When Pascal Khoo Thwe’s grandmother was young, she was taken to England as part of Bertram Mills’s circus “freak show.” Like many members of Burma’s Padaung tribe -an ethnic minority in the Shan State region– she observed the custom of wearing a set of brass rings around her artificially elongated neck. In childhood, Khoo Thwe would pore over the photos from his grandmother’s journey, one of which “was taken in front of the English chief’s house, in a big village called London.” Little did Khoo Thwe know then that he would one day find his way to this “big village”.
His autobiography, From the Land of Green Ghosts, is both haunting and haunted as it traces his incredible journey from a backwater Burmese hill tribe to the front lines of his nation’s bitter civil war to, finally, the inner sanctum of England’s intellectual elite. It is also a potent recounting of the brutality of war, a sensitive reminder for our day as we stand on the brink of international conflict. And it is an impressively detailed primer on Burma’s cultural history. Told with a blend of pathos, humor and honesty, From the Land of Green Ghosts, winner of the 2002 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for nonfiction, is one of the more eloquent, gripping memoirs of the past year.
Khoo Thwe was born in 1967 into the Padaung, a culture imbued with an easy combination of western religious tradition and shamanistic folklore. Unlike most of Burma, which practices Buddhism, the Padaung are primarily Catholic; Khoo Thwe received his early education and English instruction at local schools run by Italian priests. Though his family attended Mass, venerated the Pope, and baptized their children, back home in his “grandfather’s domain,” ancient shamanistic traditions held fast. Khoo Thwe learns early to revere the presence of his ancestral guardian spirits, and likewise fear the darker specters referred to by the Padaung as Nats. “Ghosts and spirits of the past were introduced into our daily lives with prayers and mantras, and they lived and ate with us like members of our families.”
The author paints a lovely picture of his idyllic youth — nights in the tree house, fishing and hiking in the jungle with friends. But he is set apart from the other villagers in various ways: Unlike many in his tribe, he loves books and has an affection for the English language, while his grandmothers prophesy he is destined for greatness.
Presented first as a coming-of-age tale in which the nation’s political chaos lay worlds away, the story slowly builds to a crescendo as the author moves from his sleepy, rural existence and into the conflagration of a brutal civil war. While attending Burma’s Mandalay University, he watches as the corrupt Socialist Program Party eats away at the nation’s infrastructure. After the police kill his dissident girlfriend, Khoo Thwe’s anti-government rage is ignited. “Only a month ago I had been an apolitical, bookish student . . . Never had I expected to be drawn into such an immense conflict.” He becomes a protest leader whose inflammatory public speeches make him a wanted man. Forced to flee for safety into the jungle, he joins up with anti-regime rebel fighters.
With unsparing detail he captures his nightmarish months in the rebel camp. When not forced to endure bouts of malaria, near-fatal snakebites, dodge land mines and surprise attacks from the Burmese army, he must grapple with the tedium of camp life. To pass time, he and the rebels drink rice-wine and sing Abba songs. One day while on guard, he watches as a group of terrified civilians, chained together, walk towards the rebel camp. He quickly realizes they are being used as minesweepers for the army soldiers who walk behind them:
“There was a huge explosion, the dull boom of which echoed through the jungle, some shrieks, instantly cut short, and the severed body parts -hands, eyes, legs– of the sacrificial victims flew instantly into the air mingled with a cloud of dust.”
Eventually, with the help of a British friend from Mandalay, Cambridge University professor Dr. John Casey, Khoo Thwe escapes across the border into Thailand. Impressed with his knowledge of English literature, Casey whisks Khoo Thwe to England, where he enrolls at Cambridge’s Caius College — thus fulfilling his grandmothers’ prophesies of greatness by becoming the first of Burma’s tribal people to study at (and graduate from) a western university.
From the Land of Green Ghosts follows the blueprint on which most memoirs are constructed — poor boy fights odds, grows up, makes it rich (spiritually, materially, etc.). But unlike other life stories, Khoo Thwe shows that it wasn’t just a tenacious spirit that guided him through the jungles and into the ivory tower. There are ghosts at work, or something larger.
Toward the end, the author attaches a fortuitous detail to complete the arc of his story. Dr. Casey invites Khoo Thwe to a friend’s English seaside cottage, part of which houses an art gallery. Among the many pieces is a bronze bust of a woman with an elongated neck and full complement of neck rings. Many years ago a British artist had traveled with Bertram Mills’s circus and cast a series of sculptures of its “performers.” The author quickly realizes that he is gazing at the bronze cast of the grandmother who had made her own journey to England decades earlier. Such an event transcends coincidence; one wonders if Khoo Thwe’s life has indeed been guided by a magical destiny. And one can’t help but root for him along the way. He is an immensely likable individual with sensitivity and intelligence, a skilled writer who infuses a tale of war with warmth, magic, and humanity. Highly readable and engrossing, From the Land of Green Ghosts also provides its readers a glimpse into Burma’s beautiful, albeit tragic, history.