Excerpt from ‘Miss Burma’


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Benny wanted to say something then, to ask a question that he couldn’t quite bring to the forefront of his mind. But something about his friend’s eyes, about their persistent sadness, told him to hold his tongue, to still his brain. Saw Lay was five or six years older than Benny, nearing thirty, and whatever he’d been going through recently had aged him significantly. Watching him — the way he sat with one knee bent, his serious eyes, the sheen of perspiration on his forehead — Benny thought, He’s passed out of his youth at the very moment that his dignity is deepening. And he realized, with a warm wave of feeling flooding his chest, that he’d never loved a man as he did Saw Lay. It seemed to him that his friend was largely above human concerns, above even the primary concern to fight first for one’s own life.

“Let me ask you a question,” Benny said, surprising himself. “If a person should want to become a Jew, the process is really very circumscribed — certain guidelines must be followed, certain steps.”

READ MORE: Charmaine Craig Ponders Her Mixed Jewish and Karen Heritage in ‘Miss Burma’

Saw Lay turned to him now with a certain flat caution, a hint of something like defensiveness in his eyes.

“If one wanted to become a Christian,” Benny went on, bumbling, “well, there is baptism.”

“And?” Saw Lay said.

“And — ” Benny rushed on, afraid his friend might be misunderstanding him — the question of faith wasn’t actually on his mind. “If one wanted to become Karen — say, if one wanted to take on a Karen identity, how would one go about it?”

Now Saw Lay looked at him in plain astonishment.

“Would that even be possible?” Benny asked.

“To become Karen?”

“Yes.”

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The question seemed to hang suspended over Saw Lay’s widening features. Then all at once those features contracted, and he broke out in a fit of full-bellied laughter that sent him falling back onto the dusty bank. Benny had never seen him so stripped of the armor of his poise. “As if anyone would want to become a Karen!” Saw Lay heaved, barely getting out the words. “As if anyone would willingly …” He looked so foolish, Benny couldn’t help laughing along with him, first in reluctant spurts, and then fully, relievingly, half sobbing as he fell back beside his friend and they laughed together, laughed until all their laughter was spent, and they lay smiling side by side.

“It’s the simplest thing in the world, my friend,” Saw Lay said finally. Benny heard him inhale the night, then release himself back into it. “All you have to do is want to be one.”

Excerpted from “Miss Burma” © 2017 by Charmaine Craig. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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