ACQL 2013 Winner – Hannah McGregor

The Anxieties and Affordances of Genre in the Work of Karen Connelly

Part One: Connelly’s Burmese Trilogy

In a recent PMLA article on Goodreads, the online social network for readers, Lisa Nakamura points out that many media theorists of the late twentieth century predicted the replacement of the “ponderous and linear developmental novel” with other print forms influenced by new media such as hyperlinked books and magazines—a prediction that has, despite the rise of Web 2.0 and e-books, proven less than accurate (242). Nakamura does not attempt to account for the surprising longevity of long-form realist fiction, and such an accounting is certainly beyond the purview of this paper. What I would like to offer, instead, is a consideration of how the novel in particular and literature in general is explored in the media ecology of what I call Karen Connelly’s “Burmese Trilogy”—the three books she based on her years spent living on the Thai-Burma border in the mid-1990s. Through its interlocking examinations of different media, forms, and genres of representation, and particularly its privileging of the novel as its centrepiece, this Trilogy provides an ideal site of examination to consider what kind of work the novel does in the twenty-first century.

I draw on the vocabulary of new media studies in this discussion—particularly media ecology and technological affordances—as a means of understanding a rather peculiar representational situation. Connelly wrote three books about Burma: the first is a collection of lyric poems, The Border Surrounds Us, published in 2000; the second is a novel, The Lizard Cage, published in 2005; the third is a memoir, Burmese Lessons: A Love Story, published in 2010. What is peculiar is the way all three books respond to the same set of experiences in different ways, a reinscription of experience that generates a productive intersection of literary form and media. I have spoken elsewhere about the unstable position of photography in the Trilogy: Connelly originally printed photographs in The Lizard Cage, which disappeared in the paperback edition but reappeared textually, as anecdotes about the fraught business of taking pictures, in Burmese Lessons. Documentary film and oral testimony occupy a similarly unstable position in her work. As Daniel Punday argues, references to other media in contemporary fiction is often a means of working out the particular function of fiction itself within our contemporary media ecology, a function that has become “very much up for grabs”; authors use other media as counterpoints to stage their own arguments vis-à-vis the specific affordances of literature (37-38). Punday differentiates between genre and media, arguing that the former operates via constraints while the latter operates via affordances, or “action possibilities”—what they can do, not what they can’t (30). Genre exploits its own limitations, while media tries to overcome them. But in contemporary literature, this line is blurred. Medium, like genre, is increasingly explored and exploited for its potentially productive limitations, while genres like the novel must be rethought in terms of what they can do in an increasingly globalized and media-saturated world. What are the particular affordances, the action possibilities, of the novel? Why has it not just survived but thrived in the new media era?

More marked even than the Trilogy’s exploration of other media is its complex engagement with the question of genre, notable particularly because of its shift between multiple genres. The Border Surrounds Us constitutes Connelly’s first sustained attempt to represent her experiences on the Thai-Burmese border, experiences that included witnessing vicious beatings during an anti-government protest and the death of a small child in a refugee camp, as well as listening to various testimonies about torture and imprisonment. In these poems, representation is a struggle. The poems circulate around the trope of borders: geographical, political, linguistic, but also epistemological and representational. In the poem “Guerrilla Soldier,” the poet is asked over and over again, “Do you understand?”—a question that she seems incapable of answering. In “Prison Entrance,” she describes the far side of the prison wall as a series of “worlds / she could not fathom, with freedom / wrapped around her like a cape / she could never pull off” (25). Most evocatively, “What she carried” describes the burden of representation as a necessary impossibility: “You cannot carry this,” it begins. “No, not that way, alone. / It is wrong to believe / you have the strength. / You do not” (52). What poetry seems capable of doing, in this book, is brushing up against but not crossing borders.

