By GRAYSON STEELE, Battle Creek Investigator
BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — The shelves of the Willard Library feature a plethora of books spanning countless subjects and cultures, but until recently there were few Burmese materials available.
A passionate library clerk and generous author changed that, reports the Battle Creek Enquirer.
Dozens of Burmese language books and magazines now adorn the library shelves, the culmination of a tireless effort by Library Clerk Par Mawi to serve and better represent the growing Burmese community of Battle Creek.
The expanded collection was made possible by Burmese author and publisher Aung Way, a friend of Mawi who donated several works from his personal collection.
“Seeing that…it made me cry,” Mawi explained last week, her voice filled with emotion. “I’m very passionate about it.”
Mawi fled her native Myanmar in 2007 due to political violence, enduring three difficult years in a refugee camp before reaching the United States and finally settling in Battle Creek more than 10 years ago.
She has worked at the Willard Library for about five years and has made it her mission to expand the library’s Burmese collection for a while.
The recently donated materials are a source of immense pride for Mawi and exemplify the library’s mission to “create a community of readers and a world of possibility.”
“We always say the library is for everyone,” said Kristine Pioch, Willard’s public relations librarian. “It welcomes everyone who lives here, so we have Burmese, we have a Spanish collection, we have a Japanese collection, we have a whole variety of books of all kinds that everyone is interested in. We really want to be the library of everybody.
Mawi remembers leading Way and other Burmese authors on a visit to the Willard Library in 2019.
Observing collections of Spanish and Japanese literature, the authors asked themselves: “Do you have a Burmese collection?
“I was like, ‘Yes, we have books (about Burma), but not (a) Burmese collection,'” Mawi recalled. “‘We have over 20 books here, but (they are written) in English.'”
Mawi asked the authors if they had any suggestions on how to acquire more Burmese-language books. They agreed to reach out once they returned home to Myanmar.
Soon after, the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world and political unrest in Myanmar further complicated matters, Mawi said.
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military took control of the government after claiming there had been widespread irregularities in voting in the country’s November 2020 elections.
Opposition to the military coup sparked further unrest, with the difficult political climate making it increasingly difficult for Burmese authors to publish and distribute their books, according to Mawi.
“A lot of (Burmese) people, we’ve lost the habit of reading (amid the unrest),” she said. “It makes me really sad. When you don’t read, you are more isolated and you lack knowledge, and then you no longer know how to communicate.
With the chances of acquiring books from Myanmar growing increasingly slim, Mawi turned to Way, a Burmese author, publisher and political activist.
Way came to the United States in 2008 and currently resides in Lansing. He has published over 38 books of poetry and essays and, at Mawi’s request, decided to donate several works from his personal collection to Willard, including fiction and non-fiction books and magazines.
Many books are poetry, which is often easier to publish in Myanmar because the works are subject to interpretation and don’t say things directly, according to Mawi.
Myanmar does not have a freedom of the press, she said, with written materials often subject to strict censorship to the point that “all meaning is gone”.
Browsing through the variety of Burmese works at Willard on Thursday, Mawi couldn’t help but smile.
“All the books are my favorites,” she said. “Actually, I want to check them all.”
As a library worker specializing in Burmese outreach, Mawi also recognizes the enormous value of having her culture represented on the shelves.
“When we move to another country, when we have to adopt another country as our country, there are so many things we have to deal with,” she said, acknowledging that if local Burmese immigrants know about the library Willard, many have often been. reluctant to enter because they don’t speak English.
She thinks the presence of Burmese books on the shelves brings some comfort.
“It’s just the beginning,” she said.
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