Friday, March 11, 2016

Not Out of Hate by Ma Ma Lay, Translated by Margaret Aung-Thwin

Not Out of Hate
Ma Ma Lay (Ma Tin Hlaing) (1917-1982)
Translated by Margaret Aung-Thwin (Burmese)
Original published 1955; I read 1991 English translation, Silkworm Books 2006 edition
216 pages, psychological, social commentary, love story(?)

Many thanks to Silkworm Books for providing a review copy of this book, and for meeting with me when I visited Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

Trigger warning for discussion of intimate partner abuse.

Way Way is a 17-year-old girl who has been brought up in a traditional Burmese family. Her father runs a rice export business, and her mother left several years ago to become a Buddhist nun. Way Way dearly loves her father and, as the only child left at home when his health takes a turn for the worse, cares for both him and the business.

When a new neighbor arrives, a thoroughly Anglicized Burmese man named U Saw Han, Way Way is struck by his sophistication. She becomes ashamed of the difference between U Saw Han’s English style (of food, furniture, clothing, and so on) and her own rural Burmese style. U Saw Han, in turn, is struck by the contradiction between Way Way’s apparent innocence and childlike behavior and the responsibilities she takes on in the household and business. When they get married, Way Way realizes that his British airs, and his insistence that she also follow them, are not actually what she wants – but at that point there’s no turning back.


After their marriage, U Saw Han is thoroughly abusive toward Way Way, although he doesn’t seem to realize it.Out of love” he prevents her from eating the food she likes, wearing clothes that she wants to wear, and even visiting her ailing father. This culminates in refusing to allow her to visit her dying father after she receives an urgent telegram.

Way Way doesn’t know how to deal with this, and she tends to blame herself for not living up to his expectations. In response to this constant pressure, she tries to force herself to act differently – to be ok with not visiting her father, to resign herself to living under his thumb. To change into a completely different person, because U Saw Han doesn’t actually love her, just an idea of her.

Much of his abuse takes the form of being overly worried about her health – so much so that he creates a strict schedule to ensure that she takes the “proper” medicines at the right times, sleeps enough, takes a walk at the right time every day, etc. It is this incredibly suffocating schedule that causes much of her distress; his worries actually have the effect of causing her health to worsen. But this abuse is rather cleverly disguised as concern for his wife’s fragile health, leading no one to contradict him even as her health worsens.

This version of the novel contains an excellent biography of the feminist, no-nonsense, incredibly influential author Ma Ma Lay. So why did this very feminist author write a book like this? Answer: it carefully examines the psychological, emotional, and physical problems that come from a "love" that is too smothering. As Way Way’s health deteriorates, we witness her psychological adjustment to the situation. We feel her pain when her husband refuses to let her see her father when he is on his deathbed. The author walks us through Way Way’s psychological turmoil and the choices she makes to fit into her husband’s vision of her. The result is a complex picture of a relationship with an abusive partner, one that allows the reader to understand why abused people stay in the relationship and how they see what is happening.

Becoming a nun

Way Way’s mother left her family several years ago to become a nun. The implications of this decision were huge. Her mother has chosen to renounce the world and her father chose to let her do so, despite his great love for his wife. Their relationship is the opposite of that of U Saw Han and Way Way: instead of smothering his wife with his love and preventing her from choosing her own path (in any aspect of her life) as U Saw Han does, Way Way's father lets his wife go when that’s what she wants to do - despite the great psychological pain it causes him. To show his love, he continues to provide financial support for his wife so that she can pursue enlightenment without worrying about anything. This is a great example of a loving, respectful relationship.

When Way Way goes alone to attend her father’s funeral, she finds that she can finally breathe. She realizes just how suffocated she was in her husband's house, and after the funeral she ends up going to a monastery in the mountains with her mother. There she is free to do as she likes, to go wherever she likes when she likes, and to generally just be herself. She is at peace. Seeing this great difference, Way Way contemplates taking vows and becoming a nun herself - allowing her to escape from her husband's grasp.

But then she learns that she is pregnant. Whereas the nuns were supportive of her decisions before, they now encourage her to return home to her husband - especially her mother.
That night she could not sleep. She was anxious and depressed that she was pregnant. In other words, she thought to herself, I'm going to be subject to being further corrected and improved by my dear husband....
"Daughter, are you all right?" she heard her mother's gentle, soft voice. Way Way stood there, confused and dull. Her mother's presence made her quiet and peaceful. Putting a hand on her shoulder, her mother said, "My dear, this is life. Don't be afraid. Think how happy your husband will be. It is now time to go back to him. It will be a grievous fault to remain here now." Way Way went quietly back to the room. Lying facedown, she stifled her sobs.
What an incredibly powerful scene. When it turns out she is pregnant, no one, not even a woman who gave up her family to seek enlightenment, even questions the idea that she should return to her husband. Way Way herself makes the direct connection between pregnancy and living with her husband. Her mother even brings religion into it: it would be a sin to stay in the mountains when she is pregnant! Because of all this social pressure, Way Way is resigned to the inevitability of her return, but that doesn't mean that she's happy about it. It's a tragedy that these social constraints leave her no choice but to return to her abuser.


If I were to describe this book in one word, it would be “intimate.” This is an incredibly intimate look at family dynamics in pre-independence Burma, from the love of a daughter for her ill father to the intimacy between sisters who fall asleep telling each other stories. Although anti-Colonial politics do make an appearance, particularly with Way Way’s activist brother, the intimacy of the relationships is the main focus. While differences in political opinion do cause some problems between members of the family, it is the love that they all share that continues to unite them – except for U Saw Han, who scorns his wife’s family.

Probably the biggest conflict in this novel is the difference between the intimacy that Way Way has experienced her whole life, the relaxed intimacy of rural Burmese life, and the stiff formality of U Saw Han’s British airs. U Saw Han represents Way Way's opposite: he does not care for anyone besides his wife. He considers her family's Burmese ways to be base and disgusting, and from the beginning he keeps his distance from them. And though he doesn’t seem to realize it, this means that he also keeps a great emotional distance from his wife as well.

Overall, this was a powerful psychological study of a woman in a relationship with an abusive partner – one that is maintained, in large part, by the Colonial idea that Western concepts, mores, and medicine are preferable to anything developed by the Burmese. Did I like the novel? No; more than once I exclaimed to Tintin about how stupid the characters were, and I almost couldn’t finish it. But despite that, I must say that it's an incredibly powerful, compelling story that will stay with me for a long time.

Have you read this book? Let me know what you thought in the comments.

Further Reading: 

"Close proximity," a translated short story by Ma Ma Lay
"It's not your relationship that's abusive - it's your partner" by James St. James (Everyday Feminism) 

Want to see more reviews of world literature and film? Follow me on Twitter or like The Globally Curious's facebook page!

No comments:

Post a Comment