In contrast, The Lizard Cage, Connelly’s novel, is all about the crossing of borders. It is set inside a Burmese prison—a fictional construct based on the many stories she was told by former prisoners—and narrated from the perspectives of those who occupy the prison’s world: Teza, a political prisoner sentenced to solitary confinement for writing protest songs; Handsome, the viciously sadistic prison guard who nearly beats Teza to death; and Nyi Lay, an orphan boy who has been surviving in the prison by killing rats and selling them to the starving prisoners. Claustrophobically confined and subject to the constant surveillance of the jailers and warders, the world that the reader enters is precisely the one that the poems claimed, five years earlier, was unfathomable, and the violence depicted recalls that burden the poet could not carry. Poetry is not rejected in the novel, though; in fact, Teza is a songwriter-turned-poet after his jaw is broken in a vicious beating, and the climax of the novel focuses on Teza gaining access to forbidden writing materials and composing a long poem on his experiences in the prison, which is smuggled out to his brother by Nyi Lay. Written in the voice of Teza addressing his brother, this poem is both deeply personal and political, a testimony to the inside of the prison written for those on the outside. It echoes “Prison Entrance” in its use of the language of walls: “here, where all the doors are closed,” he writes, “I have learned to walk through brick walls” (360). Where the spatial metaphor of “Prison Entrance” represents the poet as standing on the outside of the prison and imagining the other side of the wall, The Lizard Cage reverses this spatial structure with a poem that originates inside the prison and attempts the urgent task of testimony: to translate unfathomable experiences for the world beyond the walls. In The Lizard Cage, then, poetry can do what it could not before, but only because it is embedded within a novel capable of imaginatively entering the prison.

Burmese Lessons further complicates the situation. Poetry comes up a few times in the memoir—Karen gives her own poetry books as gifts, and she meets some prominent Burmese poets—but the genre that is idealized in this memoir is, paradoxically, the novel. In fact, the composition of The Lizard Cage is constructed as the telos of Karen’s time in Burma, the only appropriate response to the debt she owes all those who shared their stories, and the reason why she must ultimately leave Burma and her lover behind. Wondering where her responsibility lies, Karen asks herself: “What do I belong to?” Her answer is: “The story” (238). The memoir echoes with the imperative to “write the book” that will “tell the world what is happening in Burma” (98), to “write about something that the tourists never see” (77) so that “it will become a bestseller and bring much attention” to the crisis of the Burmese people (221). It is implicitly clear throughout, however, that this book is—or will not be—the poems or the memoir, but rather the novel The Lizard Cage.

This intertextual inscription of The Lizard Cage within Burmese Lessons quickly becomes apparent for readers familiar with the novel, as various people and scenes Karen encounters foreshadow the novel—or rather, echo the novel written five years earlier. That her most urgent writerly task is the translation of her experiences and the stories of others into fiction is made clear in various scenes in which she rejects early drafts as either “the Harlequin romance of Burma” or “political tract crap” (415). In order to tell the truth about Burma, she must write not “a true love story”—as the hard cover was subtitled—but a novel from which she is entirely absent. When the memoir describes the writing of the novel in detail, it is in terms of an encounter with alterity that challenges, even threatens, the autonomy of the writing self. She describes her inspiration in the form of the voice of a man who neither addresses her nor is her, but who calls her from “a dark place” (192). This voice hails her as a witness to the world he occupies, demanding that she enter into his experience of imprisonment. What emerges from this treatment of The Lizard Cage in Burmese Lessons is a sense of the memoir as a Künstlerroman, narrating Karen’s journey to becoming the kind of self capable of writing that novel. The memoir urgently points toward the novel as its own raison d’être, the justification for her time there and for the degree to which dozens of Burmese people endangered themselves to take her into their confidence.

The novel, then, is the apex of the Trilogy, absorbing and surpassing the poetic voice of The Border Surrounds Us, saturating and dominating Burmese Lessons, inscribing the lyrical and the autobiographical within its own fictional story. The reception of the Trilogy supports this interpretation. The Border Surrounds Us is out of print, and while Burmese Lessons received critical attention and acclaim, The Lizard Cage was by far the better-received book. Connelly reflects, in a recent blog post, on how differently readers responded to the two books: “The Lizard Cage was the better book, I agree, but it’s important to remember how different the books are too. A novel; a memoir. A fictional accounting; a record of lived experience, my own lived experience, complete with my failures and my immaturity. (What did they expect, human perfection? How satisfying would that be, how believable?)” (“Is it really” n. pag.). The novel, she argues, satisfied readers’ “appetite for trauma” and craving for “the dark stuff” (n. pag.). And although both books engage with what might be called “dark stuff,” they are written from very different places. In my analysis of Goodreads reader reviews of Connelly’s work, I noted that Burmese Lessons is critiqued because of the inscription of the author’s subjectivity within the pages: readers want to learn more about Burma but they are bothered by her self-interest and her explicit sexuality. It is the intense interiority of The Lizard Cage—what The Border Surrounds Us represents as impossible and what Burmese Lessons, because of its genre, cannot represent at all—that constitutes The Lizard Cage’s appeal, an appeal that is somewhat perversely based in its horror. Words like “hard,” “difficult,” and “harrowing” reverberate through the reviews—but so do words like “fascinating” and “compelling.” It is a more important book, then, because it goes somewhere that poetry and memoir cannot, and brings the reader along.

