About a year ago, I began interviewing Za Dim, a lady from the minority Chin tribe of Myanmar. After describing her experience of torture in an Indian jail, she said that each time she recounted the experience, she would be dizzy and unwell for a few days. We sat silent for a while, the air heavy with horror and sorrow.
Finally, I said, ‘I’m sorry for all that you went through.’
‘Nothing you can do about that. It’s in the past now,’ interpreted her son. ‘The story after this is happy.’
A few days later, her son called to postpone a meeting because his mother was unwell. My subsequent phone calls went unanswered and I almost gave up hope of seeing them again, wondering if the interview had caused her so much pain that she had decided to discontinue the retelling, wondering if she was still happy for me to publish her story.
To my great delight and relief, I recently reestablished contact Za Dim. Her family had moved from their inner city home to the northern suburbs. Warming ourselves before an antiquated wood burner, Za Dim and I exchanged pleasantries. I handed her a copy of her story, what I had written so far. She accepted it and invited me to her church.
As I drove her to church that Sunday, she told me that her youngest son had read her story and asked who had written it. ‘My friend, May-Kuan,’ she had replied.
It has been said that journalists have no satisfactory word for the people they cover – characters? subjects? – which may say something about the oddness of the relationship itself. So it meant a great deal to hear Za Dim call me friend.
Writing this book over the past three years, I’ve encountered various setbacks. The Cambodian lady I interviewed pulled out on reading the draft, desiring to ‘let the past be the past.’ It was a setback for the book, but, I’d like to think, a cathartic experience for her personally. So many times when I’ve thought the book is nearly done, the finish line in sight, it turns out to be a mirage; there is more writing, more editing, more interviewing.
But breakthroughs like reestablishing contact with Za Dim, visiting her church, seeing so many Chin families thrive in Adelaide, makes me take heart. Press on. Move forward. Inch closer to the end.