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I was conceived in the short month of hope between the 8888 Uprising on August, 8, 1988, and the bloody coup that followed on September 18. The Uprising was a general strike organized by university students from Yangon, then called Rangoon, though workers, ethnic minorities, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian leaders soon joined the ranks. The demonstrations spread all over the country, spread even to Sittwe, the capital of remote Rakhine State, where my parents were teaching English. For a brief month, the students at Sittwe Degree College, my parents’ students, were marching in the streets too. Then the military staged a second coup. They declared a state of emergency. They opened fire on the peaceful protests. General Ne Win said, when the army shoots, it shoots to hit. Thousands died and thousands more were injured, were arrested, were tortured, were disappeared. I do not know how many.


My mother and father and elder sisters lived in Sittwe for three years, from 1987 to 1990. They were transferred there from Rangoon as part of a well-intentioned, though ultimately failed government initiative to send the best governmental employees to the most remote and underdeveloped regions of the country. My parents were not the first university instructors to be transferred, but they were among the first to accept their assignment, to actually go. We felt a duty to our country, my father says. Duty. Patriotism. Service. Words that create nations. Words that create wars. My parents believed in those words. They believed the Rakhine people were their countrymen and women. They believed in the post-independence dream of a peaceful, multi-ethnic Burma. A dream that has never come to fruition.


When I was a child, before I knew where or what exactly Sittwe was, I knew that it was a place of exile. As long as I could remember, my family had lived in places where we did not belong, where people asked us where we came from, knowing by the way we looked, or the way we spoke, or perhaps even by some other, more subtle marker that we had come from elsewhere—but my mother and father never spoke of the places where we lived, where I grew up, as places of exile. Sittwe alone was exilic. It was like being sent to prison, my mother always said, like falling into an abyss. The word she used, meaning gorge, pit, or chasm, rhymed with the word meaning fear. Like falling into fear, I heard. On the eve of my conception, my mother said she dreamed of an abyss, a fear into which she had fallen, and a child who lifted her out.


In the second trimester of my mother’s pregnancy she began to bleed. A threatened abortion. The doctors prescribed bed rest. Universities and colleges all over the country were shut down, so my mother did not even have to take maternity leave from work. She flew back to Rangoon with my two elder sisters. She returned to her parents’ house. In the months following the uprising, the months my mother spent lying in bed, pregnant with me, the military junta whitewashed all the temples in Rangoon. To cleanse the country, they said. To prepare for a new beginning. It was to cover the evidence of their slaughter. The blood stains on the temple walls and floors.


Before she left for Rangoon, my mother consulted a holy man and he foretold that Sittwe would be the place of my death. If I was ever brought back to the city, he said, the land would swallow me. I would be buried in the ground, and all my family after me. The ground that was glutted with the bodies of so many Rakhine and so many Bamar. The ground upon which blood had so recently been spilled. The ground that would swallow more bodies in years to come.


I do not know how my mother found this holy man. I do not know how I could ever find him again. Perhaps she only met him in another dream. She called him bodaw, a title of respect, and it is the only name by which I know him, this man who saved my life. He was not a mortal man, but a healer, as old as the forests in which he lived. His was a wisdom older than the pre-colonial kingdoms, the divisions of people, older even than any religion.


I was born on the sixth day of the waxing moon in Nayon, the third month of the Burmese year. It was the beginning of the rainy season. By the Gregorian calendar, I was born in June of 1989, the month the military junta, which had recently renamed itself SLORC, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, changed all the names in the country as well. Rangoon became Yangon, and Burma became Union of Myanmar. A few days after my birth, I developed neonatal jaundice and the doctors recommended that I be kept at the hospital for treatment. My mother refused. My father, who had returned to Rangoon, now called Yangon, built a makeshift light therapy station for me at my grandparents’ house. A month later, the Rains Retreat, Vassa, began. Two days after that, the leaders of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and hundreds of other political detainees were sentenced, by a military tribunal, to long prison terms or to death.


The first time I returned to Yangon, my little cousin swung a metal pipe in the front yard of my grandparents’ house, and it hit my eldest sister, and she bled, and cried, and believed she would be poisoned by the rust. That night, and every night after that, during our visit, she had terrible, fevered dreams, dreams that infected me and my middle sister since we slept beside her beneath the same mosquito net. Collectively, we dreamed of the crawl space underneath the house, the darkness there, red screams, and the glint of metal. My mother said the house was cursed. The house where she grew up, on a tree-lined street with a wrought iron gate and jasmines blooming in the garden. The house where she lived with her father and mother even after she was married, even after she had given birth to her first child. The house where that child had fallen ill. The house he never returned to.


The second time I returned, it was the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the 8888 Uprising. My mother always said I might have been reincarnated from one of the student protestors, because I was born ten months after the uprising and nine months after the bloody coup that followed. My mother did not like to imagine that I had suffered a violent death, but I romanticized the uprising and the young people who had died for it—shot down in the streets, suffocated in a police van, or executed in the prison yard. I liked to imagine this was the brief life I had before this one, the life of an activist, a revolutionary, a martyr.