Part Two: Genre, Media, and Materiality

I want to use Connelly’s Burmese Trilogy as an opportunity to ask whether the inscription of different media and genres within the novel functions, as Punday argues, to “provide writers with a way of talking about what it means to write and read a print novel” (1-2). Does the prominence of The Lizard Cage within the Trilogy tell us something about the ongoing prominence of the linear realist novel, and about its affordances as a genre? Arguably, what is unique about the novel is its capacity to locate readers in a position of interiority in relation to the events being represented. The poems are exercises in both linguistic and conceptual limitation, and the memoir narrativizes the problem of trying to access a world that is not hers; Karen describes voices that “call to me from . . . a world I have glimpsed vividly but in a small degree, from the safety of my white skin and my Canadian passport. I don’t know if I can write my way out of that safety—beyond my noisy self—into the truth about a wounded country whose language I cannot speak” (Burmese 192). The Lizard Cage unfolds within that world, a fact that is only emphasized by its relation to the other two books. Perhaps one of the novel’s unique affordances, then, is its capacity to cross representational borders via the focalizing perspectives of characters defined by their difference from the implied reader and author.

In this sense, The Lizard Cage aligns with Dorothy J. Hale’s reading of the ethics of the novel, which emphasizes the capacity of long-form fiction to generate what she calls “characterological autonomy” that enters the reader into an encounter with a kind of lived alterity (“Aesthetics” 903). Hale conceptualizes reading as a voluntary self-restriction or self-binding, a free submission to the novel that is ethical in nature (“Fiction” 201). This experience of epistemological submission operates through the sense that characters are fully formed others whose alterity expands beyond the scope of the reader’s gaze or control, leading readers to question the social constraints that generate particular others as more or less knowable. In the case of The Lizard Cage, then, the implied reader enters into an encounter with characters defined by distance, difference, and a radical experience of unfreedom. Connelly returns again and again to the language of restriction, submission, and imprisonment. This is particularly evident in her essay, “In the Skin of the Other: Writing The Lizard Cage,” written in 2000 in the midst of the novel’s eight-year composition. She describes writing “in tears every day, distraught and sickened by the process of internalization that would make Tey Za and his prison experiences authentic in writing.” It is “a terrible, necessary act,” she continues, “to enter the darkest places in the human world and to stay there for long periods of time, to commit to living there spiritually and mentally” (59). And it is the novel that makes this terrible act possible.

Even as the Trilogy seems to stage an argument for the privileging of the novel as a site of ethical encounter with the other, however, the media ecology constructed within the texts complicates this picture. The materiality and media-specificity of texts themselves is of primary concern within all three books, and is recurrently highlighted by the contrast between books and other media. In Burmese Lessons, for example, Karen critiques photographs as the primary currency of “the propaganda fields of the world” (292), while at another moment she notes her own feelings of uselessness because she has “no newspaper to write for” (124)—that is, because literary fiction fails to circulate as freely as other media like newspapers and photographs. The question of how literature circulates or fails to circulate is of even more central concern in The Lizard Cage. There are various examples, including Teza’s “cheroot ceremony” and the illiterate Nyi Lay’s fascination with books, but I will focus here on Teza’s poem.

