Notes on Curating The Storyteller
By Nathalie Johnston
Rain or shine, you have an umbrella
Use it then
– Aung Cheimt, The Storyteller
The Storyteller takes on several meanings. It also aims to tell stories from many perspectives: Htein Lin as teller of his own stories and those whose stories he watched and heard; stories which never happened or were told to create false narratives; and stories of the future, the possibilities and the choices yet to be faced.
Two languages (Burmese and English) and multiple meanings; each language conjures memories. In English, the word “stories” often brings to mind a picture of a wise, old soul, remembering tales of adventure, love and war. True and embellished, or fabricated to teach a lesson, there is always enjoyment to be had with a storyteller. In Burmese, a “story” might be considered similarly, but can also imply deception.
The original Burmese title for the exhibition The Storyteller was Pon Pyaw Thu, which means a teller of stories. Whether the stories are good or bad are left up to the interpreter. The title Pon Pyaw Thu was inspired by Aung Cheimt’s book of poems. For Aung Cheimt, one of Myanmar’s most celebrated living poets, the meaning of pon pyaw thu is thus: “the literal meaning of telling stories is the telling of unbelievable and memorable tales but in modern slang, it means to tell lies and to deceive.”
In the lead up to this exhibition, the translator unwittingly changed the title to Pon Pyin Pyaw Pya Thu, which means a teller of fairy tales or bedtime stories. Pyin means, “to fix.” The storyteller fixes the story to make it lighter, perhaps with happy ending. It seems our translator wanted to fix the title as well. The change of the title in Burmese had the best of intentions, but an important distinction between good stories and bad stories was lost. Then again, one can point to the connotation of fairy tale with a taste of irony, keeping in mind that not all fairy tales are told by well-intentioned people and not all have a happy ending.
Htein Lin, a former political prisoner and one who speaks for political activism throughout the country through his artworks, may be speaking of lived fairy tales, the kind from which we can learn and grow. He may also be referencing the fairy tales told by people in power, who want their listeners to believe in their cause. Whatever the case, there is no denying that stories are told to serve their context, and “the audience will complete as appropriate whatever they find lacking. Isn’t it enjoyable?”
Whether fairy tales or true to life, one must always remain acutely aware of and concerned with the power of a story. It is the nature of language, which demands this distinction. The older we get and the more we read, the clearer it becomes: stories are more than romance novels or epic thrillers; they are tools and weapons to inspire. Storytelling is the subversive act in society – a key to the primary vault of culture.
Stories in Myanmar have always been intimately linked with political life. Traditionally, literary enjoyment had been reserved to a select few during the royal dynasties (footnote). The arrival of British colonists brought economic diversity, which in turn made the printing of materials and therefore the access to literature far more widespread. Translation of foreign novels and stories also became prevalent.
What started out as a translation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, became an adaptation, and then Myanmar’s first novel. James Hla Gyaw’s Maung Yin Maung and Ma Me Ma was written and published only 20 years after the fall of the last royal family of Burma. It carried the long-loved themes of storytelling while maintaining a familiar Burmeseness to the book, including countless Buddhist references to the ancient Jataka tales and the inspiring benevolence of Buddhist teachings. James Hla Gyaw appropriated parts of his story from Dumas, but by all accounts made it reader-ready with distinctive Burmese themes.
Independence brought war heroes to the center of storytelling, after which came the building of a nation through commerce and democratic ideals. What of the military reign that lives in infamy? In actual fact, literature was one tool used by the military to further their cause. The government established publishing houses and encouraged writers to tell the stories, insofar as the censorship allowed.
It is not unusual for governments to tell their own stories, retelling history through media, repressing anyone with a voice. Governments are in the business of uniting many under one rule, one nation, even one faith. They are capable of fabricating histories to serve a purpose in the present, especially to a younger generation. How can the independent voice fight to tell the truth? Individuals therefore seek power through storytelling, and in Myanmar that means poetry, literature, reportage, art making, teaching, translation and activism. The power of one woman or man to tell her or his story and take on the ownership of truth is without a doubt one of Myanmar’s greatest strengths.
Where literature and storytelling thrive is in the memories and minds of scholars, artists, activists, and the masses of people facing the challenges of everyday life. Stories teach lessons and bring hope. In recent years in Myanmar, stories have become fairy tales to a younger generation, growing up blissfully ignorant to the traumatic realities of storytelling.
Many of the older generations in Yangon, Mandalay and beyond have lamented the ignorance of young people to the struggle of their elders. Bo Aung Kyaw, Bogyoke Aung San, the students of the 88 Generation and even Aung San Suu Kyi are mythical figures, even heroes, but not necessarily real people with real stories. Htein Lin is one of these older generations, sitting down to tell young people the stories, the “fairy tales” of hardship, suffering and healing.
Art is Htein Lin’s mechanism for storytelling. Art is the ability to convey the subversive through non-literary means. The artist creates an object or an environment, rather than a novel or a poem, to tell the story. Htein Lin’s stories are retold through installation, durational performance, photography, video, and past relics. He invites us to share visually in his own truth, and take away what can be shared. He fashions these art objects into pathway, leading to his own truth, and of course the truth of his own country.
Contemporary in its nature, this kind of art fills rooms with found objects: old pieces of furniture and a typewriter from a bygone era, photographs from a funeral never attended, bars of soap transformed into tiny prison cells – each holding the story of solitary confinement and desperate dreams of escape. Plaster casts of hundreds of human hands shed light on the experience of suffering and the very real and painful healing process. The plaster hands are humanized with video documentation of conversations and photographs of their smiles and frowns of remembrance – so that the audience might hear the voices of those people who suffered and see the perseverance in their expressions. These are their stories, and Htein Lin pieces them together like setting a broken bone: re-breaking it first, in order to tell the story of how it broke, and binding it together with plaster, glue and cloth, an attempt to make it worthy of repair.
Bones heal and grow – they are never the same as they once were, but the plaster sets them as straight as it can, makes it useful again, to fight another day. Art heals, stories heal, plaster heals.
It’s joyful to have survived, at least I’ll never feel dull
Those love friends who have departed, I pine for them
I long for them, I’m proud of each and every one of them
– Aung Cheimt, The Storyteller