The Road to Wanting, By Wendy Law-Yone

A minority report on Burmese days of hope and fear
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The Independent Culture

The tribulations of Na Ga, a girl from the head-hunting Wild Lu tribe on Burma's north-eastern fringe, who sleep in rat-infested beds of garlic bulbs inside heavily fortified villages, begin when her parents sell her off, aged six, to a more prosperous family to fend off starvation. In her new home Na Ga learns to catch eels to feed her cruel and gluttonous mistress, but fails to obtain better treatment as a result.

Appalled by the little girl's condition, a visiting woman called Daw Daw Seng whisks her away to Rangoon, where a tender-hearted American couple put her to work as a maid but grow fond of her and begin treating her as a second daughter, a member of the family. They sow the seeds of the "wanting" that is this novel's theme, her highly understandable desire to flee from the horrors of being young, poor and female in South-East Asia.

But "Far" and "Mor" (as she knows them) and their daughter Pia are forced to quit Burma after the military coup of 1962, and leave their "second daughter" behind. Na Ga's hopes come crashing down. With Daw Daw Seng, her original saviour, she travels back to Shan state and finds work in a paper factory. But she cannot subdue her dreams of betterment, so when a sinister broker comes to town, enticing girls away with promises of lucrative work, she gladly volunteers.

She finds herself enmeshed in a nightmare to dwarf the previous ones, working as a prostitute in Thailand, suffering herself to be fucked 14 times a day, six days a week, with two days off for miscarriages and abortions. After a police raid she and the other girls are deported to Burma, but before she can find out what new hells her homeland has to offer, another American, an improbable figure named Will, pops up to rescue her. Will "sponsors" her and carries her off to a life of luxury in Bangkok.

Why has he picked her? She never really works it out, and nor do we. He drags her round the live sex shows of Patpong, where he knows everybody, but it is only with difficulty that she persuades him to have sex with her. She does everything in her power to make herself indispensable to this strange new sugar daddy, but is dispensed with when Will's Caucasian girlfriend comes to town.

Of all the torments she suffers, her repeated proximity to a life of ease which she can never truly call her own is probably the worst. Eventually Will tires of her and sends her back to Burma – the fate he had saved her from in the first place. And that is where we find her at the start of the book, in the punningly named town of Wanting on the Yunnan-Burma border, poised to return to the mess that she fled.

The Road to Wanting sheds garish light on the world of shadows and misery in which Burma's abused minorities live. Although the "Wild Lu" are the author's invention, many of the horrors she describes are all too real. Unfortunately Na Ga herself, the first-person narrator, is unconvincing: ironic, sardonic, hers is not the voice of an uneducated tribal girl driven to the brink of suicide but of a member of the Burmese elite who has travelled the world – someone much like the author herself.

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