Names For Light: A Family History by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint | Memoir/Autobiography/Creative Nonfiction | Graywolf Press | 270 pages | Review by Firqin Sumartono
Names For Light is the poetic and lyrical autobiography of author Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint. Born in Myanmar and raised in Bangkok and the United States, Myint’s memoir relies heavily on oral histories as her memories of her immigration are fleeting. Myint traces her family history and shows how it has haunted her own personal life. She also shares the disconnect she feels with regards to her identity and the places she has lived. This intense and hypnotic autobiography was the winner of the 2018 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. After reading the first chapter, I understood why Myint was presented with the award. It was not only her use of language but also the visual representation of the text on paper: Myint includes numerous blank spaces as a clue to the unique journey she was about to bring her readers on, reflective of the missing memories of her past.
Intergenerational Trauma, Identity, and Memory
Myint’s songlike prose guides readers through the type of dissociation often inherited with intergenerational trauma. The sorrow in her voice is palpable. It is evident that Myint still carries the weight of her ancestor’s trauma within her – many of the memories are narrated in the third person or as an inhabitant of a family member’s body – a testament to the disconnect she experiences – from her family and herself – a natural by-product of intergenerational trauma.
Names For Light is uniquely structured in a way that weaves Myint’s own timeline with that of her family’s, straddling both dreams and reality. Initially, it can be confusing as a reader because you are brought to different countries and timelines through different characters’ eyes. However, by intertwining these dissimilar narratives and her language style, the book’s structure jolts us and reminds us as readers of Myint’s family’s deep roots and their political histories as mere citizens in a country fraught with conflict.
Ghosts, Omens, and Cultural Knowledge
Myint leans on culture, religious beliefs, and folklore like ghosts, omens, or reincarnation in exploring her family’s history. As a Southeast Asian, this was a refreshing perspective and different from most memoirs I have read.
Within Southeast Asia’s diverse and colourful cultural landscape, ghosts and spirits have not been relegated to the past or seen as backward; instead, they continue to play an important role in the present. This folklore is part and parcel of our upbringing, and the spirits of the departed remain ubiquitous. Ghost and spirits often contribute to the storylines of blockbuster horror films, their stories are passed down from elders, and they are regularly included in conversations over dinners with friends. Essential to Southeast Asian folklore is that it often reflects the social crises and trauma of the living and serves as a warning or a lesson.
Myint’s memoir is a perfect example of how spirits, ghosts, and omens have influenced Southeast Asian literature, our culture, and even the way we see the world. Through her work, Myint shows how they serve as a manifestation of society’s injustices, morals, and complexities, serving as a social commentary on the patriarchy and the downtrodden. They are not mere symbols of spirits seeking reckless revenge. In Myint’s work, we see how firmly embedded this belief is in how we see ourselves, our relationship with this earth, and others. Myint has an undoubtedly masterful skill in weaving this complex understanding of the departed into her memoir.
A Complex Web of Memories
Names For Light is a compelling memoir and a raw look at Myanmar’s past and present. Myint’s intentional writing style builds an intricate and convoluted web of memories that demonstrates how family history is often mired in complexities and difficulties. We see the raw reality of how Myint navigates the racism, pain, and generational trauma from the political and civil unrest in Myanmar as best as she can. As an amalgamation of various identities, we learn how there is no one way to categorise yourself; all your connections to your family’s past will continuously tug at you even when you’re so far away from the Motherland.