By Pramudith D Rupasinghe
Jessica Mudditt is a Sydney-based journalist whose articles have been published by The Economist, BBC, CNN, GQ and Marie Claire. She was accredited as a newspaper journalist in London in 2009 and spent a decade working in the UK, Bangladesh and Myanmar before returning to Australia in 2016. She also worked at the British Embassy and the United Nations.
Our home in Myanmar is Jessica’s latest book, a memoir about the four years she lived in Yangon from 2012. Our Home in Myanmar documents a period of great hope and progress for the country, despite the challenges that abounded. During the historic elections of 2015, Jessica was the first expatriate journalist to work for the country’s state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar.
1. Jessica, you are a journalist by profession and have worked with several media outlets, diplomatic missions and the UN. How has your career shaped your authorship? Can you tell our readers about your journey as an author?
My memoir is mostly about my work in Myanmar – both as a staff journalist and the odd role I held outside of the media, such as when I worked at the British Embassy. So essentially, I’ve used my career as material for my book. As a journalist, I mostly remove myself from the story, so it was fun to get to write a ‘behind-the-scenes’ account for my memoir. For example, I wrote an article for The Bangkok Post about how common it is to find cobras inside homes in Yangon. As part of my research for that story, I had cobra soup in a restaurant and I saw the cobras kept in steel barrels out the back. I was nervous that I’d be uncovered as a journalist. That is about as Gonzo as I get! Cobras are actually endangered because there is a flourishing trade in consuming them for their supposed aphrodisiac properties.
2. Burma, modern-day Myanmar is a place where several famous authors including George Orwell, Pablo Neruda, Rosanna Lay, have written books about. There are hundreds of others. According to you, what is captivating about Burma?
It is a very, very beautiful country. To the north are snow-capped mountains, and to the south is a pristine archipelago with sea gypsies. In between are the thousand-year-old temples of Bagan, and in the commercial capital of Yangon, where I lived for four years, is the enormous, golden Shwedagon Pagoda. It is particularly beautiful at night time and I never got used to seeing it from whichever vantage point I had – it always took my breath away. Another thing that makes the country special is the fact that a lot of traditional practices have been maintained, such as wearing the bark paste thanaka as a sunscreen and women wearing traditional dress, which is known as a longyi. I think that visiting writers over the centuries have found Myanmar a fertile place for material and an enigmatic backdrop.
3. Your book Our Home in Myanmar talks about your first-hand experiences and beyond. Can you tell our readers about the book and the inspiration behind the story?
I arrived in Yangon with my Bangladeshi husband Sherpa in 2012, as the democratic transition had just begun. The speed of change was incredible, and all the more so considering that half a century of brutal military rule had preceded it. There seemed to be a real desire to re-engage with the international community after decades of self-imposed isolation. The book is about my experiences in Myanmar in the lead up to the historic elections of 2015, but I am just the vehicle to describe the extraordinary changes that the country was undergoing. Tragically, all that progress is now being undermined by the military, who staged a coup in February and overthrew a democratically elected government.
4. You wrote the book while working. As a busy professional, as well as a single parent of two young children, can you tell us a bit about how the writing process moved forward and the kind of support you received from your family members?
I have two daughters aged two and 10 months, and they supported me by being wonderful sleepers. Every time they napped, I worked on the manuscript. That time was precious so I didn’t waste it. I separated from Sherpa in October last year. It was really sad, as we had been together ten years. However he would come and look after the girls four times a week (and still does), so I also used that time to write my book. So there were quite a few dedicated slots, outside of my work hours, when I could chip away at it. I am grateful that Sherpa takes his responsibilities as a father very seriously. Aside from that being fantastic for the girls, it enabled me to finish my book. And now that my book has been published, my parents are really supportive and encouraging. My mum phones me up to give me the name of bookstores near her home that I should approach to stock it!
5. Have you experienced any writer’s block amid the writing process? If yes, how did you overcome it?
My training as a journalist taught me not to let writer’s block take hold. As part of becoming accredited as a newspaper journalist by the UK’s National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), I had to write news reports in 20 minutes or less in the exams. We were provided with a long list of facts and we had to write up the news article in the time provided – if not, it was an automatic fail. That was a great grounding as a writer. Even today, as a freelance journalist, missing a deadline would be professional suicide. Writer’s block is therefore a luxury I cannot afford. I’m not saying that the words flow out of me every day, but even when the process feels difficult and awkward, I persist until it’s done.
