Catching Up with Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint

By Sophie Grossman

Graywolf Press received more than 700 submissions to its annual Nonfiction Prize this year, and the one manuscript they chose—Zat Lun—belonged to our very own Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint. We're happy for Thirii, but we're not at all surprised. The author of the novel The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven has been wowing us (and her students) with her writing smarts for months now.

We caught up with Thirii ahead of her next Lighthouse class, Experimental/Hybrid Forms, to talk about the benefits of genre, the challenges of language, and her advice for women writers of color.

Q. There's often a stark line drawn between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which includes science-fiction and fantasy and is often assumed to have less intellectual/emotional substance than “literature.” As the author of an apocalyptic fiction novel with surreal/fantastical elements, how do you feel about this perception? What can fantasy and speculative elements contribute to a work that would be absent from a realist piece?

A. I grew up reading eclectically—everything from Animorphs to Great Expectations to Lord of the Rings—so it’s sometimes hard for me to understand the binary between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” Is Frankenstein by Mary Shelly literary or genre? How about The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin? How about Beloved by Toni Morrison? It seems to me that “genre” is more an evaluative category than a descriptive one. A book is only counted as “genre” when someone means to discount its emotional/intellectual merits.

I personally do no experience life the way a realist novel is written. Things like plot, setting, description, and dialogue, in my experience, fail miserably to capture what it is actually like to be alive. In fact, I think what authors like Shelley and Morrison have shown is that sometimes a story about a monster or a ghost can do a better job of expressing the complexity of life than a “realist” story.

Q. Your novel also seems to invoke the structure and voice of mythology/folk narratives. What role do you think myth and legend, our oldest stories, have in the 21st century? What is the benefit of sustaining, reviving, and renegotiating these traditional modes of storytelling?

A. When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class on myths and folk tales with Robert Coover, and he assigned a scientific article about the Big Bang as a creation myth. It was an affirming experience for me because I grew up “believing” both in a scientific worldview and in a syncretic Buddhist/Burmese animist cosmology. That is, I grew up believing in stories—that stories create the world, and that the world is not singular and definitive, but plural, changing, and sometimes contradictory.

It is human nature to tell stories, to make meaning through narrative, and if people don’t ascribe to traditional stories anymore in the 21st century, I think it’s only because we now have contemporary myths such as capitalism, neoliberalism, and representative democracy. For me, ancient myths and legends are appealing because they foreground the subjective process of storytelling and meaning-making, and thus challenge totalizing contemporary narratives.

Q. None of the characters in your novel have names, and I noticed that this is the case in some of your short stories as well. How does this change the writing process for you? Does it lead you to think of and develop your characters differently? And how do you think it shapes the form and meaning of a piece?

A. I think of myself as more of a receiver than a creator when I write. When I’m writing characters, I don’t feel like I am thinking them up or developing them, but that I am discovering them. Sometimes their names are part of that discovery, but most often, as you’ve noticed, my characters do not reveal their names to me. I think this challenges me to distinguish the character for the reader in a deeper way. Also, because the character keeps their name a secret even from myself, it makes me even more intrigued by them. I think I would feel bored if I only wrote characters who I’ve “created,” who are completely known to me. I prefer for my writing to be a mystery even to myself.

Q. You were born in Myanmar and lived in Bangkok, Thailand, for seven years before moving to California with your family. And as a graduate student, you had a Fulbright scholarship to Madrid, where you lived for nine months. How has the experience of being exposed to and speaking other languages influenced your writing? How does it make you think about language and words in a different way?

A. I was raised bilingual in Burmese and English from birth, so from the beginning, I remember being aware of the gap between language and reality. I never took language for granted. At the same time, I never took reality for granted either. I knew in very practical ways that language created my reality. There were certain feelings I could only express in Burmese, and other feelings I could only express in English. When I learned Spanish, I discovered that this was true of that language as well. Soledad, for example, is an entirely different feeling for me than either solitude or loneliness.

So whenever I write, I feel like I’m writing under constraint. I’m always very aware that the English language limits and determines what I can say. Writing for me is about trying to say precisely what cannot be said with the words that are available. It’s an impossible task, and that’s what makes it meaningful.

Q. You write both fiction and non-fiction. Where do you think the line is between the two, and do you ever blur it?

A. I have only one writing process, which is to cultivate openness and ease. Sometimes what I write is intended to be both factually and emotionally “true” and then I call it nonfiction. Other times, it is only intended to be emotionally true, and I call it fiction. All of my work though is some mix of memory, research, and imagination. It would be impossible for me to say any of my work is “purely fiction” or “purely nonfiction.” I don’t think such categories even exist!

Q. What advice would you give to other women of color who aspire to be published and have their artistic voices heard?

A. Something I’ve learned is that it is okay to say “no” to opportunities. Writing from a position of obscurity and scarcity for so long, I used to say “yes” to everything and scatter and deplete my creative energy. I’ve since been trying to remind myself that it’s much smarter and healthier to prioritize my writing and my teaching. I now try to do only what I can and what I want, and it’s been rad!

Sophie Grossman is one of Lighthouse's summer interns.