In 2013, when American expatriate Elizabeth Shick landed in Yangon with her family, Myanmar was emerging from a half century of military dictatorship. For the next six years, Shick, an international development consultant who now resides in Bangladesh, was privy to the thoughts and feelings of a people navigating their country’s fast-changing political landscape, where old restrictions on movement and speech seemed, for the moment at least, to be loosening. Shick had lived for extended periods of time in different countries around the world and found her new situation intriguing.
“I didn’t set out to write a novel about Myanmar,” she says. “I just wanted to explore all these questions I had.”
By 2016, Shick had a first draft. She then enrolled in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program and spent the following years revising as she traveled between Boston and Myanmar. In “The Golden Land,” Etta, a Bostonian with Burmese heritage, is haunted by memories of her last visit to Myanmar as a teenager, in the key year of 1988, when mass protests against the military regime resulted in the drowning of an unknown number of students at Inya Lake in Rangoon and the arrests of many others. Etta returns in 2011 and finds herself confronting her own family’s role in the country’s political past.
Etta’s journey was informed by Shick’s own encounters with Burmese expats, or repats, as some called themselves, returning home after decades of exile. Many had been college students in 1988, when they’d been forced to flee repression and police brutality. “If I’d been born in Myanmar,” she said, “it would have been me. As an expat myself, I know what it’s like to be living in one country when all of one’s childhood memories are in another. I kept wondering what it must be like to be cut off entirely from the context of your childhood — and then, unexpectedly, to be able to return.”
Elizabeth Shick will be in conversation with Michael Lowenthal at Porter Square Books in Cambridge on Thursday, March 16, at 7 p.m. All proceeds from the sale of “The Golden Land” at this event will be donated to Boston Free Burma, an organization supporting the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar.
Shubha Sunder lives in Boston and is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, “Boomtown Girl.”