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SMILE AS THEY BOW by Nu Nu Yi Kirkus Star


by Nu Nu Yi & translated by Alfred Birnbaum & Thi Thi Aye

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4013-0337-2
Publisher: Hyperion

The first English translation from the sometimes-censored Burmese author; the book was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

Nats are spirits. They predate the arrival of Buddhism in Burma, and their worship remains an important part of Burmese popular religion. Natkadaws are spirit brides, mediums who intercede on behalf of the faithful and relay messages from the supernatural world. Natkadaws are often transvestites, and the annual festival honoring two nats known as the Taungbyon brothers is a focal point of gay culture in Burma. For Daisy Bond, the novel’s central character, a career as a natkadaw is not so much a spiritual calling as it is an opportunity to wear makeup and glamorous clothes and live an openly gay life—something he could not do in the conservative village where he was born. Most of the characters depicted here are outcasts in one way or another. Min Min, Daisy Bond’s assistant and reluctant lover, was purchased as a boy by the medium. Pan Nyo, the girl that Min Min loves, is a beggar. The author makes it clear that all these characters are restricted by culture and circumstance, but her exploration of their lives never evolves beyond the superficial. Much of the narrative is composed of Daisy Bond’s interior monologue, and his unrelentingly campy voice is glib and grating. The novel’s tone is, in fact, generally precious. Characters do not emerge as real people; they all seem like colorful natives, exotic ciphers assembled for the delectation of literary tourists.

An unilluminating look at gay culture and animistic religion in Burma.