Kiplinger Fellow Jennifer Rigby (Class 2015) returned this year from a nearly three-year stay in Myanmar where she chronicled life in the Asian nation, particularly focusing on the empowering women who gained prominence after years of oppression, the “other ladies” of the oftern chaotic nation.
Here is a recent Q&A with Jennifer who is back in her native England with husband and child.
Q1. Give us some background how you found yourself in Myanmar and for how long. And, when did the idea of the book come to you?
I moved to Myanmar with my now husband, who is also a journalist, in 2015. It was a compromise: we both wanted to live and work abroad, but while I suggested somewhere pleasant, like Denmark, he suggested Syria. Myanmar was a mix of the two: reasonably safe, for foreigners at least, and a fascinating place to live with some heartbreaking, challenging and important stories to tell, too.
We also moved there at a time of great hope. After decades of oppression at the hands of a military junta, the first free and fair elections were taking place (in November 2015), and the human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi was set to win. She did win, but it hasn’t been quite so hopeful since. Her government has overseen what has been widely called a genocide of the Rohingya people, and as I write, two Burmese journalists working for Reuters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have been sentenced to seven years in prison just for doing their jobs. It’s not the democratic future she was expected to herald.
My book was originally inspired by Suu Kyi – affectionately known simply as “The Lady” in Myanmar – and the hope she inspired in the Burmese people and around the world. But a lot had already been written about her, and I didn’t want to add more to that. Then, over the next 18 months or so living in Myanmar, I found many more people and stories in the country that embodied hope almost as completely as she did.
So I decided to write about them instead – the ‘other ladies’ of Myanmar of the title. And it’s a good thing I did, because with every day that has passed and every atrocity that has taken place on Suu Kyi’s watch, these women have become more than an addition to her. Rather than her backing singers, as they perhaps were in my original idea of the book, they have now become the headline act; they are carrying the whole tune, and with it, hope for Myanmar’s future.
Q2. How did the book materialize?
I had the idea for the book, but for a freelance journalist to take time out from making money with stories is a precarious business. So I applied for and got a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, which enabled me to focus on all of the women’s stories in depth – traveling to meet them, shadowing them, spending days with them. That was brilliant, and essential to give me time to do the book properly. At the same time, I pitched it to publishers, and the Institute of South-east Asian Studies took it on.
Q3. Was there any time you were concerned about portraying these women given they were rebellious of sorts and you were giving them attention?
The women were all totally aware of what was going on when we were speaking, and the fact that the interviews would end up in a published book. For some of them, their rebellions are not contentious – the refugee sexual heath nurse, for example, or the acid attack survivor – while they are bravely fighting for change, they aren’t fighting for the kind of change that will wind up an increasingly authoritarian government.
That’s not the case for some of the more overtly political campaigners, such as the Rohingya human rights activist, Wai Wai Nu. She is perhaps in a more precarious position, but it’s a place she has incredibly courageously chosen to put herself many times since she got out of prison. As an activist, she uses the local and international press to try to raise awareness for various causes, and so I think – I hope – my book can be part of that for her. But I do think she and a few of the other women had to be careful in what they said at certain points.
Q4. Myanmar is a complex country that seems perpetually mired in conflicts of politics, war and religion. How much of the turmoil factored into your decision to approach a book from these unique feminist views?
Myanmar is spectacularly complex, and I don’t claim to understand it. However, what I did notice as I lived there, learned more and read more books about it, was that any attempts to understand it or explain it came from the male viewpoint, the male voice.
Apart from Aung San Suu Kyi, I just felt that the perspectives of women in Myanmar were completely unheard in the wider world. And at a moment when it seemed the country was about to undergo a historic change, it seemed to me that they were going to play more of a part in its future, and in making it a feminist future. So I wanted to hear from them, and I wanted the international community to hear more from them.
Q5. Were there some figures or topics that were just too sensitive to approach in a book? Did you ever think “officials” might be staring over your shoulder as you interviewed them? Anyone who wanted to talk with but couldn’t?
I didn’t really feel that there was anything too sensitive for me to approach, but that’s probably because as an international journalist, I was able to leave Myanmar whenever I wanted. Although I did write the book outside of the country, and I haven’t been granted a visa to return since.
Until recently, I would have said writing it in Myanmar would have been fine anyway, because it really seemed like press freedom was on the up since the dark days of the junta – but the recent sentencing of the two Reuters journalists has called that pretty seriously into question.
Otherwise, I spoke to everyone I wanted and didn’t feel anything was out of bounds – apart from Aung San Suu Kyi herself of course, who I would have loved to speak to but who doesn’t really grant interviews with the international (or indeed local) press that much anymore. Another great sign for a democratic leader…
Q6. What’s the one takeaway you hope for someone reading this book?
I hope people reading the book see beyond Aung San Suu Kyi into the nuanced, wonderful, sad, frustrating, inspiring and fascinating country of Myanmar, and realize that there are women there – as there are anywhere in the world – fighting the good fight to make sure our world is an equal one.
Q7 What the reaction to the book been like, so far?
It’s been positive, which is great. I hope to do more promotion in the next few months as I finish a few other bits of work, but I’ve had some good criticism and some good reception from a few editors for reviews and articles. And for now my husband is keeping track of the Amazon sales (it nearly topped the gay and lesbian bestsellers for a few days, which is cool but a bit odd, seeing as it doesn’t fit into that genre really in any way).
Q8. Plans for more travels or books coming up?
I’m about to have my second child (due in January), so I won’t be travelling much or writing after that for a year or so. Otherwise, it might just be because it is occupying my thoughts a lot at the moment, but I’d like to do a series about birth around the world: the different approaches of different cultures to this fundamental life event that everyone goes through.
I’d also love to get back to Myanmar when I can, partly to promote the book and also to discuss whether there is any interest in translating it into Burmese. Otherwise I’ll see what lies ahead!
Here’s the link to buy the book btw – any promo appreciated! https://www.amazon.co.uk/Other-Ladies-Myanmar-Jennifer-Rigby/dp/9814818259