A Memoir’s Painful Question: Where Are You From?

A Memoir’s Painful Question: Where Are You From?

A Family History
By Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint

Blank space is difficult to employ in a book. It can be read as emptiness or it can offer a reader breath, pause, reflection, meaning. “Names for Light,” a memoir by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, makes ample use of blank space, between paragraphs, strings of thought, scenes and events. When not used, what’s there is jumbled and scattered.

A writer need not be concerned with where she comes from, but for memoir this is its core project. For Myint, who was born in Myanmar before moving to Thailand, the United States and Spain, it is a painful and intrusive question. A question that, by its very asking, suggests she does not belong, a question that displaces her. She balks. Beyond the naming of places (Leymyethna, Gayan, Denver, Sittwe, Yangon, Minbu, South Bend, Hinthada, Madrid), she doesn’t get to the difficulty of the question as a writer — and by this, I don’t mean a place on a map. I mean the stink and cringe and failure and noise and laughter that make a life feel real and lived, the thing that makes a person tick.

We are told that one “can be a ghost while one is still alive … if one carries what one cannot remember. Empty memories, blank memories, absent memories.” This thinking allows the author to get away with being vacuous. When we encounter the “I” in this story, it is often at a distance, “the observer, the outsider, always in the middle of a story but never at the center of it.” She sometimes switches to the third person to refer to herself, as if afraid to speak from the first, to own the voice and power that could be. She tells us, “I do not like to make decisions, to take risks, to assert or involve myself. … I prefer to … keep myself to myself.” And this is what she achieves in her writing — she keeps herself to herself. In doing so, she makes the question of where she comes from illumined and voluminous.

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