I’ve seen a real, live heroine. Aung San Suu Kyi was speaking at the the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay and I was there. Unfortunately, I only listened to her on the video screen because of the huge crush to get in the room in which she was speaking. But, by luck, I saw her through the open window of her car as she left, looking serene with a red flower in her hair. Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson for the National League for Democracy and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Now that is a woman with story. And man, is it epic?
Her father, the de facto Prime Minister who negotiated independence from Britain, was assassinated when she was two. Her mother was Ambassador to India in 1960. After a childhood spent in Burma and India, Suu Kyi went to Oxford University.
At the literary festival, in conversation with Dame Joan Bakewell, she said: ‘I had never voted in a free election and would explain to Oxford intellectuals how precious that is. If you don’t vote, you start to lose your democratic right. Rights entail responsibilities.’
I imagine any apathetic students, cynical about politics and politicians, would have taken note. I can’t imagine anyone not paying attention to Suu Kyi, such is her poise, grace and intellect.
She graduated from Oxford University in 1969 and married fellow student Michael Aris three years later. Before she married, she told her husband-to-be that if her people ever needed her, she would return to Burma. He was, she said, ‘a remarkable man’, because he accepted that. They had two children and the family spent the 70s and 80s in the UK, India and the USA.
In 1988, she went back to Burma to look after her dying mother and found that protestors against the dictator U We Nin were being killed. She started speaking out against him and began a peaceful movement for democratic reform. She spent 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest.
She said that, during those times, she kept up a discipline of rising at 4.30am to ‘meditate then listen to the BBC news’. She spent time brushing up on languages, reading philosophy, politics and biographies, and playing the piano. ‘I was conscious of not wanting to waste time,’ she said.
Between being placed under house arrest in 1989 and the death of her husband in 1999, she only saw him five times. When he was diagnosed with cancer, the government denied him a visa. She was free to go and see him but feared she would not be allowed to return to Burma. She said the decision not to see her husband one last time was made easier because it ‘had already been decided’ before they were married. He knew she wouldn’t go back to see him.
Suu Kyi, now 68, has been free from house arrest since 2010. She won a by-election in 2012 in a landslide and became a member of parliament for the NLD. There is a general election next year but the junta added a clause to Myanmar’s constitution in 2008, which says that the presidency can’t be held by anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals, deliberately thwarting Suu Kyi. Her story continues.
I suppose what sets her story apart is that she followed a higher calling to lead a pro-democracy movement and dedicated herself to it. She put her sense of duty to her nation above that of her family. That’s hard!
She said she has ‘personal regrets’ at not being able to be with her family and would have liked to see her children grow up but, at the same time, she ‘had no doubts’ that she had to stay with the Burmese people.
So, given her own epic story, I was interested to hear, in a session about literary heroes, that her literary heroine was Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Suu Kyi said: ‘Elizabeth was courageous, wouldn’t stand any nonsense and was not intimidated by rank or money.’ She was not held back by what other people think, ‘that was part of her courage,’ she said.
Ok, so Suu Kyi’s favourite book is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. No surprise there. But Elizabeth Bennett? Don’t get me wrong, I love the book and I love the character but somehow Elizabeth Bennett’s courage seems nothing compared to that of Suu Kyi.
Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, did point out that ‘we have a heroine in our midst’ and paid tribute to Suu Kyi’s ‘courage and dedication’. Her own literary hero was the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes who, while everyone else played along pretending the emperor was dressed, said ‘but he isn’t wearing anything at all’. For Chang, the person who states the truth when others won’t is heroic.
Chang has lived through hard times. Another of her literary heroines is Madame Bovary, a copy of which she had when they were burning books during the cultural revolution in China. ‘I felt so much for her. I shared her sense of frustration and claustrophobia.’ It wasn’t the frustration of a bourgeois life, she said, but life under a totalitarian regime.
That is the power of a book, to reach down the ages and for the human truth in it to touch someone in a different time and place.
Louis De Berniere, of Captain Corelli fame, said his favourite hero was D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers, although at the end of the books it was Porthos who was the real hero as he gives his life for the others.
So Aung San Suu Kyi picked her hero for courage, Jung Chang for being truthful and Louis de Berniere for self-sacrifice.
De Berniere mentioned, in a separate session, that his father was always quoting poetry at the dinner table, usually Shakespeare, and Hamlet’s ‘To thine own self be true’ speech was a particular favourite. And it occurred to me that perhaps it is Elizabeth Bennett’s courage to be herself and defy the conventions of her time that resonates with Suu Kyi.
It does take great courage to listen to the inner voice, to reach for the truth and to be our own true selves. Sometimes you have to go against the grain, defy convention and sacrifice an ordinary life to do that. But it’s in living as our own true selves, and answering our calling that we become heroic.