The monk asked me, did I want him to read my fortune? and I knew it was a trick question because monks did not tell fortunes. Holy men believed in karma, not superstition. My mother always said so before she gave a reading of any kind, and my father always said so when he wanted to wash his hair on a Wednesday. I did not know how to answer the monk. I could feel my whole family watching me, waiting for me to speak. Finally, the monk said, here is your fortune. You will grow old. You will get sick and you will die. I knew, even then, that the monk was wrong. Many people do not grow old or get sick. They just die.


A few years ago I made a list of everyone I knew who had died, in chronological order. My uncle who died of liver failure. My grandmother who died of diabetes. My grandfather who died of old age. My friend in high school who died in a car accident when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Another uncle who also died of liver failure. A boy in my freshman year dorm who fell off the roof of a building and died. A girl in my anthropology class who was reported dead, though I never found out how she died. My aunt who had a heart attack. A friend of a friend who walked into the bay and drowned himself. A boy I knew from college who once told me he sometimes looks around a crowded room and wonders, who will love me? He was found dead on the subway tracks at four in the morning.


And before all these deaths, my brother died. His death the first death in my life, though it occurred before my life began.


The first time my eldest sister pushed a finger down her throat, she said she thought of our brother, and how he had died because he vomited up all of his milk, because he could not drink, take nourishment, and grow. All the days he was in the hospital, my mother prayed that he would live. She was not allowed to see him at the hospital. My father and my grandparents would not allow it. They believed that women who had recently given birth were in a delicate state, a precarious state, of soft blood and soft skin, and in this state, they were close to madness. My father and my grandparents believed my mother had to be shielded from any shock or disturbance. And my brother’s body had been shocking, my mother said, when she finally saw him at the children’s hospital, in an incubator at the NIUC. She hardly recognized him. He had been a fair, chubby baby, a handsome boy, and now he looked like a shriveled animal, so many tubes and wires sticking out of his little body. He would have fit in the palm of her hand, my mother said, her small, slender hand. But she was not allowed to hold him.


I never found the jars of vomit hidden in the closet I shared with my two sisters, but I always knew the closet was haunted. I always made sure the closet door was closed before I went to bed. My eldest sister vomited in jars because there was only one bathroom between the five of us and it was not easy for her to hide her illness. Sometimes, though, she did not bother to hide it at all, and sometimes she used it as a weapon against my mother. She would lock herself in the bathroom in the middle of a fight, and neglect to turn on the fan, so that my mother could hear what my sister was doing in there, so she would be sorry for whatever she had said. I remember watching my sister on her knees in the kitchen one evening. The cabinet door below the sink swinging open, the trash pulled out, and my sister’s head bent over it. My mother said ghosts eat out of dumpsters and I believed my sister was possessed. I do not know what excuse my sister gave me but I remember I did not believe it. I was old enough to recognize a lie. I said, I’ve puked only once in my life. Keep watching me, my sister said, and you’ll be able to vomit too.


The first time my eldest sister pushed a finger down her throat she thought of my brother and how he had died, how she had died, because that was the worst thing that had happened to her, that had happened to all of us daughters, long before we were born, and when she made herself vomit, it was as if she were bringing him back to life, by reliving his death, as if she were aborting him over and over again, so that in the moment before she bent her head over the toilet, or the trash in the kitchen, or the glass jar in her hands, in the dark of the closet, he was alive again, at the back of her throat, a ghost waiting to be born.


The night I turned ten, I felt sad. I remember kneeling on the bed I shared with my sisters after we had said our prayers as we did every night, and thinking to myself: I won’t make it to a hundred. Long life was one of things my mother taught me to pray for. Good health, happiness, safety, the fulfillment of all our family’s needs and wants. I was taught to pray for my parents to win the lottery, for us to be able to live in a big house and own a nice car. The night I turned ten, I had something like a premonition as I said my prayers. My parents will never win the lottery. We will never move out of apartments. We will never own a decent car. I felt tired of wanting things. Life seemed very long. I did not want to live to a hundred.


That night at the hospital, my mother changed her prayers. She no longer prayed for my brother’s life, she said, but for an end to his suffering.


To this day, I have vomited only once in my life. I remember little of the incident, only having gone to bed nauseous, then waking up in the middle of the night, and suddenly my parents were there in the bathroom with me, my father holding me up by the sink, and the feeling of disgust and relief when I dribbled out a yellowish paste. It felt like crying, but even better and even worse, and still half-asleep it was all a dream or a nightmare: my father’s hands gripping my armpits, the fluorescent light above the mirror, and the shadows everywhere else.


Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, TriQuarterly, and Kenyon Review Online, among others, and has been translated into Burmese and Lithuanian. She is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Denver and is an editor of the Denver Quarterly.

39°40’ N 104°57’ W

The question I have been asked the most in my life has been “where are you from?” This coordinate is what I would like to give as an answer. It is the location of my current address. I am from Yangon, but only to the same extent that I am also from Bangkok, San Jose, Providence, Madrid, South Bend, and now Denver. To borrow the words of Trinh-Minh Ha, I am “from an elsewhere within here”: “two and many non-opposing worlds—all located in the very same place.”