I came into Night Birds and Other Stories (translated from Burmese by Maung Maung Myit) with threads of this concern. Night Birds is the first Burmese work I have ever read, having been introduced to Khet Mar while compiling the DailyWIT. The short collection piqued my interest and I purchased it not long afterward. I finished it yesterday; this review is far more fresh than my typical ones, in which I usually prefer having some space to process the text and my reaction to it. But somehow, that feels mildly unnecessary with Night Birds. Simply put: It is a solidly good book. Not an excellent one, but a good one.
The titular novella - Night Birds - reads almost like a young adult novel (even though its main characters are adults, full stop, despite the brief introductory paragraph which describes them as teenagers...), with a quiet emotional bond and a slowly unfolding understanding of the world. The novella is direct. Even without that odd introductory blurb expressly pointing to how the story is a metaphor for prison and oppression (thus explaining why it was banned by the government), the story reflects a tense claustrophobia and pervasive oppression. The story opens with violence and locked doors and isolation, slowly opening up as the two deeply lonely main characters share their stories with each other and the reader. It is, as I said, fairly direct. There's poeticism and beauty in the writing, in the integration of the musical theme, and in the hopes and dreams that these young people struggle to fulfill, there is subtlety in the choice of metaphors and even pacing, but generally speaking: The story unwinds clearly.
There's a deep melancholy to it, of course. It's impossible to read a story from an effectively imprisoned youth without feeling anguish and loneliness yourself. Khet Mar does a brilliant job of capturing how isolation and loneliness can feel for the different characters. One sings and smokes to herself, the other seeks conversation and company. Their lives intertwine and touch, without quite managing to breach each others' bubbles. The closeness and distance is sharply crafted, particularly by the story's end. It works. And it will also feel oddly familiar, given the events of the past year.
The problem was that I never felt fully emotionally involved. I was moved, yes, but from my own distance. Which is good for a story about isolation and oppression! It just wasn't quite what I wanted. Nor was the writing style always my favorite, occasionally irritating me with its pointed quality. It's not remotely bad writing, but it didn't always fit my own style.
These two flaws, however, disappear in the following two works housed in this English-language edition. Night Birds - published in 1993 - is clearly the main course in this "collection", but it's extremely well served by two additional nonfiction pieces. The first is "Life on Death Row", a slip of a story that I initially read as fiction because of its tight writing and economy. In less than 5 pages, Khet Mar manages to tell a surprisingly whole story of injustice, oppression, and imprisonment. Is it the actual whole story? Obviously not. But it does an excellent job as a "slice of life" story that also showcases so many casual horrors.
The second nonfiction story is "Night Flow", which sees Khet Mar writing about Iowa, Burmese kindness, crying, and environmental justice. The piece is a short personal essay, but it flows beautifully and seems to gently stir so many different topics and themes. The naturalistic tone is absolutely lovely and feels like it follows a wholly different style from the two works that preceded it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's interesting, maybe even a little jarring. More frustrating is the publisher's choice to bold the sentences and paragraphs that the Burmese government ultimately censored from the original piece. The political implications are stark (and fascinating!), but it's hard to read the essay with a clear head when it so loudly seems to tell me where it wants me to focus. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think, though of course it's hard to say what is the right way to address such a complex editorial choice...
All in all, Night Birds and Other Stories is a good, short collection. There is little to write against it and quite a bit to write in its favor. And from the meta-perspective of my fears as a reader, it strikes me as an excellent jumping off point for my own exploration of Burmese literature. I cannot view this as a single story that encompasses every narrative Myanmar has to offer, but I can still learn from it about a region of the world with which I am less familiar. I can still appreciate that through this (good) work of literature, I have a greater understanding of small nuances of Burmese life and culture (and music! Oh how I loved the musical touches) and a greater toolbox with which to keep learning. Pretending that I am not also learning from the literature I read is foolish in my mind; this need not be the reason for which Night Birds was written, nor even translated, but I can appreciate it nonetheless. I can find other avenues to explore and to learn. And I can go back to those scenes of isolation and linger on them in my own way...