The other day a journalist wrote about me that I had “been pregnant with this book for a couple of years.” I thought it was a good way to describe the birth of my book. Finally, after all this time, my book is born and you are all invited to have a look at it. And not only that, you are invited to read it, and tell others about it and tell me about what you have learned from it.
Tonight we had a small party in honor of my book launch. People called me author and talked about my author dress that I was wearing and wanted me to sign their copy of the book. They clapped and took photos. They shook my hand and said congratulation. It all felt like they were talking to and about another person. Author? Yeah, right. You don’t become an author before you write books. And then I realized: I have written a book.
You can look at these photos. And you can read an excerpt from the introduction here.
Major Lah Muu died fighting for freedom for his people, the Karen of Burma. His wife is a widow. When I first met her she lived in the only teak house in Mae Saliit Khee village on the Thai-Burma border. I remember looking at her face and wondering if I had ever seen a more beautiful woman before. She was not young, nor did she look like a photo model from a fashion magazine. She had a serene beauty, like I could have imagined belonging to an Asian Mother Earth.
She was the first Karen person I ever met, her house was the first Karen house I ever entered, and her costumes were the first Karen costumes I ever admired. They were colorful like the lotus flowers around her pond. It looked like she had been created to wear those costumes. She would walk around her property doing her daily chores with a straight back, head lifted high, and steps so soft that the grass hardly bent under her.
All the Karen people of Burma wear colorful and ornate costumes like those of Major Lah Muu’s widow. Each village and area has different colored shirts and patterns. They all look beautiful to me. For years I have been spending time with the Karen and almost without exception I receive a hand-woven bag or shirt as a parting gift when I leave them. I don’t know how many shoulder bags I have. The incredible thing about this is that not one looks the same. They are all unique.
When I first got to know Major Lah Muu’s widow, the Karen and their costumes, I noticed strings hanging from different places on their garments. To me they looked like somebody had been in a hurry and hadn’t taken the time to fasten the threads when the piece was ready. They were annoyingly messy. Then they told me the meaning of those threads, and I learned to love them.
They would hold the threads in their hands and say, “Try pulling one of them apart!” I did, and it was easy. Then they asked me to take a whole bundle of the threads and try pulling them apart. It was impossible.
“This is a symbol of our people,” they explained. “If we stand alone, it’s easy to break us, but together we make one strong bunch.”
Since then I have never been annoyed with the threads that get tangled with each other after a little bit of use. I just say, “It’s the Karen people learning to get along so they cannot be broken.”
This book is a bit like the threads on the Karen costumes.