Suddenly I found myself falling down a rabbit hole in Easton, Pennsylvania at Lafayette College, and ending up in a Wonderland known as the Experimental Printmaking Institute. It’s overgrown with wild and beautiful art books, from the surreal and phantasmagorical, to the wacky and wonderful, to the exquisite and breathtaking. Fold-out books, accordion books, woodcut books, black light books, silkscreen books. It was like winning a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, only instead of sweeties everywhere, there was fabulous wall-to-wall eye-candy for a book lover such as moi. Curlee Raven Holton, who runs the joint, has assembled an astonishing collection of handmade art books, and established a workshop where time honored bookmaking techniques can be combined with contemporary, state-of-the-art ideas and technology, passing down to the next generation the tradition of making books by hand that dates back to huddled, hooded monks creating the Guttenburg Bible. MaryAnn Miller, a poet and artist of much skill and talent in her own right, introduced me into this strange and beautiful world. I asked her what she was working on, and she showed me The Souls of Fallen Flowers, the breathtaking art book she is stitching together one at a time for the writer Khet Mar, to be presented at a book signing and reception on Friday, February 24, at the Chateau Chavaniac in Easton, PA. When MaryAnn told me about Khet Mar’s heartbreaking and monumentally inspiring odyssey, from being locked up in a Burmese prison for her revolutionary writing, to her harrowing escape and subsequent relocation to City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, I felt like it was my duty to tell the world her story.
DAVID HENRY STERRY: Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
KHET MAR: I grew up in a fishing village. My childhood time was like a huge field with valuable plants and terrible weeds. I didn’t notice how much I liked my childhood time until I was a teen. I still have things to write about my childhood even though I have been writing for 23 years.
DHS: What drew you to being a writer?
KM: I could say one of the basic reasons that drew me being a writer was I loved writing. I grew up with my father’s books and my grandmother’s books. The most important one that drew me being a writer was my grandmother’s encouragement to me to write. My grandma is a book-worm and a primary school teacher. In rural communities, general reading is seen as a bad thing for the middle-school-children, yet my grandma disciplined me and provided books for general reading. This was, of course, the turning point of my life. Being a book-lover, I tended to share my own feelings. Recalling my memory, I wrote my first short story while I was in Seventh Standard for a newspaper we posted on the wall of the middle school. Grandma read it carefully and ‘My grand-daughter can be a writer”, she commented. This very comment of my grandma made me dare to dream to become a writer. Being a girl from a poor family of rural area, without any background of literary field, the purpose, becoming a writer was appearing as a dream. However, I was able to start such a dreamy road by my grand-mother’s loving-kindness and hopeful comment.
DHS: You were only 22 when you were arrested. Why were you arrested, it must have been shocking. What exactly happened, and how did it feel?
KM: When I was a third year university student in 1991, there were few anti-government campaigns in the University. Those were remnants of the vital 1988 uprising that 3000 people were killed and about twenty thousands were arrested. Protestors in 1991 demonstrations asked for the freedom of political prisoners and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the 1991 Noble Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest since 1989. I wrote some political poems and distributed them with friends in the demonstrations. Because of those reasons, I was arrested and was sentenced 10 year imprisonment.
DHS: What was it like in prison? Did you make relationships with other prisoners? What were your captors like?
KM: Prison was like a prison, not like a home. We had to sleep on the concrete floor. We had to eat what they fed. We had nothing to read and write. I made many friends in the prison. Most of my friends who I met in the prison were arrested again and again. The captors were various kinds. I was interrogated by several police intelligences. They used different methods to interrogate to not only me but to every prisoner. Some were soft-liners and some were very cruel.
DHS: How did you get released from prison?
KM: When General Than Shew got power, I was released with other prisoners including some political prisoners in a national amnesty. Burmese authorities usually create an amnesty when a new leader got the nation’s power. General Than Shwe was in the top position for 23 years until 2010.
DHS: When Cyclone Nargis hit, you were almost imprisoned again. Why did this happen, and what were the consequences?
KM: Although about 300,000 died and three millions people became homeless because of Cyclone Nargis, Burmese government did not allow international help and aid. How could I stay away to help the cyclone victims because we all knew a lot of people were dying? I did relief works with my friends. I brought some international journalists to the affected areas when the authorities tried to stop even citizen journalists going there because I wanted international community know about the actual situation of the victims. Doing relief works were dangerous and bringing international journalists to the area were also very risky. The consequences were I was under watch and was investigated by many ways. That was one of the reasons I wanted to be out of my country.
DHS: How did you end up in Pittsburgh?
KM: I tried to be out of country for a few months until 2010 election in Burma. I applied some program that I could be out of my country for a few months. I was selected as a writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. That’s why I end up in Pittsburgh.
DHS: What is your life like now?
KM: My life is like I am at my second home. I feel safe here. Not only myself, but every citizen in Burma felt unsafe.
DHS: The new publication of your book seems to be the culmination of a long arduous ordeal. How did it come about, and how do you feel about it?
KM: I was invited through City of Asylum/Pittsburgh as a writer-in-residence at the Lafayette College in November 2011. One of the projects in my residency term was to make a book of my pieces. It is a very beautiful flower of my effort. I have been very exciting about this book. I can’t wait to see it.
DHS: What do you hope the world will get out of your book, and your experience?
KM: I usually try to share about the truth of my country and my people when I write. I tried to include the pieces that can let readers know about them. My concern abut my book is sometimes I used metaphors and symbols in my writings to avoid censorship in Burma. I hope the readers will figure it out.
Khet Mar is a writer and activist from Burma. A book signing and reception will be held for her book The Souls of Fallen Flowers, in conjunction with Lafayette College’s Experimental Printmaking Institute on Friday, February 24, at the Chateau Chavaniac in Easton, PA.