Our Home in Myanmar: Four Years in Yangon is a delightful read, both an accessible introduction to Myanmar and a candid behind-the-scenes look at journalism in a developing country. The “our” in the title refers to the author, Jessica Mudditt, a young Australian, and Sherpa, her Bangladeshi husband, whom she met when she was working for a newspaper in Dhaka. The four years in question are 2012 to 2016, and “Yangon” is a new name for the city of “Rangoon.” What makes the memoir shine is the author herself; she’s big-hearted, down-to-earth, and likeable. In a field where oversized egos are the norm, Mudditt is modest; yes, she has a lot to be modest about in terms of knowledge when she arrives in Yangon, but at least she’s honest about it. Here she is berating herself for a piece she submitted to the editor with ethnic groups erroneously named:
I muddled up Kayin and Kayah and omitted Kachin altogether, not realising it was something different. On top of that, I’d given the male honorific ‘U’ to a female speaker instead of ‘Daw’, as I hadn’t realised she was a woman.
I was painfully aware of how little I knew about Myanmar, and I was overwhelmed by the steep learning curve ahead of me. Myanmar’s political history was so complex and there were a staggering 135 ethnic minority names to learn: I wondered how I would ever get a handle on the basics.
Yes, it’s a steep learning curve but this is a plus for readers unfamiliar with the country; she gives much of the essential background on history, culture, and politics – the basics she had to learn. Not being a Burma specialist, Mudditt’s newspaper writing was focused more on human-interest features – subjects like the hair trade, animal shelters – and one suspects that she excelled at this, engaging easily with people, listening sympathetically, and coming away with good stories.
She’s modest about her economic circumstances, too, relating how she had to borrow money from her parents to pay the deposit on her rental property. In an email home: “I know I should have some savings at my age. But right now I don’t know what else to do. I’m really sorry but I need a loan.”
The first chapter sees Mudditt starting work as a sub-editor at The Myanmar Times.
Here I was in beautiful, beguiling Myanmar, and I wasn’t merely passing through: I was about to start a month-long trial at Myanmar’s best known newspaper, at a time when the country was beginning to take tentative steps in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
She passes the trial at the newspaper, but is eventually fired. That’s a boon for the reader as it adds variety to the writing work she does; there’s freelancing and its attendant poverty, an enjoyable stint at the British embassy, a United Nations project, and the bizarre experience of working as an editor at the state-run The Global New Light of Myanmar.
The content in Our Home in Myanmar is at times rather lightweight; instead of groundbreaking stories and deep dives into Burmese culture and politics we get a lot of workplace and domestic details: office dynamics and personalities, house hunting, and visa difficulties – a lot of visa difficulties. This might not be as exciting as accounts of dangerous assignments to border hotspots, but anyone who has walked a mile in Mudditt’s shoes will understand the crushing weight of visa woes. Indeed, it was a visa problem – her husband’s inability to get a new one – which forced the couple to leave Myanmar.
The writing in the memoir is good though not exceptionally so, and as I just mentioned the content sometimes isn’t that substantial. Why then does the book work so very well? Other than the likability of the author and the accurate depiction of settling down in a foreign country, I think there are several key factors.
First up, it’s a journalist’s memoir. Writing skill comes with the job. Journalists can, of course, write and they also have something to write about. Their work brings them into contact with locals from a wide cross-section of society, and with fellow journalists who are often colorful characters. Journalists also have a lot of previously written material to draw on, and things they’ve wanted to say but been unable to because of length constraints or censorship issues.
Secondly, four years is a perfect span of time for a book on a foreign residence – a sweet spot in terms of knowing too little and knowing too much. Knowing too much? It’s heartbreaking to admit this, but you have a better shot at penning a winning book – at least a book that is relatable for the general reader – after four years of residency than as a two-decade veteran. Four years gives you enough material and knowledge, and enough of a narrative timeline, yet you retain memory of all those new flavours of discovery and the frustrations of adjusting. In contrast, the twenty-year veteran has forgotten those early feelings and the current discoveries are increasingly niche. Take, for example, Mudditt’s visit to the temple-studded archeological wonder of Bagan. Over dinner, she’s reading her guidebook: “The section describing the temples seemed to go on and on.”
‘The past couple of days have been amazing, but I think I’m templed out,’ I confessed to Sherpa. ‘And we haven’t even scratched the surface of what there is to see.’
‘That’s true – but we’d need to spend at least a couple of weeks here to say that we had,’ he said as he stroked a cat that was swishing opportunistically around his ankles. ‘Maybe tomorrow we could swim at that hotel pool you mentioned, and just explore the temples in the afternoon?’
‘Sounds perfect,’ I said, suddenly awash with relief.
So, in Our Home in Myanmar, we get brief general descriptions of temples and other attractions, whereas a long-termer would likely go into temple minutia; architectural detail here, religious detail there, and make a rollcall of historical characters.
Another important element is timing. Mudditt had a ringside seat to the opening up of a hermit nation and its precarious first steps to democracy. Myanmar was the hottest story in Asia in those years; the exiting new place to invest in and visit. There was something of a stampede of businesses and organisations, an influx of tourists, journalists; and politicians – American president Barack Obama, for example, made two visits during Mudditt’s stay.
Related to timing, is narrative arc. Actually, there are two in this story: the author going from early stumbles to successful media professional, from newbie to expat old hand, and, alongside that, Myanmar’s journey to openness and freedom, culminating in an election in 2015.
Lastly, an X factor in needed to make a book stand out from its peers, a unique spice if you will. This comes from Mudditt being married to a Bangladeshi, which gave her a different experience than what she would have had if she were single, or married to a Westerner or a Burmese. She saw up close the rise of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment. In the border area with Bangladesh, a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, were being persecuted; in Yangon, her husband was encountering racist abuse and treatment, and visa hassles. There was a growing sense of malice. This was not paranoia or over-sensitivity on the author’s part, as evidenced by subsequent events. Just a month after the couple left Myanmar, the military launched a bloody campaign against the Rohingya, prompting an exodus of hundreds of thousands into Bangladesh.
In February 2021, as Mudditt was writing the final chapter of her book, the military seized power in Myanmar, unwilling to see the winners of the 2020 election sworn into power. As Mudditt writes in the epilogue:
Myanmar’s sudden return to a dictatorship means that I have inadvertently written a history book. It documents a brief window of time when the country opened up to the world and embraced democracy. So much for my ‘Dawn of a New Era’ headline in The Global New Light of Myanmarthe day after the elections in 2015. What we’re seeing is a tragic case of history repeating itself.
Our Home in Myanmar: Four Years in Yangon is available as an e-book, a paperback, and an audiobook. It’s available through numerous retailers – you’ll find a list on the author’s website.