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Karen Connelly: From Burmese lovers to award-winning writing

Karen Connelly blushes scarlet.

"Is it hot in here?" she asks, joking.

Only if you consider that she is talking about sex in Burmese Lessons , a beautifully written memoir about her time on the Thai-Burmese border in 1996 when she was in her late twenties.

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"Sex was such an important part of the book," says the award-winning author, 40, speaking in the sombre voice of a scholar. "It's not described very often but it was felt through the text."

Her serious composure soon ruptures with raucous laughter.

"Oh, this book makes me pretty squirmy," she admits.


"Because I use the c-word," she responds bluntly.

The book tells the story of her steamy love affair with Maung, one of the Burmese dissidents she encounters on the Thai side of the border, where she had travelled to learn more about the people whose country was (and still is) under siege by a brutal military dictatorship.

"There must have been alliteration somewhere; another c-word somewhere?" Ms. Connelly deadpans, barely restraining her laughter. "The book will never earn any literary prizes because it has that word in it," she continues with mock disappointment.

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She uses it once, as form of semantic punctuation, in a passage filled with imagistic, sensual language. "The human body is an inland sea, all our salts and minerals churning in perfect order," it reads in part.

In Burmese Lessons , she writes with startling candour about her sexual desire, the illnesses she had in the jungle - cystitis after making love in a river, constipation, malaria - and her struggle to decide whether to stay or leave. Maung wanted to marry her.

"That time was so difficult," she says. "The stress of being on the border, of having the relationship with Maung and knowing that there were a lot of people in the [paramilitary]organization who didn't want me to have that or were jealous or angry or didn't trust me."

"Or they were worried about you," I add.

"There was that," she adds ruefully.

"And there was a kind of despair and a mourning that you live in when you live among people who are embattled in that way." She left him after realizing that she would never be the writer she knew she was if she stayed. The book is rich with a nostalgia for her youth, and the passion of it, when she flung herself into unknown cultures and the arms of dangerous lovers.

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"Later on in his life, he did marry," she says of Maung. "He settled down. Like I did. And so, yeah, you still think about that, not in a regretful sense, but a kind of nostalgia that we keep about our possible lives."

No one should be surprised at Ms. Connelly's fearlessness in her youth or on the page. From an early age, she took risks. Fluent in five languages, she lived in Spain, France, Greece and Southeast Asia, as though always in need of escape.

"That was part of it," she says. "I left Calgary when I was 17 and never fully went back. It was always a place that was kind of tortured for me because of my very dysfunctional family." Her father was alcoholic and often absent. Her elder sister committed suicide. Her first book of poetry, The Small Words in my Body (written when she was 21), dealt with some of the pain of her childhood and went on to win the Pat Lowther Prize.

Travel was also a way to educate herself. She did not go to university. "I didn't like school generally," she says. At 17, she spent a year living in Thailand on a Rotary scholarship. Her first book, Touch of the Dragon: A Thai Journal , won the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction in 1993. She returned to Thailand in the late nineties with the view to write more non-fiction. But soon she realized that fiction would give her more freedom to explore the themes of imprisonment. Lizard Cage , her first novel, won the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers in 2007. "When I finished it, there were still all these other stories that felt untold." Burmese Lessons closes the end of that chapter in her life, she says. "Burma is done."

She relishes the distance time has given her from the experiences of her youth. "I have a control over myself and what I want to do, and my own craft as a writer in a way that I didn't when I was younger. There was all this ferment, and talent, and ideas and energy and travelling all over and living in different places for long periods and acquiring experience and language, but then, if you're lucky enough to get older and be solid, you get to use it all, and I'm very excited about that."

Currently, she is working on a book of poetry about crack addiction, the sex trade, family dysfunction and the murdered women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. "Among other things!" she says in cheery voice to offset her description of the work's dark themes. "The great thing about poetry is that no one reads it," she jokes. "You can work things out as a writer there … It's dangerous artistically but not as dangerous publicly [as prose]" The book of poetry, to be titled, Oh, Canada, Crack my Heart , will be followed by a novel, Sweet Daughter of the Market , which will begin in Thailand and end in Canada, she says.

Now married with a three-year-old son and a part-time teacher at Humber College, Ms. Connelly and her husband live in Toronto but spend part of the year on the Greek island of Lesbos, where she has a small house. "I can never really give Greece up," she says. "Greece is really my other home." But even if she is not travelling as much as she once did, she is discovering new things about herself in her rooted, domestic life. "I think of motherhood as another cultural experience in a way. It's altering but it makes you more yourself, I found. When you have a small child, it's such an intense experience because you are always brought to the edge of yourself."

Still, it has not found its way into her work. "I think it takes more time."

It's her place of birth that presses for expression at the moment. Calgary will figure in her new novel. The death of her mother last year has freed her, she says. "I have always written honestly and explicitly about all kinds of things. But I can now talk about family history in a way that won't hurt her.

"And I am so ready," she concludes, throwing her head back in another lusty laugh.

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