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Where EAST meets the Northwest

REPRESENTATIVE READING. Par Mawi, a Willard Library clerk who specializes in Burmese outreach, chooses her favorite book from the newly acquired Burmese collection in Battle Creek, Michigan. The shelves at Willard Library feature a plethora of books spanning countless subjects and cultures but until recently there were few Burmese materials available. (Alyssa Keown/Battle Creek Enquirer via AP)

From The Asian Reporter, V32, #4 (April 4, 2022), page 7.

Clerk helps expand Burmese books at Battle Creek library

By Greyson Steele

Battle Creek Enquirer

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — The shelves at Willard Library feature a plethora of books spanning countless subjects and cultures but until recently there were few Burmese materials available.

A passionate library clerk and a generous author have changed that, the Battle Creek Enquirer reports.

Dozens of books and magazines in the Burmese language now adorn the library’s shelves, the culmination of a tireless effort by library clerk Par Mawi to serve and better represent Battle Creek’s growing Burmese community.

The expanded collection was made possible by Burmese author and publisher Aung Way, a friend of Mawi’s who donated several works from his personal collection.

"To see this. It made me cry," Mawi explained, her voice gripped with emotion. "I’m very passionate about this."

Mawi fled her native Myanmar in 2007 due to political violence, enduring three difficult years in a refugee camp before reaching the United States and ultimately settling in Battle Creek more than 10 years ago.

She’s worked at Willard Library for about five years and has made it her mission to expand the library’s Burmese collection for quite some time.

The recently donated materials are a tremendous source of pride for Mawi and exemplify the library’s mission to "create a community of readers and a world of possibilities."

"We always say the library’s for everybody," Willard public relations librarian Kristine Pioch said. "It welcomes everybody that lives here so we have Burmese, we have a Spanish collection, we have a Japanese collection, we have a whole variety of books of all different kinds that are of interest to everybody. We really want to be everybody’s library."

Mawi remembers leading Way and other Burmese authors on a tour of the Willard Library in 2019.

Observing collections of Spanish and Japanese literature, the authors wondered, "Do you have a Burmese collection?"

"I was like, ‘Yeah, we have some books (about Burma), but not (a) Burmese collection,’" Mawi recalled. "‘We have more than 20 books in here, but (they’re written) in English.’"

Mawi asked the authors if they had any suggestions for how to acquire more books in the Burmese language. They agreed to reach out once they returned home to Myanmar.

Shortly after, the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the globe and political unrest in Myanmar further complicated things, Mawi explained.

On February 1, 2021, the military of Myanmar seized control of the government after claiming there were widespread irregularities with voting during the country’s November 2020 election.

Opposition to the military takeover sparked further unrest, with the harsh political climate making it increasingly difficult for Burmese authors to get their books published and distributed, according to Mawi.

"A lot of (Burmese) people, we’ve lost a habit of reading (amid the unrest)," she said. "It makes me really feel sad. When we’re not reading, we are more isolated and we have a lack of knowledge, and then we don’t know how to communicate anymore."

With odds of acquiring books from Myanmar growing increasingly slim, Mawi turned to Way, a Burmese author, publisher, and political activist.

Way came to the United States in 2008 and currently resides in Lansing. He’s published more than 38 books of poetry and essays and, at the urging of Mawi, decided to donate several works from his personal collection to Willard, including fiction and nonfiction books and magazines.

Many of the books are of poetry, which is often easier to get published in Myanmar because the works are up for interpretation and do not say things directly, according to Mawi.

Myanmar lacks the freedom of press, she said, with written materials often undergoing strict censorship to the point that "all the meaning is gone."

Perusing the variety of Burmese works at Willard recently, Mawi couldn’t help but smile.

"All of the books are my favorite," she said. "I actually want to check out all of them."

As a library clerk specializing in Burmese outreach, Mawi also recognizes the tremendous value in having her culture represented on the shelves.

"When we move to another country, when we have to adopt another country as our country, there’s so many things that we have to deal with," she said, acknowledging that while local Burmese immigrants are aware of Willard Library, many have often been hesitant to come in because they can’t speak English.

She believes the presence of Burmese books on the shelves provides a level of comfort.

"This is just a start," she said.

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