What happens when an English teacher from Ohio stumbles onto the world’s longest-running war and a resulting humanitarian catastrophe bleeding through two troubled Southeast Asian countries?
If she’s an aspiring journalist—and Mac McClelland is—she milks a few weeks spent living with Burmese refugees into a 300-page account of a conflict that’s gained little exposure in the West. And if she’s talented enough—and it turns out McClelland is that, too—her book succeeds despite the shallow depth of its material and the author’s bizarre fixation on Burmese buttocks.
McClelland went to Thailand to volunteer aiding the Karen, a hill tribe that’s been at war with the Burmese government since the military took over the country in 1962. In return, the junta has waged a campaign of genocide against the Karen—burning villages, raping women, conscripting slaves and driving hundreds of thousands of refugees over the Thai border. There they live crammed into squalid refugee camps, or constantly terrorized by corrupt Thai police.
That’s where McClelland finds herself in 2006, when she arrives at the border to spend six weeks teaching English at a Karen refugee organization documenting crimes against their people. To her credit, McClelland is one of the rare volunteers who chooses to live in a crowded house with the refugees, where she shares their squat toilet, crummy food and late-night sessions swilling cheap Thai beer.
Also to McClelland’s credit: She doesn’t resort to writing a dry treatise of the Karen war, interspersed with arm’s-length profiles of her new refugee friends. McClelland is foremost an activist, and she wants to make her American audience just as invested in the Karens’ fate as she is. Unfortunately for her book, McClelland tries to accomplish this by writing in the voice of an earnest, trash-talking Midwestern mall rat. The result, at times, clashes badly with the gravity of the issue.
We have McClelland marveling at a Karen man’s “stupefyingly round and hard-looking ass” and openly flirting with married refugees, all the while assuring readers that “the junta sucks” and that if there’s any doubt about war crimes against the Karen, “you can verify that shit on YouTube.” It’s as if Britney Spears had been dispatched to cover Darfur.
But amid these cringes lurks some powerful writing about the bond McClelland develops with the Karen, surprising insights into their culture and ours, and reams of solid reporting and analysis about Burma’s troubles. McClelland’s brain is thoroughly in the game. But as in war, her passions get in the way.
READ: Mac McClelland reads at Mercy Corps Action Center, 28 SW 1st Ave., 896-5002. 7 pm Tuesday, March 30. Free.