In 2007 Nu Nu Yi’s novella Smile as They Bow was one of five books shortlisted for the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize.
Although it didn’t win the US$10,000 top prize (that honour went to Chinese writer Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem), the following year Smile as They Bow was published in English translation by New York-based Hyperion Books.
The slim hardcover English edition remains one of the very few works of fiction by a Myanmar writer to have been meticulously translated, professionally edited and distributed by a major publishing company in the West.
The translation was done by American freelance translator Alfred Birnbaum and his Myanmar wife Thi Thi Aye, and was based on the original, uncensored manuscript.
“Alfred reads and writes Myanmar very well,” Nu Nu Yi told The Myanmar Times shortly before the translation was published. “His wife is Myanmar and helped him to translate as close to the original as possible. She even demonstrated a nat [spirit] dance for him to grasp the meaning.”
She also revealed that it was the editors at Hyperion who suggested that the book be submitted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, one year before publication. Only unpublished works are eligible for the prize.
She added that the publishing house chose to release Smile As They Bow over another one of her novels, Kamaryut in Blue-Green, which had won the state-sponsored National Literary Award in 1993.
“They chose it because they felt Smile As They Bow reflects Myanmar culture more vividly,” Nu Nu Yi said. “They were also the ones who suggested submitting it for the Asian award. I just gave them the green light.”
Such an eccentric book was never going to be a bestseller in the staid US fiction market, and although it did receive generally favourable reviews, few of them could be considered glowing raves.
One complaint from Western readers was the obscurity of the subject matter.
The translators and editors of the English edition chose to let the story speak for itself rather than weighing the book down with explanatory material such as forewords, glossaries or footnotes. This might have been confusing for readers who were not familiar with nat culture in Myanmar, or who were unaware that Taungbyone was even an actual event.
Despite this, the strength of the book lies in its rich descriptions of the colourfully raucous, bacchanalian festival, allowing readers to experience the noise and chaos for themselves.
While some critics complained of a weak or nonexistent plotline, the meandering manner in which the story unfolds is an accurate reflection of the unchained, flowing atmosphere at Taungbyone, where festivalgoers tend to wander around, following the music from one performance to the next.
The main character, Daisy Bond, is also vividly rendered. The reader is stuck in his head for a large portion of the narration, which is both a blessing and a curse: Bond is simultaneously one the most fascinating, and downright irritating, personas ever to appear in the pages of a work of fiction.