Five Questions for…Karen Connelly
Written by
Five Questions
January 2011
Written by
Five Questions
January 2011

Karen Connelly, author most recently of the journalistic memoir Burmese Lessons, answers five questions from Sarah Saffian, author of Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found, about criss-crossing between genres of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; coming into her power as a free young woman; and the memoirist's ultimate dilemma: recognizing when enough time has passed to write it down.

Sarah Saffian: Can you talk about the blend of the journalistic and the memoiristic in this project? Did you plan on it being so personal, or did that surprise you?

Karen Connelly: I have written so much about Burma in other books and publications that I knew this book would have to be different. My own involvement in the Burmese democracy movement, and my own education, so to speak, had never been the focus of my writing in the other projects. But I now felt that the personal story was the one I needed, finally, to tell. I knew that as I began to write the book. I personally witnessed so much on the border and in Burma that obviously I needed to include those stories as well—the stories of refugees, of trafficked women, of people who had been imprisoned in Burma, my own experiences of the street protests and beatings. I wanted to record those events of significant import, some violent, some tragic, for historical reasons, or journalistic reasons, I suppose, but I also wanted to show how they affected and changed me.


Sarah: You've written nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. How do the genres inform one another in your work? How do you approach them 
similarly/differently? Can they blend and overlap within a single piece of writing, or are they distinct to you?

Karen: Often poetry is the most visceral, emotional and immediate response for me. In some ways, the poems in The Border Surrounds Us tell the whole story of Burmese Lessons (nonfiction), and certainly part of the story of The Lizard Cage (a big novel of prison life in Burma). But only I know that. The reader can't know the full depth of the images and references; though, with the magic that is poetry, they can feel deeply. Poetry is the most organic form of writing, I think—it is like blood, or nerve cells. Everywhere under the surface, charging the body. There is a "song" in The Lizard Cage that is really a long lyric poem, and I could have dispensed with the entire novel—the plot, the characters, the deep overlapping complexities and betrayals of prison life—and just written the poem, if all I was interested in was emotion.

But I’m interested in more than just the blood and nerve cells! I want the skeleton and the muscles too, the movement and crash of ideas and history in culture as lived by us, by human beings. How do we respond to violence, to evil, to goodness? What is the nature of love? How do we survive traumatic events? What role does the natural world—plants and animals—play in our development as humans? Only nonfiction and fiction can respond to those questions by building a human world in prose and setting various fires within it.


With large themes and experiences, I seem to process first in poetry, next in fiction, and finally, and more personally and basically, in nonfiction. But that's reducing the creative process to something that is not reductive. I haven’t written as much fiction as I have poetry and nonfiction, though I worked on The Lizard Cage for a decade, crazily enough, so it’s several novels’ experience for me as a writer. It is not a first novel. It is my first four novels! 


Sarah: How long after your time in Burma and Thailand did you start writing Burmese Lessons, and why was that the right time to begin (in terms of processing what you'd experienced, etc.)?

Karen: I spent some months in Burma in 1996 while I was living in Thailand during that year and through most of 1997. I had lived in Thailand before, when I was young, so I spoke fluent Thai and was well-versed in the Theravadan Buddhist cultures of Southeast Asia.

Partly I didn’t get to the material in BL because it took me so long to finish the novel, which was like a karmic debt to Burma and Burmese friends. Once that book was out in the world, I knew that I needed to record my own life experiences in Burma and on the border: what it was like, for a young woman writer, to be drawn into a rich, wounded nation, to get caught up in the political upheaval of that nation, to fall in love with a revolutionary politician whose life was centered in that unrest, and also, simultaneously, to enter into that phase in my life which every relatively free young woman experiences. That is, the time of life when she begins to come into her own power as a woman and make serious choices about work, love, marriage, children—the big decisions. All that collided and began at the same time for me, and it was exciting and painful in equal measures. And beautiful.

But I don’t think I understood those deeper themes until much time had passed. I really needed for those events to be over in my heart before I could write Burmese Lessons, and they weren’t fully over for a long, long time. Working on the novel kept them alive. It was rather tortuous, as anyone who has been yanked between cultures and geographies can attest.

Sarah: How does Burmese Lessons fit into your oeuvre? (how similar/different from your other books, how logically follows from what came before, etc.)

Karen: Well, you live your own life and as crazy or dull or whatever as it is, it is your own. So Burmese Lessons fits logically and chronologically into my oeuvre. It’s certainly better, deeper, more mature, than my earlier nonfiction books—I’m just a better writer than I was ten or fifteen years ago, thank heavens. I think one of the strongest elements in the book is its honesty—I am honest about my failings, my lust, my anger, my love for many people and places. I felt pretty queasy when the book came out, because of that honesty, that self-exposure, but I stand behind what I’ve written and I don’t regret a word of it. Certainly it has ruffled a lot of feathers among Burmese dissidents because it exposes hypocrisy, gives an honest account of sex (which is still taboo in Burmese culture) and also delves into some controversial and violent history in the dissident movement. 

Sarah: What are you working on now?

Karen: I’ve just finished a book of poetry, mostly about violence against women and children, and am wading into a novel that is partly about human trafficking and the sex trade. More light prose . . .

Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of best-selling nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, the most recent being Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story, a memoir about her experiences in Burma and on the Thailand-Burma border. She has won the Pat Lowther Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction, and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novel, The Lizard Cage. Published in 2005, The Lizard Cage was compared in The New York Times Book Review to the works of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and Mandela, and hailed in The Globe and Mail as “one of the best modern Canadian novels.”

Her other books include Grace and Poison, One Room in a Castle, This Brighter Prison, The Disorder of Love, and The Small Words in My Body. Married with a young child, she divides her time between homes in rural Greece and Toronto.  Read more about her at

Visit Sarah Saffian (formerly our beloved Editorial Director here at She Writes!) at her She Writes profile page or at her website,



For more author interviews like this one, visit the Five Questions archive.

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  • Joanne M Lozar Glenn

    I don't know this author yet, but based on this interview and the comment by Cathy, I'm looking forward to getting acquainted with her work!