Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint — born in Myanmar (formerly Burma) — was raised in Thailand until age eight, when her family emigrated to San Jose, Calif., which she describes as "a place with strip malls, ranch-style houses, and foothills in every direction," a place she still has "no name for."
“Names for Light: A Family History,” which won the 2021 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, covers four generations of Myint's family history.
Composed in compressed, laser-sharp interrogations of immigration and prejudice, colonialism and inheritance, “Names for Light” reads like poetry. Language — and its absence — are central to the narrative. Pages contain blocks of empty space, signifying memory/ies lost to geographic displacement. In its power, intensity, and visual presentation, “Names for Light” evokes recent works of Claudia Rankine.
Writing in first person, Myint embraces big themes. On being classified an "immigrant" despite having spent more than half her childhood in California, she uses incomplete sentences to convey what she heard as a schoolgirl in America [italics in original]:
The color of your skin and your hair.
You look like you could be.
You look like you aren't.
On the insidious power of whiteness — Myint refers to her great-grandmother who was not "brown-skinned like me."
Whiteness is not a color or a race or an ethnicity but a construct of power, the power to speak, to tell stories, not only about oneself, but about other people.
In a section on death, Myint lists everyone she knows who has died, including relatives and schoolmates, and a boy from college "who once told me he sometimes looks around a crowded room and wonders, Who will love me?" What follows is crushing, "He was found dead on the subway tracks at four in the morning." The next page is blank, except for a brief statement at the bottom about her dead brother. She writes: "His death the first death in my life, though it occurred before my life began."
Myint's deceased brother overshadows the book. Her thoroughly modern family is steeped in mythology, fusing ancestral deaths into present incarnations. Great-grandfather received "his omen of death" in the jungle. His path from under a bridge in Laymyethna, south to join the Pathein River, through the delta to the Pacific to the shores of northern California, is also the author's: "I was reborn from him." When great-grandmother died, "she was reborn as my middle sister. My sister was my wife in our past life."
Family history unspools against the injustices of colonialism. Great-grandfather was a philanderer but a good and humble man, mocking the honorifics for officials in the colonial government. To preserve grandfather's Bamar in colonialized Rangoon, he was sent to a private Bamar-language school because at the government (English) schools, students had to "wear Western clothes, and take English names. Children were stripped of their unique names...."
"I do not even remember the name of his father," Myint says with an implied sigh. "It is a relief, to be able to forget the names of the fathers."
Myint mines her native Bamar as well as English to embellish origin stories. "Verbs are left un-conjugated in Burmese," she writes. "The same word describes the past, present, and future." This blending of time against Myint's unfolding immigrant experience lends the book an elegiac quality. Brief fragments of text contain bursts of feeling. Dry factual statements amplify unstated feelings.
Myint probes word definitions to point up cultural differences between Myanmar and America. For example, "patriotism" in Bamar is translated not as love of country, but as "love for a people."
With a keen ability to dissect English, Myint looks at names. About hers she writes: River is "myit" in Bamar:
"Rhyming with pyit, the word for thick, and only one letter off from my name, in both Bamar and English. Myit, meaning deep and myint meaning high ... opposites are not vastly different, but often almost the same. Like a shadow, or a reflection."
After taking readers through a fascinating ancestral chain, Myint provides a compressed autobiography in the book's final section (Section V). There, she writes her personal history in an ironic third person. As opposed to earlier, she brings readers to her writerly present in long paragraphs that often cover multiple pages.
Myint offers insight into how she found her authorial voice. Her husband remarks that "the movement in her novel is interesting because it is pointless. The book is about movement itself, he says. It's about process and not the end goal." She wants to disagree but knows he's right. On his 32nd birthday, they drive to a large contemporary art museum to see a show on light. The dim orange light in an exhibit room saddens her. She thinks, "This light gave birth to her consciousness."
For me, “Names for Light” was more of an embodied experience than a read, like swimming in a pool of exquisite reflections on family and rootedness and deracination and sorrow and love. Early on, Myint writes, "Nothing has ever happened to me." This "is the reason I am the storyteller and not the story." I look forward to immersing myself further in her gorgeous storytelling.
Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.