A mirror image of a woman staring to her right and left

Assistant Professor of English Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s new book of creative nonfiction, Names for Light: A Family History, won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and was a finalist for the 2022 PEN Open Book Award. Myint was born in Myanmar and raised in Bangkok and San Jose, Calif. Names for Light explores three generations of her family’s history.

This book is a sacred space: Myint entrusts her readers with intimate moments of time, memory and place. She reveals glimpses where past is present, and where the present resides in a balance of future and past environments.
I took three courses with Myint at Amherst: “Fiction Writing II: Moving Beyond Plot,” “Asian American Writing Across/Between Genres” and, this spring, “Time, Memory and Ghosts in Post-Dictatorial Narratives.” Myint has immensely impacted my development as a writer; she has taught me to examine, appreciate and trust the words that exist 
on the page.

In this interview, which is edited and condensed, we talk about Names for Light, which is Myint’s second book, as well as her writing philosophies, writing process and more.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was in school, studying work by poets who were writing about real-world issues and who were doing qualitative research to inform their poetry. My professor opened my eyes by saying, “You don’t have to go to a library to do research; people are archives, too.” That got me thinking about my parents. When I was growing up, they would tell stories about their past in Burma. I wanted to access those stories before it was too late. So I invited my mother to continue her storytelling. I recorded our conversation—I think while I was massaging her feet—and translated it into Burmese, which was difficult, because I don’t actually write in Burmese, and I have no formal education in it. I took very little creative license: I directly transcribed and translated my mother’s words, then artfully arranged them into a narrative. The next semester, I read W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, which almost reads like documentary poetics or investigative reporting. I thought: What if I inserted myself into my mother’s stories, as a person to whom the stories are being told? I started writing, not word for word what my parents said, not word for word their stories, but my memories of growing up listening to them. That’s how the project began.

How did you choose Names for Light as the title?

A woman with dark hair and a pink dress
The book ends in the present, or as close to the present as possible, after I have moved to Amherst, when I’m at MASS MoCA, at an exhibit on light. Earlier in the book, there is a revelation when I finally learn the name of my brother who passed away when he was a baby: His name meant “light.” For me, these two moments inform the title deeply. But I chose the title because so much of the book is about naming: naming of places, naming of people, the ways in which names change over time, based on whomever is in power. It felt right that the title would be a kind of paradox—that we’re trying to give names to light, which is something nobody can hold, nobody can see in the exact same way. That felt like what I was doing with the whole project.

Can you talk about how you balanced historical and political con-text with your parents’ stories?

You’re getting at the heart of my struggles in writing this book: I felt burdened with the responsibility of educating my readers about the historical context of my family history. In early drafts, I incorporated my external research and reading on the political events that impacted my family. But I quickly realized that I’m not a historian of Burmese history, and in the end, I included context only when my parents told it to me. I fact-checked what they told me, and 
offered my commentary on it, but I did not include secondary sources. This has made the book quite different, perhaps, from what some people may expect it is. If you’re trying to learn about the history of Burma, this is not the book for you. If you’re trying to learn about the country’s recent politics, this is not the book for you, because it does not provide that information. Some readers may be disappointed in that. But I’m hoping people can still learn something from what’s in the book.

Your answer reminds me of a question that came up in our Asian American literature course: Do we need to educate or give cultural context to our readers? Should we?

Many of the writers who visited our class talked about how, earlier in their careers, they felt that same burden. As time passed, they started to feel differently. They realized that there are libraries, there is the internet. People can do their own research and find their own context.

How did you know when the book was complete?

Jem, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I still don’t feel done. I’m preparing for a reading tonight, and I was looking through the book trying to find a passage to read. I found myself editing as I went, thinking, “Oh, I shouldn’t have written that sentence.” So, for me, the work of writing and editing is never done. What is done is the publishing process: It is a time capsule, the moment when the project was halted and made into a book. But is the project itself ever done? I should hope not, because I think that would mean I wouldn’t want to write anymore. The thing that keeps me going, that makes me want to keep writing, is the feeling that I’m not done, that I have more to say, more to revise and more to explore.

Do you have advice for younger writers?

I honestly feel that younger writers should be the ones giving me advice, because I want to stay relevant. Advice I would give to myself when I was younger, starting out, is to not compare myself to anybody. Obviously, it is very difficult to accomplish that. I have heard writers say that rejection can be motivating, and envy can be motivating, that feeling the need to prove oneself to others can be motivating. But, for me, that sort of writing—writing that’s coming from a place of insecurity—never feels good. It may become polished, it may become prizewinning, but it’s not nurturing for the soul. I don’t think it’s a good place for art to grow from.

This reminds me of the saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

It’s so easy to support other writers, to shout out people and to focus on the good. I don’t use social media anymore, but when I did, I surrounded myself with writers I admired and respected. I did not allow myself to hate-follow anyone or to stalk anyone who wasn’t a true friend or colleague. It was good for my mental health, because, actually, it’s just as easy to draw inspiration from other people as it is to feel insecure because of other people.

I agree! Amherst has phenomenal writers, so I always want to read more of my friends’ and classmates’ writing. The discussions from our Asian American literature course were also amazing: Every class, I just wanted to listen and absorb everything that was said.

I was so impressed by the ways in which you all came together as a community to support one another. I haven’t felt a sense of competition in Amherst classes at all; everyone is very affirming of each other’s opinions and ideas. There seems to be a sense of collaboration and excitement to be working together. For me, that’s been motivating and inspiring.

Jem Park ’22, an English and statistics major, served as president of the Asian American Writers’ Group on campus and as department head of creative writing and arts for The Stream Magazine. She’s still searching for future plans, but in the meantime, she enjoys taking walks on local trails and reading at cafés.

Photographs by Leah Fasten

Excerpt From Names for Light, by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint

A photo of a book cover with the title Names for Light
The book is divided into five sections. Within those sections, the first four are further divided into chapters based on places. The chapter titles are place names. This section is titled “Gayan,” which is the ancestral home of my paternal relatives. To give context: Earlier in this chapter, I’m imagining the life of my great-grandfather, whom I never met. I’ve heard stories about him, though: the story of his death, the loss of his wealth, the loss of his land.

But no one will imagine me the way I imagine my great-grandfather because nothing has ever happened to me. Nothing as bad or as important or as final as death. My sufferings, though numerous, are small. They’re so small that even all together, listed by magnitude, or in chronological order, I am afraid they will not have the weight to shift any balance, to change anything or anyone. This is the reason I am the storyteller and not the story. I do not have the makings of a protagonist. I do not like to make decisions, to take risks, to assert or involve myself. I have never hit another person, never punched, slapped, or even pushed. I do not want to touch what causes me aversion. I do not want to throw my body against it. I prefer to keep my body to myself, to keep myself to myself. I want someone else to imagine me at the center of a story because I believe if they got it right, if they told the right story about me, then I could live inside that story, inside someone else’s words, and the words would create the person I wanted to be so I would not have to pretend to be that person anymore.