An exploration of how heritage fits into a person’s wider realm

Elizabeth Shick’s “The Golden Land” revolves around a young woman’s relationship with her mixed heritage and the internal balancing act it engenders in a person who has lived most of her life in a foreign country.

The story takes place mainly in Myanmar 2011, but its foundations lie in Burma in 1988 and in the political upheavals of the time, which forced the protagonist, Etta, and her family, to leave their homeland in search of a more stable life and safe.

The lives of Etta and her brother Parker take a drastic turn after their grandmother’s death, causing them both to return to their homeland and reconnect with their roots. Etta, however, embarks on a much more personal journey as she reconciles her teenage memories with relationships with real people in modern-day Myanmar.

All of the above happens against the backdrop of growing political tension and lawlessness in present-day Burma. As someone who lives in Bangladesh and has seen the multitude of coverage of Rohingya refugees, this novel offers a very touching and uncensored perspective from the other side.

The book is filled with accurate historical facts and in many cases provides much needed corrections and context to all the misconceptions and state propaganda spewing from the tyrannical powers that be. Whenever I came across a reference to a specific gruesome event in the book, a quick Google search revealed that the author’s diligence and attention to detail in evoking those events was beyond reproach.

Many times throughout the novel, the “official versions” of events and stories are analyzed in great detail to reveal the actual truth of the events that transpired.

The Golden Land is a great place to start learning about Myanmar’s recent history and how it shapes the psychosphere of its citizens. Among these themes is a very personal journey of self-discovery and discovering how the protagonist’s legacy fits into the greater scope of the person she has become, including her entire life in Boston.

All of the above culminates in a very touching passage “being Burmese is not a box to be opened or closed; the culture is not hard and fixed but a function of the breath that passes through me day after day, an amalgam of everything I touch and experience, past, present and future Who I am, which parts of me I choose to embrace and which to let go, is up to me.

Plot-wise, the hook that will keep you engaged are Etta’s feelings, personal perceptions, and how her inner monologue evolves throughout the novel.

Originally from Newton, Massachusetts, Shick is an award-winning novelist whose creativity is influenced by living abroad for many years, including six years in Myanmar. He currently lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Shick’s writing is smooth and flowing, with a charming attention to character development and plot development. He captures all the elements in such a way that it feels like you’re reading more than one book at the same time. It takes place over two time periods, but also explores what happens when people have to make decisions about what they want to keep from their past.

Moving between Boston and Yangon, and the past and present, the story brings to life two very different worlds and explores the powerful bond between two people (Etta and her estranged cousin) of conflicting origins that lasts beyond distance and time.

Through vivid descriptions of the pre-monsoon weather, shops, food and daily routines in both the affluent and less savory parts of the city, Elizabeth Shick successfully captures the essence of Yangon.

With its moving depictions of political turmoil and military rule, this novel is particularly significant and relevant to the ongoing problems faced by the Burmese people in their struggle for basic rights and freedom.

The book is written in the first person and as such is very easy to dive into; this is even more helpful if you are from South Asia.

All the cultural intricacies and practices are portrayed in a very casual yet respectful way, making it feel all the more real. This is a historically secure and culturally sharp novel; it asks how much we must hold on to and how much we cannot lose, however urgently we want to.

Published by New Issues Poetry and Prose in December 2022, The Golden Land is available for purchase on Amazon.

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