If you were to write another book about Myanmar, what would be your title? And why?
I have said everything I wanted to say about my experiences in Myanmar, so my next book will be a memoir about living in Bangladesh. I have a title for it but I am keeping it a secret until it is ready for release. I am superstitious like that!
Since its first democratic election, Myanmar has been transformed into a different place. What do you think, as an author, journalist, and a person who lived a part of your life in Myanmar, about the country’s changes and impact on its people?
I used to be very optimistic about Myanmar’s future. There were many challenges in its journey to improved prosperity and human rights, but it seemed to be on the right path. The military coup in February is nothing short of horrifying. Some analysts have warned that Myanmar is on the brink of becoming a failed state and the cost to human life has already been enormous. The people have been through so much already and I sincerely hope that this is the last battle they face against the regime.
The Rohingya crisis is the world’s largest refugee crisis of our times, and now its been transformed into a protracted crisis with no solution in the vicinity, racism, islamophobia, and intergroup anxiety has created roadblocks in the country’s future, what is your view on it?
The needless suffering of the Rohingya is one of the great tragedies of modern times. I can’t believe there is still no solution in sight for them, after five years of living in shocking conditions in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and years of persecution in Myanmar. I saw the footage of the fires that ripped through a camp in March. It was terrible to see.
What is your opinion about the role of art and literature towards achieving goals in social cohesion and reconciliation in Myanmar?
I think that art and literature have a vital role to play in Myanmar. For a long time, freedom of expression was denied. The gallery owner of the Strand Gallery in Yangon told me during an interview in 2013 that she used to hide paintings in her back room because the military would have deemed ‘controversial.’ This included anything that depicted poverty (or nudity). As the political transformation got underway, the gallery owner was able to hang these paintings up on display in the gallery. In turn, people bought the paintings and provided a livelihood to artists. But once again, many of Myanmar’s artists and poets are behind bars. It is just so sad.
Myanmar hosts one of the most lucrative literary event in Asia- the Irrawaddy Literary Festival. What is your opinion about the future of literate and art of Myanmar taking the latest political development of the country into consideration?
It was a fantastic festival and one that attracted some big-name authors, both local and international. Of course, the literature festival cannot take place in the current political climate in Myanmar and this is a great loss to authors and book lovers around the world. One of my fondest memories of my time in Myanmar (although it didn’t make it into the book) was having a wine and a cigarette with Man Booker prize winner Anne Enright on the sidelines of the Irrawaddy Literature Festival. A group of us were having drinks in a bar in a Mandalay hotel that was hosting the festival. I was star-struck and she was so kind and friendly, and we compared stories of trying and failing to quit smoking. She told me that she won an award (was it the Booker?) and she was so shocked that her first instinct was to reach for a cigarette. The author of Captain Correlli’s mandolin, Louis de Bernières, was also there with us, as well as the British Ambassador Andrew Patrick, and a female literary agent who I tried and failed to woo. Now that seems like a memory from the distant past.
As an author who had written about Myanmar, what is your call for the author community to support the people in Myanmar to cope with the current dilemma in the country?
It is very difficult for writers in Myanmar to express their opinion of what the military is doing. There is a real risk that the military will come after them – even just for a Facebook post, let alone an article or an essay. And I know Burmese people in Australia for example, do not post things, because they worry that there may be consequences for their families back in Myanmar. I know that this isn’t relevant to literature per se, but right now there isn’t really time for literature. It is purely about survival and the restoration of democracy and human rights. In time, hopefully the survivors and witnesses will document what is happening to them, as they have done so powerfully in the past. Writers that come to mind include Wendy Law-Yone and Pascal Khoo Thwe.
This is a clichéd question. Writers never stop writing, even in times of adversity. Are you currently working on a new piece of writing? Can you give a hint about that to our readership around the world?
At the moment I am focusing on promoting Our Home in Myanmar, however in a month or so I will start writing my second book. It will be a memoir about living in Bangladesh for three years. I lived there before I moved to Myanmar and it is where I started my journalism career and met my future husband, who I initially hired as my translator. I am really looking forward to writing it.