Letters to the Editor that Inspire Me to Be a Writer

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This photograph depicts the front cover of The Guardian newspaper published in Myanmar on 7 December 1970. The “People’s Forum” (Frank views and Free Comments) was a dedicated column in The Guardian newspaper at that time, providing a space for the general public to express their opinions freely. PHOTO: LOSTFOOTSTEPS.ORG/Renaud Egreteau/FILE

“Writing: A piece of cake?” by Hu Wo (Cuckoo’s Song) appeared in The Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM) of November 2023 issue, and the article “Work Out Your Worries by Writing” by Mya Thae (Research) in the GNLM of I January this year issue inspired me to write this article. Besides, I have read a few ‘Letters to the Editor’ on page 9 of the GNLM. The letters to the Editor I have read recently remind me of the days when the “Working People’s Daily and the ‘Guardian’ (daily and the Guardian Monthly Magazine) were all the rage. They usually conveyed letters to the Editor almost every day (or every day). I never forget the role they played because they forced my hands to take a pen for life.
Some write because of their hobby. Others write for pleasure or money. You may ask me why I write. My answer is quite simple. I write because I want to do so.
When I began to write, I was only 15. After reading many novels written by famous writers such as Tekkatho Phone Naing, Aung Lin, Thakin Mya Than, Bhamo Tin Aung etc. I envied them. Before I passed the High School Final Examination, my dreams for the future varied with what I saw in my mind’s eye. However, after I had passed the High School Final Examination, I came across a book, ‘Thu-lo-lu’ by Journal-kyaw Ma Ma Lay. That precious book provided me with an impetus to become an editor as well as a writer because I loved the life of Great Journalist Journal-kyaw U Chit Maung, who had fluency in English and his mother tongue. (Later, I came to know that his literary experiences forced me to learn English.)
When I was about to take the matriculation exam, I was attracted by periodicals such as ‘Doh Kyaung Thar’ and ‘Shay-tho’ (The Forward), which were the favourite journals among the student readers at that time. I contributed several poems and short stories to some literary magazines of those days. Some were selected, and some were rejected. When I saw my first short story in the ‘Burma Star’, which cost only ten pyas, my fellow contributors from my native town and I were over the moon. Gradually, I could see my literary works on the pages of some literary magazines. The result was that I failed the matriculation examination.
However, I showed no remorse for what I had done. The happiness I earned from my literary works removed my remorse completely. What I remember was the poem that appeared in the ‘Ngwe Tar Yi Magazine of October 1966 issue with the pen-name of ‘Maung Swe Ngae’. The poem contributed me much to opening the doors of other literary magazines to send other literary works. Up to that time, I had never dreamt of becoming a writer who wrote English articles. It was because my own ambition was to become a writer who wrote novels, short stories and poems in the Myanmar language. Here, at this point, I must tell you how I became interested in English, which I hated most.
After reading Journal-kyaw U Chit Maung’s literary works, I envied him. I wanted to be a journalist like him. (Please don’t think I was a blustering person.) I had another reason that made me interested in English.
As I was born and brought up in Wakema, a delta town, I hardly visited the capital city of Yangon. In those days, when university students came back from then Rangoon Arts and Science University (RASU) in the summer holidays, I could not keep slobbering over them. They wore vests printed with the letters ‘RASU’ on the back. They wore white tetron shirts so that the letters would be visible on their back under their shirts. They spoke English. When I heard them speaking English, I desired to become a university student like them.
However, fortune never favoured me. At that time, as the number of university students was so few, being a university student was boastful. Only students of the well-to-do class of our town could join the university. When I passed the matriculation exam, my parents could not send me to the university, and I had to work as a telephone operator in the then Posts and Telecommunications Department. After working for two years in the country, I was transferred to Yangon, where I joined the Workers’ College, which was set apart for those who were working in the government departments in the Yangon Municipal area.
As soon as I landed on the soil of Yangon, my life changed. The office staff members where I worked spoke English, and office letters or official letters were written in English. While I was working in the country, and although I hardly read Myanmar dailies and English papers, I could read both Myanmar and English dailies. As the saying goes, ‘While one is feeling thirsty, he gets into a well’ (‌ေရငတ်တုန်း ‌ေရတွင်းထဲကျ). The situation compelled me to write in English.
What I noticed in the English dailies were ‘Letters to the Editor’ of the Working People’s Daily and ‘People’s Forum’ (Frank views and Free Comments) of the Guardian. All the affairs, including the education system, were reflected in the columns of letters. Superstar contributors were Khin Khin Pyone (Dedaye), Khin Pyone, Khin Mone, Alpha, Omega, U Gyi Mya Han (Thakayta) and so on. (I was told that they were veteran columnists who were well-versed in English.) The debates in their letters were so attractive that I could not help but read them whenever the dailies reached me. In other words, whenever I read the paper, I first turned to the page that conveyed the letters to the Editor.
After reading a lot of letters to the Editor, I felt like writing such letters or participating in their debates on various subjects. Then, I wrote letters saying something about the weaknesses and defects of the government departments and offices.
As for my first letter to the Editor, I showed it to my superior officers, who were good at English. They corrected my English and made me rewrite it. After writing that single letter many times, I sent it to the Working People’s Daily. About two or three days later, I saw my first letter under the title of ‘Bus Problems’. Sad to say, the date of issue that conveyed my first letter as it happened over five decades ago. I wrote that letter describing the difficulties encountered by the students of the Workers’ College. The pleasure I had was nothing but seeing the authorities concerned seek the solution to the problems encountered by the students.
My first letter was short, but it instilled in me an excellent hobby of reading English literary works and writing (English).
Another one I envied was Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). He was a Polish-born author who wrote novels and short stories about the sea in English. Although his literary works were too high for me to appreciate, his life was very interesting. He was born in what was then Russian Poland. He left Poland at the age of 16 and arrived in English at 20, unable to speak (or write) English. However, during the next 16 years, he worked his way up from deckhand to Captain in the British Merchant Navy. He mastered his adopted language (English) so well that he was able to write some of the greatest novels in English literature. As for me, how he learned English in his life inspired me, who was at sea in English, to try my hand at writing in English.
Yet another one was ‘Campus Writing’. In the 1970s (and beyond), the News and Periodical Corporation (now Enterprise) kept producing “The Guardian Monthly Magazine”, which carried various kinds of literary works of fiction and non-fiction. In that magazine, what I loved to read was ‘Campus Writing’, which gave birth to talented young writers, including students. ‘The Guardian Magazine’ was published under the management of the editorial staff of the Guardian, led by the then Chief Editor Sayagyi U Ba Kyaw (MBK). After writing (a few) letters for the ‘People’s Forum’, one day, Sayagyi U Ba Kyaw urged me to write articles for the Guardian.
In this way, I have become one of the contributors to the paper since the day (12 January 1974) on which my first article, ‘Library Movement’, appeared in the Guardian. Writing, indeed, is not a piece of cake. Please don’t look forward to earning money from writing. It will surely give you pleasure only. I am now addicted to writing in both Myanmar and English.
I am still pining for the ‘Letters to the Editor’ that inspired me to be a writer.

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