You can also read my review of Wendy Law-Yone’s memoir in full at The Asian Review of Books:
It took Wendy Law-Yone quite some time to put together the pieces of her father’s life. In the 1970s, when he first asked for her help with editing a hefty manuscript of his memoirs, she deflected the request, feeling too burdened by her own personal struggles to take on such a daunting assignment at the time.
Years after her father’s death, Wendy returned to the manuscript with a set of fresh eyes. The captivating result of her editorial efforts is her newest book, Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma, which tells the story of a compelling man and speaks volumes of his daughter’s meticulous abilities as both a researcher and a writer. To say that the late Edward Law-Yone—founder and editor of The Nation, one of Burma’s most influential English-language newspapers—was a complex character would be an understatement, and perhaps no one knew better than his own kin.
Originally a civil servant, Edward gained acclaim for his hard-hitting journalism at a time when his country was going through immense ideological and political change. At the time that he was abruptly imprisoned by the military regime in 1963, fifteen-year-old Wendy was hoping to win a piano performance scholarship to study abroad.
With seemingly boundless ambition and charisma in the years leading up to the military’s coup d’etat, Edward cultivated intimate friendships with many figures looming large on Burma’s political stage, from U Nu—the austere, cautious Prime Minister following in the audacious footsteps of the late General Aung San—to the irascible, paranoid General Ne Win, who deposed U Nu and briskly incarcerated those who opposed his brusque overthrow.
After taking refuge in neighboring Thailand, Edward and the exiled U Nu re-grouped with the lofty intent of reclaiming the country from Ne Win. Subsequent campaigns for the restitution of democracy in Burma brought the newly formed People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as far as the United States to elicit support from Washington. Although they ultimately failed to achieve their goal—and Burma would not see democratic reform until the new millennium—Edward’s efforts became legendary among his compatriots.
Golden Parasol isn’t merely a catalog of the elder Law-Yone’s many achievements. Throughout the book, Edward’s and Wendy’s lives intertwine, and this particular parent-child relationship is anything but placid. Having inherited her father’s exacting diligence, the younger Law-Yone—struggling to separate fact from fiction—resolutely pursues whatever vestiges of Edward’s past she can find, from perusing archives in British libraries to embarking on a perilous trip up the winding Burma Road to Manchiyen, the village in which her father was born.
Golden Parasol is a rich portrait of a family equally rich in spirit and mind, and for those of us less familiar with the complicated history of Burma—as the country is referred to by Law-Yone—the book serves as a fast-paced yet thorough crash course in Burma’s post-colonial politics. At junctures throughout the story, the many names and dates presented can feel overwhelming, yet Law-Yone’s journalistic disposition prevents her from indulging any personal biases. Regardless of politics, she is careful to present the players involved—from her father to General Ne Win—as three-dimensional people: sometimes vulnerable, sometimes vexing, and always well-rounded.
Aside from educating her audience about 20th century Burma, Law-Yone also eloquently ponders the weighty question of who our parents truly are—and how much they measure up to the people we perceived them to be when we were children. There are no easy answers here:
‘Is it possible,’ I asked Hubert, ‘that Dad could have been mistaken?’
‘Dad? Mistaken?’ My brother’s smile was ironic.
‘I mean, do you think Dad was a fabulist?’
Hubert snorted. ‘Of course he was a fabulist.’
Golden Parasol’s depth and probity suggest that Wendy wasn’t able to disregard her father’s claims about his past quite that simply.
Given recent political changes in Burma, Golden Parasol is particularly relevant. One imagines that Law-Yone would have plenty to say on the subject, but her hesitance to speak out reveals itself in a scene in the book. The year is 1989, one of the two times she returned to Burma after fleeing at the age of 20, and she finds herself facing an assembly of students camped out with plans to recapture Rangoon:
They had been summoned for a pep talk from their Older Sister from America, a writer who might explain their plight to the world.
I looked at my young compatriots, all standing at attention, their faces strangely luminous in the soft morning light. And I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
24 years after that trip, readers will no doubt speculate about how Law-Yone’s relationship to her birthplace has since altered. Yet perhaps that question is not entirely relevant to the trajectory of this book. After all, Law-Yone has a keen faculty for approaching history—both political and personal—through the lens of a novelist. Indeed, one of the main takeaways from Golden Parasol is its piercing, inquisitive narrative voice. Demonstrating her capacity as a master manipulator of words, Law-Yone’s language is alternatively sinuous, pithy, and playful, and perhaps for now, that is enough.