In reading over Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s gracious responses to my (typically trying-too-hard) questions about her fine debut novel The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven (Noemi Press), it occurs to me that I’ve let genre lead me astray. The post-apocalyptic is now too much monetized, studio set-pieced, and Westernized in its pop appeal to provide much of a key to the ways in which Thirii’s book, as Laird Hunt notes, is presided over by a “fierce, loud hush.” Maybe what’s needed instead is a reinvestment in what Vivian Sobchack once termed postfuturism. To wit: “Technology never comes to its particular specificity in a neutral context for a neutral purpose. Rather, it is always ‘lived’ — always historically informed by political, economic, and social content, and always an expression of aesthetic value.” Consider, for example, the ways in which the 19th Century’s bad actors made “colonization” synonymous with “modernization.”
But there’s no going back now, or so they say. Contrary to my urge to revise these Qs’ suppositions and extrapolations, I know I should instead follow the example set by Thirii in both her As and in her fiction. For hers is groundwork in a profound sense. If you’re willing to get in there (as they also say) and till the same soil as the author, you’ll reconnect with the rich compounding that defines that medium — one in which “beginnings and endings” (to quote Jenny Boully’s advance praise for The End of Peril) don’t dissolve once and for all but persist in mixing.
The following questions and answers were exchanged between February and March of 2018.
“A mythopoetic work that traverses both time and place, The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven tells the story of a return from emigration, the traumatic moment when the narrator—a young woman with a baby in her care—is confronted with her inheritance of historical violence and environmental devastation.”
1) How would you describe your relationship — first, as a reader; second, as a writer — to post-apocalyptic narratives? Certain familiar tropes orbit the setting of The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven,
As a person who was born in a postcolonial country under a dictatorship, I am going to make the bold statement that most of the world’s population (i.e. the “global south”) already live in the post-apocalypse. The apocalypse was invasion and imperialism. That was the end of the world as my ancestors knew it. So for me, the post-apocalypse is not speculative; it is real. It is not a vision of the future, but of the present.
When I encounter post-apocalyptic narratives set in the industrialized Western world, I find that the real question these narratives pose is not, “what if this happens?” but instead “what if this happens to us?” In The End of Peril, I wanted to move beyond that obsolete question. There is a familiar apocalypse in the novel — the “breach” of the domed city where the narrator grew up — but in the context of the novel, that event becomes the opposite of an apocalypse. It becomes the seed of hope for the “renewal” which will undo the colonization and exploitation of the post-apocalyptic harbor city where the narrator was born.
2) Your book is also a kind of genealogy, albeit one that transcends any single notion of family. Within the world of this novel, there’s this Hegelian drama surrounding invasion, mongrelization (I apologize if this language is triggering; there’s a paucity of seemly vocabulary around this topic) and ethnicity. (“My mother does not let me forget I am descended from the enemy.”) At the same time, the novel’s narrator is very much cognizant of the privileges bequeathed to her by her parents and grandparents. How did the various meanings of inheritance shape your understanding of character in the novel?
I wanted the narrator to be a character who has to grapple with the intersectionality of identity, someone who cannot fit herself easily into the category of victim or oppressor. Of course, all identities are intersectional, but I think some people have the privilege of not always recognizing that, while others, like the narrator, does not, because her “differences” are visibly marked on her body — “the girth of [her] thighs,” her “wild” hair, etc.
The narrator is myself and not myself, and the way she is othered in both the domed city and the harbor city is based on my own experiences of growing up in the U.S. and returning to Yangon, the city where I was born, as a young adult. My first few days in Yangon, I remembered feeling elated to finally be in a place, for the first time in my life, where the majority of people around me looked like me. I quickly realized, however, that though I thought the people in Yangon looked like me, they didn’t think I looked like them. My teenage cousin said I was the “fattest” Burmese girl he had ever seen, and almost everyone I met asked me where I was from, which is the same question I was constantly asked growing up in the U.S.
Among liberal/progressive circles of which I am a part, hybridity is almost always celebrated — I’ve often been told I’m lucky that I was raised bilingual, or that I’m both Burmese and American — but in my novel, I also wanted to explore the psychological and emotional burden of having to embody hybridity. I wanted to create a character who is both privileged by her various inheritances (for example, she is able to escape both the harbor city and the domed city in moments of crisis “on account of blood”) and at the same time, is torn apart by them.
3) Is this novel is a history, it is very much a woman’s history. Yet the narrator’s own sense of gender is often rather fluid. (“I was born a girl but my mother’s prayers came true. Now that I have reached manhood, my mother is driving me mad.”) And she resists identifying with traditional feminine roles: mother, wife, daughter. If, as the narrator states, “women are usually blamed,” what accusation is she herself trying to elude?
I don’t view The End of Peril as a woman’s history because so many of the ancestral or mythic figures in the novel are male — the narrator’s paternal grandfather, maternal grandfather, the king, the enemy chief, and the chief’s son — and the narrator uses these men to construct her sense of lineage. I also don’t think the narrator resists traditionally feminine roles in order to elude anything. She resists them in part because they were what entrapped her in the domed city, and, in part, because she feels she cannot fulfill them.