The novel painstakingly charts the paths of the pen and paper on which the poem is inscribed. The pen is part of a set-up by the prison guard Handsome to get Teza’s sentence extended. When Teza realizes the set-up, he eats the paper and throws the pen out his cell’s sole window. It is found by Nyi Lay, who hides it in his shack until he smuggles it back to Teza along with the ledger—a half-used accounting book ruined with tea when hyper-paranoid Handsome suspects a junior accountant of trying to poison him. After Teza has written his poem, Nyi Lay smuggles the ledger out of the prison in a bundle of blankets stained with his own shit while the pen is left in the possession of the virtuous jailer, Chit Naing, who—a brief flash-forward informs readers—will later be tortured and imprisoned for betraying the regime, quite likely with the pen serving as evidence. The ledger, meanwhile, makes its way North with the fleeing Nyi Lay until the boy is found by Teza’s brother Aung Min, a guerrilla soldier living near the border. When Aung Min first opens the book, he notes that “the handwriting was as familiar as the voice Aung Min often listened to on a dusty cassette player” (10). Shit-stained blankets, tea-stained ledgers, dirt-encrusted pen marked with three grooves so the jailers will be able to recognize it, and now dusty cassette player: this is a world heavy with materiality, in which information travels only with great difficulty, marked by the hands and bodies and environments through which it has passed.

The poem, in this instance, is a remediation of the voice that has been lost through the violence of the prison. As Karen notes in Burmese Lessons, the real end-point of interrogation and torture is not information: “Forged through brutality, through destruction of flesh and spirit, the climax is silence” (354). Teza’s poem is the voice that the prison could not silence, but its remediation from cassette tape to stained ledger is never allowed to be incidental; it is a vital component of the meaning and circulation of his words. If we start reading Connelly’s Burmese Trilogy not in terms of a competing hierarchy of genres, but rather, in terms of a larger media ecology that includes photographs and newspapers, cassettes and cigarette filters, documentary films and personal notebooks with incriminating information blacked out in marker, then the seeming centrality of The Lizard Cage becomes more complex. While I hold that the books read together stage an argument for the ongoing centrality of the novel, they also place the novel within a world that renders its centrality contingent and potentially fraught. The novel belongs in the West, what Karen in Burmese Lessons calls “the realm of freely circulated ideas and books and newspapers and technologies” (18). It might serve as a point of entry, for us, to a world beyond the safety of our own, but within that world the novel itself all but disappears, replaced by other media that can circulate despite the marked absence of freedom.

In a recent paper on the affordances of the magazine as new media, Sean Latham argued that books “afford agents very few possibilities for action beyond reading the text in a linear, serial order” and are thus “a highly constrained media form,” compared to the more complex and dynamic possibilities afforded by the magazine (2). As my reading of Connelly’s Burmese Trilogy suggests, however, such an understanding of constraint must be qualified. From the perspective of an ethics of reading, the readerly experience of constraint might be valued precisely because of how it stages the experience of imprisonment at the level of the text. At the same time, as the intertextuality and intermediality of The Lizard Cage suggests, a novel can both contain and be contained within a rich media ecology that invites reconsiderations of how affordances are inflected by cultural and political considerations. If the Burmese Trilogy constitutes a media ecology created by Connelly to stage her own argument about the affordances of literature in the twenty-first century, then it is an ecology that is sutured by the anxieties of representation and power’s ability to constrict or enable the circulation of all media.

Works Cited

  • Connelly, Karen. Burmese Lessons. Toronto: Random House, 2010. Print.
  • —. “In the Skin of the Other: Writing The Lizard Cage.” Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers des la femme 20.1 (2000): 57-60. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.
  • —. “Is it really February 25?” Karen Connelly. 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 24 May 2013.
  • —. The Border Surrounds Us. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. Print.
  • —. The Lizard Cage. Toronto: Random House, 2005. Print.
  • Hale, Dorothy J. “Aesthetics and the New Ethics: Theorizing the Novel in the Twenty-First Century.” PMLA 124.3 (2009): 896-905. Web. JSTOR. 12 Jan. 2013.
  • —. “Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel.” NARRATIVE 15.2 (2007): 187-206. Web. Muse. 12 Jan. 2013.
  • Latham, Sean. “Affordance and Emergence: Magazine as New Media.” What Is a journal? Toward a Theory of Periodical Studies. Radboud University. 2013. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.
  • Nakamura, Lisa. “‘Words with Friends’: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads.” PMLA 128.1 (2013): 238-43. Print.
  • Punday, Daniel. Writing at the Limit: The Novel in the New Media Ecology. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 2012. Print.