Smile as They Bow by Nu Nu Yi (Inwa) is a story of Daisy Bond and his* life as an illustrious natkadaw (spirit medium). The book was translated to English in 2008 by Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye. Set during the yearly Taungbyon Festival held near Mandalay, the book tells more about the colourful cultural and religious activities at the Festival as well as the various lives of people who go there.
Fifty years old Daisy Bond is one of the respected natkadaw at the festival with several followers despite his outspoken personality with a filthy mouth. Min Min is his personal assistant and also his lover. Daisy brought Min Min to his side 7 years ago and there’s been ups and downs in their companionship. Daisy being the boss, the young lover has endured many abuses and gibes in public. Sometimes, Min Min sneaks behind Daisy and meets with girls. One day during the festival, he meets a begger girl and falls for her. When Daisy finds out, Min Min tries to get away with the girl. The drunk-in-love Daisy is furious and afraid that his lover would leave him.
Nats are similar to deities or spirits that have been worshipped for centuries long by many people in the Myanmar. For these Nat believers or worshippers, there are natkadaws (spirit mediums ) who are possessed (in trance) by Nats. They offer and pray to these various deities provided by their worshippers and in return, they give out prophecies or guidance for the worshippers. The natkadaws are one big part of gay community in Myanmar. Myanmar is quite a conservative country when it comes to queer community but being natkadaw is a respectable profession for gay men for nat-worshipping is part of the religious circle.
The book was originally written in Burmese in 1995 and it’s likely to be the earliest novel with a gay character as a main protagonist without travestying the queer community. I’ve read it somewhere that the book has been banned for 12 years in Myanmar. Although the book doesn’t represent the majority of gays in Myanmar’s lgbtqia+ community, it fairly described the natkadaws. For this book, Nu Nu Yi (Inwa) was nominated for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.
I read the Burmese original back in 2008 and I picked it up last week before I read the English translation. In early parts of the book before Daisy’s character is introduced, there are several narrators and I believe it is to illustrate the vibrant scenes of Taungbyon Festival. However, there are some new narrators coming in midst of Daisy’s narrative, too. I feel like the narrators are all over the place and the pages are crowded just like the festival is crammed with its pilgrims. You could easily get lost. If you’re unfamiliar with spirit worshipping, the story is a make-or-break for the unseasoned reader, I suppose.
Despite all this, the story is absorbing and its English translation is suave and lyrical. Daisy is as chatty and sharp tongue as he can be in both languages. The character is brilliantly portrayed and eloquently translated. It is not a strong and evocative in terms of storytelling but it sure shows the (non-Burmese) reader a culture unseen in a corner of the ever busy world. I’m glad it was translated into English. An enjoyable read in both Burmese and English.
* male pronoun is used and as it was translated in 2008, I guess language and concept related to transgender were quite unknown. Daisy character used non-gender pronoun in Burmese original.