Interview: Jessica Mudditt talks about Our Home in Myanmar
Journalist Jessica Mudditt has written a memoir about the years she lived in Yangon. Our Home in Myanmar documents a period of great hope and progress for the country, despite the challenges that abounded. During the historic elections of 2015, Jessica was the first expatriate journalist to work for the country’s state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. She also worked at the British Embassy and the United Nations. Jessica talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Our Home in Myanmar
It’s a memoir about the four years I lived in Yangon with my Bangladeshi husband, Sherpa. We moved there from Bangladesh and it is essentially a story about trying to make a home for yourself in a new country. I wanted to reflect on how much that place truly becomes ‘home’ and how much we invest ourselves in it; and how much others invest in us. I hope it also conveys how rewarding and fascinating I found life in Myanmar, despite the many challenges.
What inspired you to write this book?
I lived in Myanmar during a very significant time in its history, as it had just begun to embrace democratic reforms after 50 years of military rule when I arrived in 2012. The largely peaceful elections of 2015 saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government come to power and what was meant to be the permanent end to dictatorship. I wanted to write something accessible to the general reader that explained this complex political transformation. At the time I was writing my memoir, I thought that I was simply writing about the ‘new Myanmar’ – as it turns out, I may have inadvertently written a history book, as military rule has sadly returned.
What research was involved?
As a memoir, it is of course a collection of my lived experiences and not second-hand research. However, I left Yangon in 2016 and I started writing the book in 2018, so I needed to make sure that my memories were as accurate as possible. Along with rereading my articles and journal entries, plus articles by other sources, I went back through my photos, blog and Facebook posts to help me recall extra details. I also watched videos on Youtube of Yangon as that really brought back the sights, sounds and smells. When I wrote dialogue involving other people, I stuck to using their recorded words wherever possible, as I am loath to put words in peoples’ mouths.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I used a wonderful software program called Scrivener. It has a progress bar for the total word count target, plus the daily word count needed to get there on time. Seeing those bars move ever so slightly to the right spurred me on. I wrote the book around my full-time job as a freelance journalist and having two children (who are currently aged one and two), so it was snatches of time wherever I could get them, such as before my ‘official’ work day began.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
I’ve given this question some thought while listening to my favourite songs on Spotify. I love ‘Dreams’ by the Cranberries because it conjures up the excitement of embarking on a new adventure.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this memoir?
I enjoyed the creative process so much, and reliving all my memories of Myanmar. As a journalist, I get to interview some fascinating people on topics that intrigue me – however my articles have a certain word limit and the turnaround is generally very quick. It was so nice to spend a long time on a project and to get into a level of detail that I found very satisfying.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
My friends Court and Bec gave me a bottle of champagne for my 40th birthday in January and I vowed that I would crack it open when I finished my book. But for some reason, I kept changing the idea of what ‘finished’ meant. I didn’t open the bottle when I completed the manuscript and sent it off to the first of two editors. I eventually opened it when two editors and my Burmese fact-checker had read it and I had resolved all their queries. I was sad to finish it, actually – it had become a part of my life for a couple of years. So the champagne tasted bittersweet.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I just finished an enormous biography called Red Comet: The short life and blazing art of Sylvia Plath by Helen Clark. It was difficult to read at times, as it documents Plath’s first suicide attempt and later depression in great detail. You feel as though you are there by her side, and she is so tormented despite her incredible talents. In many ways, she was let down by society. Like me, she was a single mother, but life was so much harder in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a very moving book and it also taught me how to appreciate poetry, which I admit I’d never really understood.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
A couple of weeks ago I started my second book, which is a travel memoir tentatively titled Once Around the Sun. It takes me back to 2006, when I spent exactly 365 days travelling through Asia. I had 14 kilos in my backpack and a daily budget of $16. My father saved all the emails we exchanged – I was stunned to find that it comes to 86,000 words! So I am going through them and structuring the chapters, which is a really fun process and brings back some happy and hilarious moments in my life. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life once I’d finished travelling, so there is also a lot of angst and inner turmoil.