Category Archives: Burmese American

A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated by Kevin Wiliarty

Well-Tempered HeartEvery once in a while, only the very best schmaltz will do. Earnest and endearing, this just-arriving-in-translation sequel to the international mega-bestseller, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, is a through-the-night read that will leave you sighing and swooning.

Okay, so we’re not talking Nobel-quality: “‘I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind.’” We’re not particularly surprised by the cold shrink who thinks mind-altering drugs are the only cure, or the wise sage that has no use for colorful pills. We’re so sure that true love is going to happen that we’ll guess the ending long before the final page. But that’s all okay, because whatever their not-quite flaws, German journalist Jan-Philipp Sendker‘s novels somehow manage to provide a rare, cleansing catharsis. Besides, what’s a little loss of sleep when you can float through the rest of the day?

When Julia left her older brother U Ba in their father’s small village in Burma, she promised she would see him again “within a few months.” But almost a decades passes, and suddenly Julia finds herself unable to give an important presentation at her law office: an insistent voice in her head sends her running out of the meeting, the building, and soon enough, her high-powered city life. Her ties to Manhattan are virtually none: her engagement is broken, she’s estranged from her mother and brother, and her single best friend is not enough to tether her.

She arrives unannounced in Kalaw, where U Ba is ready with open arms. Only he fully understands about the voice, the black boots, the terror, the warnings. And together they begin a journey of discovery that will lead them to a woman and her two sons, and eventually towards forgiveness and redemption.

Julia’s first journey to Burma revealed her father’s left-behind past and bonded her to a half-brother she never knew she had. Just as her father followed his heart home, Julia is called back by a desperate stranger with impossible questions from the other side of the world. “Who are you? … Why do you live alone?  … What are you afraid of?” the disconnected voice relentlessly probes. But before Julia can answer, she must learn in her own heart “what is important” … might I add, surely a life lesson for us all.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012, 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Burmese, Burmese American, European, Hapa, Southeast Asian

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated by Kevin Wiliarty

I think I will forever remember this book, perhaps not so much for the story, but for a single word: a blind young man sitting in the dark with hands running across the pages answers when asked what he’s doing … “Traveling.”

That, I believe, is a perfect literary moment.

But to get the full experience, you should, of course, read the entire debut novel. Long an international bestseller, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats arrives in English translation a whole decade after its native German publication. The title’s arduous journey Stateside as told by author Jan-Philipp Sendker, who was both American and Asian correspondent for the German newsmagazine Stern, is well worth a read.

Heartbeats begins with Julia, a young hapa Burmese American woman from New York, who arrives on the other side of the world in search of news about her father, a wealthy, powerful lawyer who disappeared four years ago without a word to his family. A single, unfinished letter has brought her to this remote Burmese village, to a local teahouse where she is surprised by an older man, U Ba, who seems to know far too much about her, who dares to ask, “‘Do you believe in love?’”

Over the following days, U Ba tells Julia a haunting story about a young boy, Tin Win, who is abandoned by his mother and raised by a caring neighbor. He loses his eyesight, but through his other senses gains a whole new world. Sent to the nearby monastery to study, he meets the young daughter of one of the temple staff, a girl whose crippled legs have never stopped her from living her life fully, whose beautiful heartbeat Tin Win recognizes immediately. The two are fated for eternity, even as their lives take separate paths.

For Julia to reunite with her estranged father, she must come to understand her relationship to this lovers’ tale, and to recognize the many different kinds of love – all true, sincere, lasting – that bind heartbeats together forever.

With Valentine’s Day just looming, this ‘little-novel-that-could-and-did’ is poised to hit bestseller lists sooner than later. The story’s simple (dare I say … blind?!) trust in the everlasting power of love guarantees Heartbeats‘ sweetness will last far longer than the empty calories of even the very best heart-shaped confections.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002, 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Burmese, Burmese American, European, Hapa, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

The Coffin Tree by Wendy Law-Yone

Coffin TreeA young woman, the daughter of a powerful political revolutionary, and her half-brother flee their native Burma following a political coup and arrive in New York, ill-prepared to cope with their new lives as near-penniless refugees. Haunted by a life filled with desperation, both sister and brother face great tragedy.

A powerful first novel confronting alienation and overwhelming mental illness. The sparse language is especially effective and haunting.

Review: “Asian American Titles,” What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature, Gale Research, 1997

Readers: Adult

Published: 1983

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Burmese, Burmese American