4) Some of the most arresting passages The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven concern mythology. Specifically, a mythological narrative (one perhaps the invention of the narrator’s father) that serves as a counterpoint to the narrator’s own journey. At what point in the process of writing this novel did this mythology reveal itself to you?
The mythological narrative thread has been a part of the novel since I started writing. The thread is inspired by my father’s retellings of U Kala’s Maha Yazawin or Great Chronicle, an early 18th-century canonical Burmese text. The king’s daughter and the chief’s son were characters who grew out of one specific story in the Maha Yazawin, a story about a Bamar prince and a Mon princess who fall in love while their kingdoms are at war. In the novel, I wanted to reimagine this story in a non-heteronormative way, and have the chief’s son and the king’s daughter be foils for each other as well as for the narrator and the girl, who are the ones who fall in love with each other.
5) As history gets faster, does forgetting accelerate too?
No, I think as the mythological sections accelerate towards the end of the novel, the narrator’s memories proliferate, until the deep past and the present are able to touch.
6) As other observers have pointed out, the novel packs a tremendous amount of world-building into a very compact space. In fact, the novel’s open structure and its tendency to place elements in parallel rather than fasten them to cause and effect create a perception of depth through the power of suggestion. As the author, did you find you sometimes had to resist the temptation be more elaborate in your descriptions and/or expositions? If not, why not? If so, how so?
Actually, I had to resist my tendency to withhold even more in my descriptions and exposition. I don’t withhold information on purpose, but sometimes it’s hard for me to calibrate my mind with the mind of a potential reader, because I experience the world in an associative and diffuse way. In my writing, I’m always making associative links, both mentally and emotionally, and I prefer to allow those links to drive the narrative forward rather than my own expository interventions.
7) Do you believe that literature can be timeless? How would you respond to someone who praised your work by saying you “write for the ages”?
I would hug that person, because he would probably be my father, who is the only person I know who would say “write for the ages” earnestly. And yes, I believe literature can be timeless, but also that all good things — the sky, babies, food — is.
8) The narrator seems to believe that her world can be renewed. In that sense, she’s not terribly different from a Parzival — or a high Modernist. But she also admits early on in the novel that “My mother ha taught me about reproduction when I was a girl, and I never understood that word, for nothing is created again, but always created or the first time.” The more I thought about this in the context of the narrator’s guardianship of “the baby,” the more I began to worry about her real motivations for keeping the child alive. And that seriously complicates my ideas about the narrator’s heroism. (Perhaps a sacrifice is looming, or so a skeptical reader in me cautioned.) If you can imagine an ideal reader for The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven, what relationship would you want that individual to have with your narrator?
My “ideal reader” for The End of Peril is a young Southeast Asian American woman with literary aspirations. I wrote this book for her. I want her to have the privilege of feeling, for once, that a book was written specifically for her — not for a white audience trying to understand “her” culture or “her” history, but for her to relate to, to judge, and to criticize. She can have whatever relationship she wants with the narrator, but I hope she recognizes that the narrator is me and not me, another Southeast Asian American woman trying to connect, looking for “the join,” like Beloved’s ghost.
9) What has happened to names in this world?
I didn’t want to transliterate Burmese names into English and do violence to them, so I decided to forgo names altogether. The narrator too is wary of the power of naming. She refuses to name the baby because “there is so much to choose, to give, and by giving, to take away” and she refuses to tell the baby the names of trees “because the trees didn’t know about them and maybe wouldn’t have liked them.”
10) How would you describe your approach to prosody in The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven? To this reader, it’s both propulsive and tentative. The sentences don’t deviate much from a subject-predicate-object construction, modifiers are used sparingly, and both appositive and dependent clauses stand out in their relative scarcity. Almost as if the narrator does not have much time to “waste” in telling. (Even the passages that use the past tense feel as though they are in the present.) Do you view prosody as a regulating (or, to extend the engine metaphor, governing) aspect of the narration, or as more or less incidental to other narrative concerns? [Short version: in your own practice, how do you navigate the classic narration-narrative distinction… or divide?]
I think what you’re asking is, do I write based on sound (narration) or on story (narrative)? My short answer is both, and my long answer is that I reject the narration-narrative/form-content distinction altogether. A metaphor I often return to is the one Henry James offers in “The Art of Fiction,” that “the story and the novel, the idea and the form, are the needle and thread.” The needle for me is the musicality of language, and the thread is the narrative. They mutually regulate and govern one another.
Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint was born in Yangon, Myanmar and grew up in Bangkok, Thailand and San Jose, California. She is the author of The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven (Noemi Press). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, TriQuarterly, and Kenyon Review Online, among others, and has been translated into Burmese and Lithuanian.
She is the recipient of a Fulbright grant to Spain, a residency at Hedgebrook, and fellowships from Tin House and Summer Literary Seminars. She holds a B.A. in literary arts from Brown University and an M.F.A. in prose from the University of Notre Dame. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at the University of Denver, and the Reviews, Interviews & Translations editor of the Denver Quarterly.