Wendy Law-Yone Essay - Critical Essays


No fiction writer on the world stage has written as authoritatively and effectively as Wendy Law-Yone about contemporary Burma, that area of political darkness in the heart of a troubled Southeast Asia. Her authority stems from the grit of her experience garnered as she came of age in a family close to the center of political power and ideological foment during a time when the war-torn postcolonial nation of Burma was aborning and then toppling into bloody military dictatorship. The effectiveness of her fiction derives from the myriad facets of a talented imagination: the utterly convincing social and psychological realism of situations and characters, the clever and witty unfolding of plot, the rich and intricate use of archetypal patterns drawn from ancient Asian religion or of iconic prototypes drawn from contemporary American pop culture, the candor with which the problematic of U.S. immigration is explored, the honesty with which the real pain of mental illness is made palpable, the skill with which the malignancies of patriarchy are laid open by an unerring feminist scalpel, and the critical intensity of the light of democratic and humanitarian principles that is shone upon the dark deeds of a military dictatorship.

The Coffin Tree

Law-Yone’s first novel, The Coffin Tree, set partially in Burma and partially in the United States, has received many accolades from reviewers. It has been praised for its supple prose, telling imagery, and compelling presentation of the difficulties that can confront immigrants in the United States as well as for the painfully realistic depiction of the mental illness that afflicts the unnamed Burmese narrator and her elder brother, Shan.

Shan’s psychosis is partially attributable to heredity; his mother, a Burmese hill-tribe woman, was mentally ill. Much of the blame for the children’s psychosis, however, is justly laid at the door of their father and his treatment (or neglect) of them. He is a legendary freedom fighter and founder of a guerrilla force struggling against Burma’s military dictatorship. Of patrician background, he sacrifices his whole life and his family to his unquestionably worthy political cause. Haughty, taciturn, and sudden of action, he is a powerfully distant and largely absent father figure. (Interestingly, the obverse of this portrait of the dynamic and driven Asian male is the relative called Uncle, who only eats, sleeps, and picks at his skin all day.) Their father brings up Shan with a heavy hand—for instance, slapping him to cure him of his stutter. He is perceived as an enigma by his daughter, for he can be deeply affectionate when she falls ill but is profoundly...

(The entire section is 1098 words.)