Irrawaddy Tango

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

IRRAWADDY TANGO is a worthwhile successor to Wendy Law-Yone’s acclaimed first novel THE COFFIN TREE (1983) about growing up in Burma (present-day Myanmar) and migrating to the United States. Although IRRAWADDY TANGO is set mainly in fictitious “Daya,” the country is recognizably Myanmar, replete with repressive military dictatorship and rebel guerrillas.

The novel details the picaresque career of its protagonist-narrator, Irrawaddy Tango, who seems to develop through four phases of popular archetypes of female identity: first, an Evita-like phase during which the small-town girl Tango becomes a dance champion and a dictator’s wife; second, a Patty Hearst phase during which First Lady Tango, now a wealthy socialite, is kidnapped by guerrillas and brainwashed into bonding with, bedding with, and speaking for her abductors; third, a joyless-luckless Asian American woman phase (a la Amy Tan) where she marries her American rescuer and emigrates to America only to discover anomie and alienation; and fourth, a spider woman phase in which Tango returns to Daya, empowers herself sexually, mates with the dictator (her former husband), and destroys him.

Through these phases, Tango’s character develops, like the dance itself, with exhilarating dips and lifts of fortune, dizzying reversals of plot, and in movements charged with sinister power and unassuaged sensuality. IRRAWADDY TANGO is a tale told with brilliant flashes of detail, psychological penetration, and erotic candor. It is not flawless, however, having its longueurs of plot and a self-centered protagonist with whom it is difficult to empathize. Nevertheless, it does perform the signal service of shedding light and focusing attention upon the political plight of an often ignored area of darkness in the heart of Southeast Asia.

Sources for Further Study

Belles Lettres. IX, Spring, 1994, p. 17.

Booklist. XC, February 1, 1994, p. 995.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLVII, May 5, 1994, p. 46.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, November 15, 1993, p. 1413.

Library Journal. CXIX, January, 1994, p. 162.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 20, 1994, p. 22.

The New Yorker. LXX, February 28, 1994, p. 101.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 22, 1993, p. 48.

USA Today. February 18, 1994, p. D5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, January 16, 1994, p. 1.

Irrawaddy Tango

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Irrawaddy Tango, the second novel of Asian American writer Wendy Law-Yone, follows her well-received The Coffin Tree (1983). Both are told through first-person female narrators and set in Law-Yone’s native Burma (Myanmar) and in her adopted homeland, the United States. Irrawaddy Tango tells a gripping tale of a Southeast Asian woman’s experience of physical, mental, and political abuse with brilliant physical detail, psychological penetration, and erotic candor. Irrawaddy Tango is not flawless, however, having longueurs of plot and a sometimes unsympathetic protagonist.

The novel’s title derives from its protagonist’s nickname. As “Irrawaddy” suggests, the novel’s fictional country is modeled on Myanmar/Burma. The novel’s historical events are also readily recognizable as Burmese: colonization by the British, invasion and occupation by Japanese in World War II, national independence followed by a military coup, and ongoing guerrilla warfare. One supposes that Law-Yone chose to fictionalize the novel’s country because the protagonist, Tango, marries her country’s dictator, who would, in actual life, be General Ne Win.

Although current Burmese events are not sufficiently calamitous to merit world media attention, they have an intrinsic interest. In 1994, the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest there. Democracy-minded youths are forced to seek asylum in neighboring Thailand and often end up being unspeakably exploited by their so-called hosts. Moreover, Myanmar remains (unofficially) the chief source of heroin bound for the United States. Law-Yone’s family was close to the center of political turmoil in Burma in the 1960’s; her father, Edward Law-Yone, then publisher of Burma’s foremost English-language newspaper, was imprisoned and exiled. Yet the atmosphere of Burmese politics, although integral to Wendy Law-Yone’s novel, is only peripherally so. The novel primarily focuses on the evolving career and character of its protagonist, Irrawaddy Mew Tango.

Tango’s picaresque career seems to pass through four phases, analogous to recognizable popular archetypes of female identity: first, an Evita (Peron) phase during which a small-town girl becomes a dictator’s wife; second, a Patty Hearst phase during which a wealthy woman socialite is kidnapped by guerrillas and then converts to her abductors’ cause; third, a joyless-luckless Asian American woman phase (à la Amy Tan) where an émigré woman discovers the anomie of existence in America; and fourth, a spiderwoman phase in which a woman empowers herself sexually, mates, and demolishes her mate. Through these phases, Tango’s character moves and develops, like the dance itself, full of exhilarating dips and lifts of fortune, dizzying turns and reversals of plot, in movements charged with a sinister power and unassuaged sensuality, all performed by a character cool to the point of superciliousness.

In the sophisticated and suspenseful beginning of the book, the novel opens near the end of its action, with Tango returning as a political prisoner to Daya after twenty-five years’ domicile in the United States. The details are vividly and strategically evoked: the garish airport frescoes mythologizing the nation’s history, in which Tango reads a cruel and bloody national character, Tango’s journey blindfolded through the sounds of a tropical night, the dreary particulars of her cell, the mind-boggling bureaucracy that requires her to sign a receipt for her body’s being in captivity. Once the reader’s interest is aroused by initial situation and character, the first-person narrative flashes back to the antecedent stages of Tango’s career.

Tango’s Evita-like maturation in the small town of Irrawaddy is delineated with captivating vividness. The river boats laden with rice and elephants, the tethered gibbon at the Indian dry-goods store, the playmate with the soft spot in her head, the boy with a “pet worm” that emerges from his pants for Tango to fondle all become palpable presences in Law-Yone’s descriptive pages. Against this backdrop Tango’s moral and psychological character is formed. She emerges as a self-asserting, even egocentric individualist embedded in a Buddhist setting of self-denial and transcendence. Her father has nicknamed her Mew because, as he explains, “You acted like a cat. No love for anyone but yourself.” This almost callous egocentricity is confirmed by Tango: “From time to time I felt a hardening inside, around the very spot warmed supposedly by love and goodwill.” It allows Tango to mock her father’s imperfect English and her mother’s poor musical taste. After a particularly stormy confrontation with the teenage Tango, her mother decides to transcend the material...

(The entire section is 1970 words.)