Wendy Law-Yone Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Wendy Law-Yone is distinctive among American writers for her intimate knowledge of life and politics in Burma (or Myanmar) and for her penetrating psychological portrayal of the travails of Southeast Asian émigrés in America. Born in Mandalay, Burma, she grew up in Rangoon, the capital. Her father, Edward Law-Yone, was a prominent nationalist and the publisher of Burma’s leading English-language newspaper. When General Ne Win staged a military coup in 1962, Edward Law-Yone was imprisoned for six years; after he was freed, he organized guerrilla resistance against the military dictatorship, then became a leader of the government-in-exile in Bangkok. As may be expected, such political events swirling around the family left an indelible impression on Wendy Law-Yone’s creative imagination, and her works return repeatedly to military coups, guerrilla insurgency, and fugitive migration.

In her youth, Law-Yone had demonstrated musical promise, and when she finished high school (at the same time as her father’s arrest), she was offered a Soviet state scholarship to study piano in Leningrad and an alternative award to study music at Mills College in Oakland, California. Because of her father’s detention, Law-Yone could not avail herself of either opportunity, her passport having been canceled. She languished for the next four years in Burma; she then married an American journalist and again attempted to leave. Instead, she was jailed, and she spent two weeks in solitary confinement. In May, 1967, however, she was able to make her way out of Burma and work as a freelance writer while bringing up twins in Bangkok, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. In 1973, she arrived in the United States, where her father had resided since 1971. In 1975, she received a bachelor’s degree in modern languages and comparative literature from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, obtained a divorce, and moved to Washington, D.C. She has two children from her second marriage (to attorney Charles A. O’Connor III) in addition to the twins from her first marriage.

The imaginative matrix of Law-Yone’s fiction draws life largely from her experience of growing up in Burma under a repressive regime and then of migrating to the United States. Informing the action of her works are feminist...

(The entire section is 936 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Wendy Law-Yone’s novels reflect the events in her turbulent life. In 1962, while a teenager in Burma, she watched her country become a military dictatorship and imprison her father, a newspaper publisher and political activist. In 1967, attempting to leave the country, she was captured and held for two weeks before being released. After living in Southeast Asia, she immigrated to America in 1973. She was graduated from college two years later and worked as a writer, publishing in the Washington Post Magazine and researching and writing Company Information: A Model Investigation (1983).

Her first novel, The Coffin Tree, portrays an Asian American immigrant in a different situation than that of many other novels. In many books, protagonists need to choose between, or reconcile, their native culture and American culture. Law-Yone’s heroine, however, lacks connections to both cultures. Growing up with no mother and a distant father, she develops no attachment to Burma and is never nostalgic. When she and her brother immigrate, however, she remains detached from and unenthusiastic about America. Unable to express or follow her own desires, she obeys her tyrannical father and grandmother in Burma and her deranged brother in America. When brother and father die, twisted logic leads her to attempt suicide to fulfill her newly “uncovered . . . identity.” Although she survives, institutional treatment engenders only a mild affirmation of life: “Living things prefer to go on living.”

Irrawaddy Tango also describes a woman living more for others than herself: In a fictionalized Burma, a friend inspires her to love dancing. She marries an officer who becomes the country’s dictator; when kidnapped by rebels, she agrees to be their spokeswoman. After her rescue, she helps other refugees before drifting into homelessness in America; she then returns to publicly reconcile with the dictator. Despite her political activities, she evidences no commitment to any cause and also can express herself only by violence, finally murdering her husband.

Law-Yone does not fully account for her heroines’ alienation and lack of self-esteem, though possible factors include unhappy childhoods—with cold fathers and absent mothers. Politics is also corrosive in Law-Yone’s fiction, leading parents and spouses to neglect personal relationships. Finally, fate forces some to lead unrewarding lives. The absence of easy answers in her fiction demonstrates her maturity as a writer.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Wendy Law-Yone was born in 1947 in Mandalay, Burma, and she grew up in Rangoon, the capital city. Her father was Edward Law-Yone, a patriot who played a leading role in Burmese politics; he fought on the side of the Allies during World War II, joining an American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) unit. After the war, he became the editor and publisher of The Nation, Burma’s leading English-language newspaper during the years before and immediately following Burma’s achieving independence from Britain in 1948. When General Ne Win staged a military coup in 1962 and wrested control from the democratically elected U Nu, Law-Yone was imprisoned. He remained in custody for six years before being freed and exiled from Burma; he then attempted to organize armed resistance to the military dictatorship and held the portfolio for foreign affairs in the shadow cabinet of the Burmese government in exile. Edward Law-Yone died in the United States in 1980. These political events, occurring so close to home and family, left a deep, lasting impression on Wendy Law-Yone, and she revisits them frequently in her creative writing.

When growing up, Law-Yone was recognized as being gifted with unusual musical talent, and upon graduation from secondary school (about the time of her father’s imprisonment) she was offered scholarships to study music at Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the Soviet Union as well as at Mills College in Oakland, California. Her...

(The entire section is 495 words.)