of reach, most notably from many of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and from Southeast Asia. The 'Golden Triangle'-countries have essentially no international profile beyond the region, with very little literary work -- or information about local writing -- trickling into English. In considering Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition -- and offering small samples of work by a variety of authors -- Wiles' Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts is a welcome glimpse of at least some of what can be found there.
       The case of Burma (Myanmar) is particularly intriguing, because the country appears to be at a crossroads, in the midst of a transition from over half a century of totalitarian rule -- under which there was strict censorship -- to a more fundamentally democratic (and presumably open) system. (As I write this, the final results of the historic 2015 election are coming in, but the Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition party, the National League for Democracy has secured absolute majorities in both parliamentary chambers; while the new parliament won't be seated until the beginning of 2016, absent radical action by the governing junta (such as it took after the similarly decisive 1990 elections) a large-scale transformation -- of process and system -- seems inevitable.) Wiles' well-timed book is poised at this cusp, and will remain of interest as we see in what directions Burma -- and its writers -- move.
       Wiles came to Burma in 2013 as a human rights lawyer, and lived there for several months. She was particularly curious about writing under the repressive regime and its harsh system of censorship, and Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts is, in large part, an effort to provide a broad picture of that.
       The structure of the book is a good one. Bookended by a useful, thorough Introduction and Conclusion, the bulk of the book is devoted to examples: divided into three sections -- one each covering the older, middle, and younger generations -- Wiles introduces nine contemporary Burmese authors. Each chapter begins with Wiles describing her meeting with the author, and a bit of background, but she then allows each one to introduce themselves and what part of their life-/writing-story they wish to convey. After the (auto)biographical sections, there is an example or excerpt of the author's work -- a few poems, a story, or a novel-excerpt -- and a brief comment by Wiles about the excerpt, providing additional context.
       The three-generation approach is a neat way of dividing things, as indeed experiences were often determined by age -- and the age in which the authors worked. These include some perhaps unexpected observations, such as that Wiles found (and some of the authors noted) that, unlike almost anywhere else in the world, it is the older generation that has a greater command of English (because of Burma's British-colonial history), while the middle and younger generations, growing up and living in a far more isolated country, "tended to speak very limited English".
       Many of the authors were (or are) very active in the NLD -- beginning with the most famous of the authors here, Win Tin, a co-founder of the party -- and activism continues to be important to many. Understandable as this is, it also has the regrettable consequence that, as Wiles writes about Shwegu May Hnin:

She says she has no time or wish to write fiction any more, now that she has a chance to communicate "directly" with the people about politics after so long being kept silent -- a theme that would recur among other writers.
       The cross-section of nine authors on offer here is a good one, though, as even Wiles admits, far from representative. For one, they don't reflect the tremendous ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country. Similarly, while it can be expected that most writers are oppositional, or NLD partisan, it would have been very interesting to hear from an author who worked successfully within the regime and its censorship apparatus (as some surely did), an omission that is the book's most glaring fault.
       As is, several of the authors focus on their jail-experiences, and while for example Win Tin is certainly an important figure (as obituaries in publications even such as The Economist and The New York Times attest to), there arguably is too little focus on creative fiction.
       The different life-stories told by the authors are fascinating, and do offer good insight into life under a regime that isolated its population in ways that few nations still manage to. Several of the authors have some international experience -- studying abroad (including several who have participated in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program) -- but it is the local experiences that are the most interesting, especially when the authors relate their formative reading experiences, and, for example, the difficulties of gaining access to books, with many relying on private- or private-lending-libraries when they were younger.
       It is also interesting to learn about the broad, harsh Burmese system of censorship -- so twisted that, for example:
Censors were known to interpret the libel rule to require a book reviewer to ask if the book's author was satisfied with the review before permitting the review to be published, and a series of articles about legends surrounding famous pagodas in the country was turned down for failing to prove that the legends were true.
       Wiles also notes that as the current situation remains uncertain the pervasive self-censorship the system had ingrained in authors was proving to be a hard habit to shake and that it still persists.
       The generational shift is also a fascinating one, as an internet-savvy and more connected younger generation looks to take advantage of modern opportunities: Pandora's active blogging, and Myay Hmone Lwin's publishing house, NDSP, are significant aspects of their literary work, for example.
       Wiles also notes that:
     Another transformation in transition Myanmar has been the high public profile and presence of literary writers, now that they have greater freedom of expression. They are held in particularly high esteem by a society that has regarded them for many years as the only independent voices of truth and wisdom in a context of governmental suppression, concealment, and distortion.
       Decades of isolation have left much of Burma's infrastructure and economy woefully underdeveloped -- so also the publishing, distribution, and bookselling industries (as is also repeatedly noted by the various authors), and it will be interesting to see whether the necessary infrastructure can be developed. Literary culture appears to have sustained itself, despite all odds, reasonably well so far -- in part, for example, because there were few alternative sources of entertainment (limited access to television, much less other mass-media) -- and it will be interesting to see what happens to it in a freer (but also more competitive) environment.
       Given how little is available from and about Burma, Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts is a very welcome volume indeed. Like much of what has been written about Burma, there's a lot of focus on government repression (and jailtime experiences) -- understandably, but still somewhat disappointingly -- and there are chunks of the literary scene that are entirely missing (and not just party-line social realism, though certainly that) -- but in its range (and in Wiles' awareness of the limitations of her range) it is a good introduction to the nation and how it has come to the point it is currently at, and if not a comprehensive overview, with its nine authors it offers a fascinating slice of a variety of author-lives and literary experiences.
       The writing samples are welcome, too, of course, and there's a nice variety here. There's obvious talent here, but Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts is really just a sampler; still, it's clear that some of these authors and works deserve to be available in translation in stand-alone volumes.
       Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts neatly captures Burma right at the cusp of what might be a very dramatic change, and it will continue to be of interest both as an historical document(ation) and as a point of comparison for what is to come.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 November 2015

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Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Reviews: Ellen Wiles: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British writer Ellen Wiles is also a human rights lawyer.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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