Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint was born in Yangon, Myanmar, and grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, and San José, California. Her stories have been published in numerous journals, and she is the author of a novel, The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven. Her nonfiction debut, Names for Light: A Family History (Graywolf, Aug. 17), is, according to our reviews, an“imaginative and compelling memoir about what we inherit and what we pass on”; our editors named it one of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2021. Myint answered our questions by email.
What prompted you to write Names for Light? Was this a book you felt called to write?
Ever since my family relocated to the United States when I was 7 years old, I’ve had to act as a cultural interpreter of “my country and my people.” By the time I was in college, my life was consumed with this duty: I was president of the Brown Campaign for Burma, which aimed to spread awareness of the human rights abuses in the country; I tutored families of recently resettled Burmese refugees; I helped a former Burmese political prisoner organize a literary festival at my college. Creative writing was my one relief from this activism—the one place where I allowed myself a break from “raising awareness” about Burma. But as my political activism ran dry over the years due to emotional burnout, I found that a creative space opened up for me. I had always thought that if I wrote about Burma, it would have to be an educationalbook for a “western audience”—I had not considered the possibility of writing a book that would be for myself and people like me. Names for Light emerged from this question—what would I write if I could write about my sense of identity and belonging on my own terms?
What was it like having a book come out in 2021? How did you connect with readers in this socially distanced year?
I had a baby a few months before my book release, so the sleep deprivation combined with the virtual nature of my book tour has made everything feel somewhat unreal! Still, it has been amazing to “see” my friends, family, and writing community attend my virtual events and to connect with students through virtual class visits. While I do miss getting the chance to talk with readers one-on-one at in-person events, I also appreciate the accessibility afforded by virtual programming—without the option of online events, I don’t think I would have been able to travel around the country with a newborn to promote my book.
Who is the ideal reader for Names for Light, and what do you hope they take away from it?
Any reader who is willing to put aside—or at least, be aware of—the assumptions and expectations that they bring to a text is my ideal reader. I think too often writers of color and other marked or marginalized writers are expected to “sell” their marked identity—i.e., “read this book if you want to know what it’s like to be brown/queer/poor/etc.” My hope is that readers (even those who wanted a straightforward, educational memoir) will come away from Names for Light with an expanded notion of identity.
What work of nonfiction most dazzled you this year?
I marveled at Lauren Russell’s Descent, which came out with Tarpaulin Sky in 2020—such a formally innovative, genre-expanding book and a moving example of radical empathy.