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Author Explores Her Family's Displacement In 'Names For Light: A Family History'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you repeat the phrase this place, it begins to sound like displaced. That's one of the observations Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint makes in her new book, "Names For Light: A Family History." The book is an impressionistic story that traces her ancestors' and her own journey through Myanmar, Thailand, the United States and more. Each chapter title is the name of a city, from South Bend to Madrid. I asked Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint whether that sense of displacement has ever gone away.

THIRII MYO KYAW MYINT: Now that I'm talking to you, I'm starting to realize that that's kind of what the book is about. It's kind of about me always seeking belonging or this feeling of being able to say where is home, where I'm from, and then realizing that I can't really pinpoint that place and I can only come close to it when I'm furthest from it. Like, when I was in Madrid, I felt really American - right? - when I was in a foreign country. But I never feel American when I'm in this country because people are always asking me, like, where are you from? Where are you really from?

SHAPIRO: Without trying to fetishize outsider status, do you think that sense of displacement gives you some insight that people who don't have that sense lack?

MYINT: Yes and no. I mean, yes, obviously, I have some insight. But I also think I have - I don't know - a lot of burdens and scars (laughter) from it, right? So I really appreciate you saying that you didn't want to fetishize outsider status because I think in my own personal experience, like, in liberal circles, that's usually what happens when people say, like, oh, it's so great you're bilingual, or, it's so great that you can be a cultural interpreter. And it's true that it is great sometimes, but it's also true that it's really hard other times. If there's any insight that I do have, I think it's sort of that I've always grown up knowing sort of my embeddedness and, like, contingency in the world and never have been able to take myself for granted as, like, normal. And I think that's something that people - other people have to learn over time.

SHAPIRO: You write about this, the stories that people expect you to tell. You say white people specifically want to hear, tell us how hard it is to be you, but just don't blame us. Don't blame America. America saved you. And it goes on. As an author, how do you navigate that tension between the story that you feel called to tell and the story that people want to hear, the story that'll sell books, the story that people expect you to tell?

MYINT: Oh, man, I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

MYINT: I think I just had to turn off the part of my brain that kept white, liberal America at the center of my consciousness and just had to push it out. When I was trying to think of the book as something that was going to be read by white people or by Americans, I just couldn't write. I just had, like, a roadblock. I think for me, the only thing that makes those painful, hard moments easier is having people to talk to about them with, and so that's what I was trying to do with the book. I was showcasing these moments that were painful for me not so that white readers could read it and say, wow, that's horrible, you know, but so that other people could read it and say, I relate to that, or, like, that's so great that she's talking about this moment. I have so many moments similar to that.

SHAPIRO: There's a word that you write about in the book which you say is often translated as uprising. What is the word?

MYINT: Ayekhin.

SHAPIRO: And you're right. It's a word whose power has no equivalent for me in English, a word that has the word ye right inside of it. An ayekhin was an effort to write history with one's body, with one's life. Talk about why that word is powerful for you.

MYINT: It's a word I heard a lot growing up. When my parents were in Sittwe in Rakhine province, the '88 uprising, the '88 ayekhin happened. And my parents talk about it a lot. It's not like I was ever taught it in school - right? - or, like, sat down and taught this history. But it was just sort of a part of my consciousness ever since I could remember. And it just has this romantic quality to it, this feeling of people enduring so much and still believing in hope and still believing that they could come together and make change.

When I finished this book, it was September of last year. And so I had not anticipated that the third coup would happen in Myanmar this year. And so when that happened, you know, ayekhin was another word that struck me again because it was - I just felt like it was happening all over again. It's really upsetting what's happening in Myanmar. But at the same time, it's also bittersweet because it's incredible that after all these years of dictatorship, people in Burma are still rising up all the time, you know, and they're still putting their lives on the line for change.

SHAPIRO: Can you connect that action, that uprising, which you describe as writing history with one's life, to what you're doing in this book?

MYINT: I mean, if that's what the book does, I would be overjoyed because I personally don't know if I can write history with this book, right? But it is writing my own history. It is writing my family history, my personal history. And that's kind of why I started the book - because I started to feel anxiety about the mortality of my parents. And I realized that their bodies were the only archive I had of our history, of my sense of place. And I really felt the need to interview them and write these - write their stories down and write my ancestors' stories down, you know, just so we have them.

And between the time that I started the book and finished it, actually, both of my remaining grandparents did pass away. It was hard because I wish I had talked to them more and interviewed them more. But it also made me feel a sense of relief because I thought, OK, well, at least I got a chance to interview my parents, right? And the regret would have been so much heavier if I hadn't done that.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. As you talk about the expectations of the kinds of stories people want you to tell and the kinds of questions you're constantly asked, does it feel like writing and publishing this book has somehow broken you free of those chains, like now you can get on with everything else?

MYINT: Yes and no. I mean, I can't get on with everything else because these microaggressions and just outright aggressions continue in my daily life. And they're not going to stop just...

SHAPIRO: People at cocktail parties will still ask where you're really from.

MYINT: Right.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MYINT: Just because I wrote this book, it doesn't mean it's going to stop. I mean, so, for example, I just gave birth two months ago. And, like, literally a day postpartum, one of the nurses asked me to get in touch with my culture. And I said, what do you mean by that? And she said, the culture of the country you're from. So that happened, and it was awful.

But I think in the past, I responded to those situations by either just, like, shutting down or sort of crying. And this time I felt a little bit more emboldened to tell her that it made me uncomfortable what she said. It was othering. And I think part of it is that now that I feel like I have a platform, I feel like, well, this can be a story later, right? Like, I can - maybe I'll write about this in my next book, or maybe I can write about this in an essay. And it kind of, I think, transfers a little bit of the power back to me.

SHAPIRO: Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint is author of "Names For Light: A Family History."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

MYINT: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANANA SONG, "FAST DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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