Elizabeth Shick’s The Golden Land revolves around a young woman’s relationship with her mixed heritage and the internal balancing act it provokes in a person who has lived most of her life in a foreign country.
The story mainly takes place in Myanmar in 2011, but its foundations lie in Burma in 1988 and the political upheavals of that time, which forced the main character, Etta, and her family to leave their homeland in search of a more stable and safer life.
The lives of Etta and her brother Parker change drastically after the death of their grandmother, which causes them both to return to their homeland and reconnect with their roots. However, Etta embarks on a much more personal journey as she reconciles her teenage memories with relationships with real people in modern Myanmar.
All of the above is happening against the backdrop of growing political tensions and lawlessness in modern Myanmar. As someone who lives in Bangladesh and has seen many accounts of the Rohingya refugees, this novel provides a very moving and uncensored perspective from the other side.
The book is full of accurate historical facts and in many cases provides much needed corrections and context to all the fallacies and state propaganda spewed by tyrannical powers. Every time I came across a reference to a particular gruesome event in the book, a quick Google search revealed that the author’s diligence and attention to detail in evoking those events was impeccable.
Many times throughout the novel the ‘official versions’ of events and stories are analyzed in great detail to reveal the real truth about the events that took place.
The Golden Land is a very good place to start learning about Myanmar’s recent history and how it shapes the psyche of its citizens. Sandwiched between these themes is a very personal journey of self-discovery and understanding how the protagonist’s heritage fits into the larger scope of the person she has become, including her entire life in Boston.
All of the above culminates in a very moving passage “Being Burmese is not a box that needs to be opened or closed; culture is not hard and fixed, but a function of the breath that passes through me day by day, an amalgam of everything that touch and experience, past, present and future. Who I am, which parts of myself I will accept and which I will let go, depends on me.”
As for the story, what will engage you is Etta’s personal feelings, perception and the way her inner monologue develops throughout the novel.
Originally from Newton, Massachusetts, Shick is an award-winning novelist whose creativity has been influenced by years spent living abroad, including six years in Myanmar. He currently lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Shick’s writing is smooth and fluid, with a fascinating focus on character development and plot. She captures all the elements in such a way that it seems like you are reading more than one book at once. It takes place in two time periods, but also explores what happens when people have to make decisions about what they want to keep from their past.
Moving between Boston and Yangon, past and present, the story brings to life two vastly different worlds and explores the strong attachment between two people (Etta and her estranged cousin) of opposite origins that endures beyond distance and time.
Through vivid descriptions of pre-monsoon weather, shops, food and daily routines in the prosperous and less savory parts of the city, Elizabeth Shick successfully captures the essence of Yangon.
With its poignant depictions of political turmoil and military rule, this novel is particularly significant and relevant to the ongoing hardships faced by the Myanmar people in their struggle for basic rights and freedom.
The book is written in the first person and as such it is very easy to immerse yourself in it; this helps even more if you happen to be from South Asia.
All the cultural intricacies and customs are presented in a very casual yet respectful way, making it even more real. This is a novel that is historically certain and culturally acute; it asks how close we must hold, and how much we cannot throw away, no matter how urgently we want to.
In the December 2022 issue of New Issues Poetry and Prose, The Golden Land is available for purchase on Amazon.