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The Academic Life of Savages

From: Journal of Burma Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, June 2014
pp. 23-31 | 10.1353/jbs.2014.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The tiger returned and finding no prey within reach set up a howl as he vainly tried to jump to the platform. The children stood it as long as they could and then threw down a pig to appease the beast. This they did at intervals while all the time they were longing to hear the twang of the father’s bowstring that would send an arrow quivering through the heart of the tiger. This, the Karens said, represented their condition as they waited for the ‘white brother’ to come and free them from the slavery to evil sprits and give them the Book that would enable them to hold up their heads among the peoples of Burma.

Because many of these suffering voices — living in rural, jungle, or mountainous areas — are illiterate, their voices are not considered to be part of the logos. The illiterate Karens are thus not political beings but beings without qualified voices.

How did we (“Karen”)
become savages?
Wild, mountain subjects
Others see us
from the sunset (West)
as primitive, to the Rangoon academy
savages, as to some K’nyoh
White faces to our country
brought with them text
to save us
a papery salvation
Men from Rangoon, with notebooks
know us, hill Karen
calling us wild Kayin
and Naw Ta Por (Miss Scabies)
Over time Naw K’nyoh
wishes us like her
knowing to read and write
luring children to the light
In the past, mother gave us hta
we knew how to speak
Father’s hta voice
sang the night and day
Our grandmother in the past kept hta
Our grandfather in the past held hta
She whispered hta to her children
He sang hta to his children
When Kawlah came to visit
waving texts to read and write
in that short appearance
he brought us words to write
he came with many heads
like Kali: missionary
scientist, anthropologist
Karen life and knowledge
recorded by Kawlahwah with rulers,
they measured us
and we became vicious
Kawlah brought the golden book
passed it to Poe who cannot read
Kawlah brought the silver book
passed it to S’gaw who cannot write
Golden texts placed in the church
Silver books inhabit school
Asked to learn to write
we forgot to speak in hta
Since then,
the spoken hta vanished
kept safe in the liver
With death it decomposes
Mother gave birth to me in the ’80s
I became “Karen”
Without a hta voice
schooled to read and write
Mother, for literacy
displaced hta
I learn for father
at the Kawlah academy
I wish I could be wild
and speak through hta — an imagined past
I wish I could be a savage
Will it ever be?
I can’t speak hta with my mouth
so I write on this white sheet
I can’t sing hta, with my voice
I’ve written hta as I’ve learnt it
If I can verbalise hta
I’ll sing away the texts
If I know the hta of speaking
I’ll escape from writing passed
In the academy of savages
we search for that which can’t be read
In the academy of spirits
we produce what can’t be written
In the academy of savages and spirits
decolonization can be our ethics
But living in Kawlahwah’s land
the savage academy
is no more than written words.

Some Notes On Writing

Hta is an originary S’gaw Karen literary form and is a fundamental part of “Karen” culture. According to the nineteenthcentury Thesaurus of Karen Knowledge, a colonial project to render oral knowledge to text, hta refers to conventionalized speech and song for multiple purposes. These include encouragement, fantasy, criticism, dialogue, argument, humor, praise and the discussion of taboo topics. According to Wade’s definition, speech becomes hta when it follows rhyming conventions. Roland Mischung, who did research on S’gaw Karen in northern Thailand in the early 1980s, wrote that villagers saw the knowledge and use of hta as marking...

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