First and most importantly, I urge you to buy/borrow/take out from your local library this book, Nowhere to Be Home, narratives from Survivors of Burma's Military Regime. You can find it here or here. And probably some other places too. It's part of the Voice of Witness non-profit book series, founded by my hero, Dave Eggers, which uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. And if you're already checking out after reading that sentence, because human rights crises immediately raises red flags of sadness in your head, then I really beg you to reconsider. I know that sometimes the world is too sad. God knows the last few weeks have been tremendously and sometimes viciously sad. I know we want to turn inward when the world is like that, to surround ourselves with light and fluff and silliness. I love light and fluff and silliness and I frequently surround myself with those things. But I also realize the important of every once in a while, looking outward, opening our eyes and ears and hearts to other's voices.
And this book is such a great way to do that. No one will be giving you a history lecture. No one will be reading off a dry account of political events. These are people's lives and stories right there on the page, and even though their circumstances may be overwhelmingly different from our own, the circumstances of people raised in a closed world full of oppression, I guarantee that you will find something in their voices that is relatable. Because that's the thing about opening ourselves up to the world. Yes we may find sadness and cruelty and violence, but there will also be reassurance in our own universality, that this world isn't nearly as big and scary as it seems on the news, that in reality its much smaller and more immediate and familiar, that people across oceans and continents who speak different languages and eat different foods are ultimately very much like us or the people we love.
And that's freaking wonderful. That's the very foundation of all of my hope and all of my optimism, that the world will never be beyond saving because the people in it, no matter where they are or what they may be involved in, share a single, common, beautiful humanity, one that transcends culture and politics and religion.
So sorry to get super deep. But I just really encourage anyone to buy this book. Even if you know nothing about Burma, these people's stories will change you and move you and make you better for having heard them.
And my second and far less significant point tonight is that somewhere between the covers of this book is my name, printed in neat type under the list of transcribers. It's in small print and it was a small contribution compared to what others did, but still...
My name is on this. My name will always be on this. My name is associated with something that Dave Eggers (did I mention he was my hero?) is associated with. My name is associated with this beautiful history of this incredible, vibrant country that has managed to survive and to hope and to fight in the face of opposition that I can not even begin to understand. My name is associated with these inspiring, heroic Burmese people who sometimes put their lives at risk just to tell their stories, in the hope that those stories would have the power to lend itself to a movement of change.
I'm very proud of this. Because as a writer a lot of your "moments" are losses, rejections or set-backs that define you and make you better and stronger. That's just the nature of the game. But this is a win, a win I really needed, and a win that had everything to do with writing in the most literal sense of the word and nothing at all to do with me. It was so wonderful and such a blessing to put aside my voice for a little while to help give these people their's.
And in the process, over hours of listening to audio files and copying down what was said, I fell in love with a country I have never seen in person, but which came alive to me from their words. In my experience the only thing that has made the world smaller is traveling, actually seeing a country and its people. But this experience made the world smaller for me without ever having to leave my home. A nation came into focus from a million miles away. Its faces grew clearer. Its heart beat grew loud and impossible to ignore, a beat of stubborn hope that cannot and will not die, even if the only thing that sustains it is a story of freedom, passed down in whispers.
I hope you will read this book. I hope you will hear these people's voices and see their faces and join them and support them and believe with them in that oh so universal and oh so human dream of change.