The Coffin Tree, 1983
Irrawaddy Tango, 1993
“Ankle,” 1988 (in Grand Street 7)
“Drought,” 1993 (in Slow Hand: Women Writing Erotica, Michelle Slung, editor)
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 themes (with an emphasis on sexuality), democratic perspectives in politics, explorations of extreme psychological states, and incorporation of popular culture motifs.
Her first novel, The Coffin Tree, has been praised for its supple prose, resonant imagery, and compelling depiction of a political situation. It is also an excruciating portrayal of the mental illness that grips the unnamed narrator and her elder brother, Shan. Shan’s psychosis is partially attributable to his heredity, his mother having died insane, but much of the children’s psychosis originates from their father’s treatment of them. He leads the guerrilla force struggling against the country’s military dictatorship, and his whole life and his family are sacrificed to his political cause. Olympian, laconic, and sudden of action, he is a distant and mostly absent patriarch. He rules Shan with a heavy hand, slapping him to cure his stutter. His daughter perceives him as an enigma, by turns deeply affectionate (when she is ill) and profoundly indifferent. The narrator’s neurosis is also exacerbated by feelings of guilt and inferiority toward her mother, who had died giving birth to her. Her maternal grandmother nicknames the narrator “mother-killer” and harps on her ugliness compared to her mother’s beauty.
When their father takes to the jungle with his guerrillas, Shan and the narrator are sent to presumed refuge in America. In New York, however, the youths find their father’s American friends unhelpful, and they must fend for themselves. In this alien land, their efforts lead only to suffering and failure. Shan spirals into a deepening paranoia and finally dies; the narrator attempts a suicide that lands her in a mental institution (described in vivid detail) and undergoes a fragile recovery.
In her second novel, Irrawaddy Tango, Law-Yone weaves a picaresque tapestry about female identity, political repression, and immigrant malaise set again in Southeast Asia and America. Although the actions occur mainly in a fictitious “Daya,” the country is recognizably Burma, replete with repressive military dictatorship and rebel guerrillas.
As the female protagonist-narrator recounts her picaresque career, during which her identity as an Asian American woman is formed, the author develops her with tongue-in-cheek wit through four phases corresponding to four prototypal female identities in American popular culture. First, Tango undergoes an Evita Peron phase, during which the musically talented small-town girl becomes a dance champion and a dictator’s wife. Second, she experiences a Patty Hearst phase, during which First Lady Tango, now a wealthy socialite, is kidnapped by guerrillas and brainwashed into being a companion and sexual partner to her abductors. Third, Tango undergoes a joyless-luckless Asian American woman phase (à la Amy Tan) in which she marries her American rescuer and emigrates to America, only to discover anomie and alienation. Finally, she matures into a Spider Woman phase, during which she returns to Daya, empowers herself sexually, mates with her former husband dictator, and then demolishes him. Through these phases, Law-Yone develops Tango’s character like the dance itself, with exhilarating dips and lifts of fortune, dizzying reversals of plot, and movements charged with sinister power and sensuality.
Wendy Law-Yone’s brilliant evocative powers, which capture the spirit of her birthplace, her intimate detailing of military dictatorship, and her penetrating depiction of the dark side of Asian American émigré experience, make her a noteworthy writer. She possesses, moreover, unique authority to shed light on an area of darkness in the heart of Southeast Asia.