Book Review

Americans are terrible students of history: when we’re not flat-out ignoring it, we’re attacking those who attempt to provide some contextual understanding to the current conditions and crises of our nation. This holds true not only for our national history but our personal histories as well. How many of us have a full understanding of the people who came before us, those whose DNA we’ve inherited? Histories are fundamental to who we are, providing an explanation of ourselves to ourselves. Knowing that we may inherit both the joys and pains of our ancestors’ experiences helps us to better situate ourselves geographically and psychologically in the narrative of our own lived experiences.

My own lack of understanding of my inherited history is perhaps what drew me most to Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s memoir, Names for Light: A Family History. In Myint’s braided narrative about her family’s lives in Myanmar and their exile to the United States, the author grapples with her own role within these memories, as well as the role they’ve played in making her who she is. She is an author in search of a home, a place of belonging within her family and herself.

On a technical level, the prose mimics the confusion and convolution such an intellectual exercise invites. Near the end of the memoir, the narrator’s husband makes an observation about a novel she has written: that it “is interesting because it is pointless. It’s about process and not the end goal.” Though the narrator is compelled to argue, she knows he is right, that she writes “moving in circles, the movement itself an approximation of living, a mimicry of life.” The same could be said for Names for Light, though a more apt shape might be a serpentine, a river like the Irrawaddy featured in the book. The narrative loops back and forth in time, ebbing and flowing, stopping to sit in still pools of reflection before rushing onward, reflecting back the physical and emotional peripateticism of its author. If you can get past the knot of generational descriptors, geographical locations, and time periods, you will be richly rewarded with a deeply moving, lyrical contemplation of family history, individual identity, and home—one that lingers in your mind long after the book is over.

At the book’s center are the legacies of colonialism, war, racism, immigration, and the devastation of bodies (especially those of women), as well as their impact on individuals. For Myint this translates into a constant sense of displacement and disconnection from not only her physical landscape, but her psychic one. When considering the effect of racism on her lived experience, the narrator notes “Teenagers who had a sense of community were less prone to depression, even if they experienced the same levels of racism. Her problem, she realized then, was that she had no community, and had never had one, outside of her own nuclear family.”

What if that nuclear family isn’t enough? Throughout the book the narrator attempts to situate herself through the stories of her great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and sisters. By reporting on her family members and at times embodying them (she is told from a young age that she is the reincarnation of her great-grandfather), she attempts to make sense of her own life and identity. But even in these she comes up short. The stories themselves are few, and provide little evidence that might explain the author’s internal struggles. In fact, most of her family’s history is captured in the liberally applied white space appearing throughout the book. These moments of blankness are just as profound as Myint’s prose, serving as a visual for the irretrievable and unknowable, the vast silences between the stories and the people.

They also reflect the ghost Myint believes herself to be, not only as a person of color living in a country unable to see her as one of its own, but also within her family. It turns out you do not need to be dead to be a ghost, but, as she writes, “can be a ghost while one is still alive . . . if one carries what one cannot remember. Empty memories, blank memories, absent memories.” In those words—cannot remember—she is identifying the limitations of her own memory, as well as the remoteness and inaccessibility of her family’s memories. The pain this realization causes is palpable, as when Myint tries to recall her first home in Yangon: “Sometimes I wish I had memories of Yangon so that I could claim it. So I could say, Yes, this is where I am from.” But she has no memories of this place, only the stories her family has told her, and though she has “heard their stories so many times it is like their memories are mine,” she knows they do not belong to her. “I have no memories,” she concludes.

And yet. The technical and lyrical acrobatics of the book (shifts between first and third person, imagined feelings and thoughts of family members long gone or never known to her, fresh interpretations of myths, etymological twists and turns) all serve as tools for the author to interrogate the questions that most haunt her. As her husband notes, there is no endgame here, no pat conclusion; the questions which fuel the process are the point. Still, in the final pages of the book the white space falls away and the narrative shifts into one that, while still in third person, hints at a greater sense of identity (and what is identity but a home within oneself?) than the author may yet be aware she possesses.

About the Reviewer

Lenore Myka is the author of King of the Gypsies: Stories (BkMk Press). A recipient of a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, she is currently at work on a book of creative nonfiction entitled Where I Want to Be: Reflections on Home.