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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Burmese Trilogy

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When the Japanese army invaded Burma during World War II, 10-year-old Prem Sharma and his family were among the thousands of refugees who fled to safety in India. Not long afterwards they found themselves embroiled in another bloody conflict: the violent partition of Pakistan and India and the latter’s hard-won independence from century-long colonial rule.

A Milwaukee native who recently retired from his post as associate dean at Marquette’s School of Dentistry, Sharma has penned a trilogy of fictional works based on his experiences in Burma (also known as Myanmar). The first part of the trilogy, Mandalay’s Child, was published in 1999, and its themes of suffering, cultural understanding and coming of age were considered so absorbing by UW-Milwaukee English lecturer Mariann Mariss that she distributed hundreds of copies of the novels to Milwaukee Public Schools students as part of a reading circle program.

Mandalay’s Child spans from 1941 to 1947, chronicling the life of the Laal family, which flees from Burma to live in relative poverty in India and becomes enmeshed in India’s struggle for independence. Like Sharma himself, one of the lead characters finds herself drawn to Gandhi’s message of peace and equality.

The second novel in the trilogy, Karma’s Embrace, was published in 2003 and served as a prequel, setting the stage for the characters in the first novel. The final novel in the series, Escape from Burma, was published last year and is based on the true story of Sandra and Mya Swe’s attempt to leave Burma in the 1960s as the country transitioned from democratic to military rule, sparking a series of uprisings.

Sharma will deliver a talk at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Brookfield July 31 at 7 p.m. He will be joined by Sandra and Mya Swe.

Also this week Milwaukee native and co-owner of Hama’s Restaurant Leslie Kagen reads from her new novel, Land of One Hundred Wonders. It may sound like a work of magical realism set in some exotic locale, but it actually takes place in the small fictional town of Cray Ridge and features as its main protagonist a determined young woman bent on pursuing a career as an investigative reporter despite being deemed “not quite right” by her grandfather due to a brain injury she sustained as a child. Kagen will appear at the Harry W. Schwartz bookstore in Mequon Aug. 5 at 7 p.m.