Queen Supayalat of Burma was said to have ordered the murder of more than 80 members of the royal family in order to ensure her position on the throne. The story of Queen Supayalat, which is more complicated than meets the eye, haunts Elizabeth Shick’s powerful debut novel, “The Golden Land” (New Issues Poetry & Prose).
Shick’s story is told through Etta, who grew up in Boston with her younger sister Parker, her grandmother Ahpwa — who left Burma and moved to the U.S. in 1945 — her mother and American father. Ahpwa was a strict enforcer of her homeland’s traditions until the family traveled to Burma in 1988, when student protests eventually led to a violent military coup. (In 1989, the military-led government changed the country’s name to Myanmar). After an unexpectedly early return to America for reasons that were never fully explained to Etta, everything changed.
Etta was 13 in 1988, when she met the Burmese side of her family, which included her street-smart, idealistic second cousin Shwe. It was while sneaking out one day with Shwe that she witnessed the violent government crackdown on protesting university students.
The book goes back and forth in time between 1988 and 2011 — Aphwa has died and Parker decides to take her ashes to Burma, a decision which both confuses and annoys Etta: ”Consensus says the country’s opening up. But I don’t trust it — the memory of what I saw as a teenager, the terror I felt, more real than any news article. Because once you’ve witnessed tyranny, you can never un-see it, never quite believe it won’t lash out again.”
Etta, now in her 30s with a good job and a fiancé whom she hasn’t been completely open with, follows Parker to Myanmar and finds herself confronting her heritage and cultural identity while uncovering family secrets and personal truths. In doing so, her understanding of herself, her family, and of the politics that shaped them shifts.
Perhaps now is a good time to return to the fascinating story of Queen Supayalat. As children, Etta recalls that they played games based on the stories of her ruthlessness.
“The rise and fall of Queen Supayalat made for a fantastic adaptation of the childhood game of playing house, and Parker and I engaged in regular re-enactments, me assuming the role of queen, while Parker played the various servants. Unable to pronounce Supayalat, Parker dubbed the game ‘Super Yacht.’”
But while in Myanmar as an adult, Etta starts to see the story of Queen Supayalat in a different light. “I begin to see the queen as more of a victim than a perpetrator, vilified for her connivance when, if anything, she wasn’t conniving enough. Maybe her only fault was being stronger and more charismatic than her quiet husband, being a woman.”
Shick lived in Myanmar for six years, and writes in an author’s note at the end of the novel, “The book is my humble attempt to communicate to the outside world the fascinating, cautionary history of Myanmar and the remarkable resilience and ingenuity of the Myanmar people.”
For readers like me, who have basically a headline-driven understanding of Myanmar, Shick’s book provided a travelogue of sorts, and a wake-up call. I found myself thinking about it and stealing time away from other tasks to return to it. After finishing, I wasn’t ready to leave Myanmar behind, and followed it up by reading George Orwell’s first novel, “Burmese Days.” (It was news to me until reading “The Golden Land” that both “Animal Farm” and “1984” are considered by many people to be about Burma.)
Shick, who has worked for a number of international development organizations, started coming to the Vineyard with her family in 1973, and has been a seasonal West Tisbury resident since 2002. I reached out to her after reading the book with a few questions.
I’m wondering about your own backstory, and how much of the book came from your own personal story.
Good question. I think it’s equally true to say that none of it is autobiographical and all of it is autobiographical. To write fiction is to enter into the hearts and minds of your characters, which you can only do by tapping into your own emotional wrestling with the world, even if that emotional wrestling is only in your imagination. I’m certainly not any of the characters in “The Golden Land,” nor did any of the specific plot points happen to me, but I struggle with some of the same emotional snarls that the narrator Etta is trying to unravel, the same need to put my memories in context, to understand who I am and where I fit in the world. Living abroad now for almost 30 years, I’m familiar with the sense of displacement she experiences; I know what it’s like to be pulled between two cultures, to say goodbye to people without knowing if I will ever see them again. And like Etta, I have experienced trauma, and tried to suppress that trauma, only to have it bubble back up at the most inconvenient times.
What were the challenges in doing this as someone who has lived in Myanmar but is not of Burmese descent?
One of the things about being an expat and moving around the world every few years, as I do, is that you become hyper-aware of how much you don’t know. Some people will visit a country for a week and think they’re an expert. For me, it’s the opposite: The longer I live somewhere, the more I realize how little I understand that place. There’s just so much that goes on under the surface in any culture, so many things people won’t say out loud, or maybe don’t even fully realize themselves. This subliminal space is what is hard to tap into. To counter this, I try to immerse myself as much as possible in the history and culture of every new country we live in. I take language lessons, read books, attend all kinds of cultural events, and ask lots and lots of questions. I’m so grateful to all the Myanmar people who took the time to speak with me while I was writing “The Golden Land,” and especially to my local Myanmar readers who helped me fine-tune some of the more nuanced details.
And finally: Why were you so drawn to the story of Queen Supayalat?
I first learned about Queen Supayalat and King Thibaw in Amitav Ghosh’s mesmerizing novel, “The Glass Palace,” a fictionalized version of the family’s journey from the royal palace to their far less glamorous life while in exile in India. Intrigued, I went on to read Sudha Shah’s “The King in Exile,” a meticulously researched chronicle of the royal family. I suppose what intrigued me about Queen Supayalat is the many contradictory stories about her life, especially when considered through a feminist lens. Did she really seduce her sister’s husband, or had they been deeply in love when the marriage to her sister was arranged? Was she the one who cold-heartedly ordered all their cousins bludgeoned to death, or was she blamed because HIStory doesn’t like powerful women? This idea that there can be different interpretations of the same set of experiences is something I wanted to explore in “The Golden Land,” and Queen Supayalat made for an interesting correlative.
“The Golden Land” is available at Edgartown Books.