the extraordinary story of a beauty queen-turned-revolutionary leader
Craig’s historical novel is based on her mother’s life but is also about how the personal and political intertwine
Two-time Miss Burma and Karen revolutionary leader Louisa Benson Craig returns to center stage in the novel ‘Miss Burma’. It might sound unbelievable but Craig’s fictional warrior woman is closely based on a real life figure: her mother Louisa Charmaine Benson Craig. Born in 1941 in Rangoon, Louisa was a two-time winner of the Miss Burma contest, who married a commander of the Karen National Liberation Army when she was 23, was widowed only a year later, after which she led his brigade before eventually emigrating to the United States in the late 1960s.
Miss Burma is a novel heavy on politics, and Craig’s characters aren’t sitting on the sidelines. This is a country which has been “fashioned” by “ethnic hatred”. Craig’s characters expend much energy on long, colorful conversations about how those in charge – from politician U Saw to future prime minister of Burma Ne Win, to assassinated general Aung San to the CIA – might push forward.
Bringing One of Burma’s Lost Histories to Life
“We are bewildered most of the time and doomed to be lost to history,” The Union of Burma, 1949: in a newly independent nation-state, the Karen people began an armed rebellion against Burmese rule. The British had promised them autonomy, but instead their territory became a part of the Union of Burma. Their struggle became one of the longest civil wars in history, but is one that is little known. As a writer of fiction, how does one represent oppression and violence in a different place and time? How does one do justice to personal stories while telling a political history? How does one fictionalize the life of one’s own mother and family members? Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma searches for answers to these.
It is a historical epic, tracing 40 years of Burmese history, from British colonialism through World War II, Japanese invasion, the early years of independence, and finally General Ne Win’s military dictatorship that began in 1962. But it complicates that national history by telling it through the lives of members of the long-persecuted Karen community. And through those lives, it is as deeply personal as it is political. Actor-turned-writer Craig based the protagonists on her grandparents and mother, working on gathering, researching and fictionalizing their stories for over a decade.
When General Ne Win took control in 1962, he perpetuated and deepened the central government’s policies of so-called Burmanization across the country that demanded, “One blood, one voice, one leader.” In reimagining the extraordinary lives of her mother and grandparents, Craig produces some passages of exquisitely precise description. As the much-feted “Miss Burma,” Louisa attends parties held in General Ne Win’s compound, where she is nauseated by “the smell of too much disinfecting fluid mixed with the perfume of cultivated flowers, the sour taste of fear on the air, the hysteric whine of false laughter.”
Benny, based on Craig’s grandfather, has always been on the margins in Rangoon. He is orphaned at seven and sent to study in Calcutta. When he returns, he can no longer speak Burmese. A Jew by birth, he marries Khin and adopts her Karen identity. Their eldest daughter Louisa grows up to be crowned Miss Burma and marry an army commandant. As she rises to fame and the country falls to dictatorship, she must come to terms with her identity, her family’s past, and her people’s history.