Subtitled " My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma" and co-written with a British journalist, this book describes the horrific life Zoya Phan led as a member of the Kariang, Kayin, or Yang people usually referred to as Karen in this book. Karen nationalists have been fighting since 1949 for an independent state (which was to have been called Kawthoolei). The Karen National Liberation Army has been in conflict with the Tatmadaw, the well-funded Burmese military all this time.
You will not read this in the book, but three-quarters of the Karen population has never lived inside Karen State, which is in the southeast corner of Burma. Karen is a generic term meaning peoples of the forest, and this is not a homogenous group, nor is there complete agreement among all Karen peoples about objectives. In the Burmese election in 2010, for example, there were three separate Karen political parties.
That said, it doesn't take a single thing away from this author's own personal experience and the horrors she had to endure as a child. The Karen people are one of the most populous ethnic groups, numbering around six million, which makes it startlingly clear how big a problem this is when we understand that some two million people of the many ethnic groups in Burma have been displaced, and another two million are refugees living in squalid conditions across the border in places like Thailand. The bulk of those latter people are Karen.
That story - the one of being attacked in one's own country and forced to flee to become an illegal emigrant, living in a camp and desperately trying to keep family together, and keep track of those family from whom you're separated, and trying to make a decent life for yourself, are what this book is all about. I found it depressing to read, but that did not prevent me from reading it. The most horrifying thing about this is that the author is one of the luckiest ones, yet even her story is soul-destroying.
How much worse then was it for they who did not get to tell their story because they were captured, and raped as children, and tortured and mutilated, and murdered for simply being one of the Karen? That's what people who rated this book negatively simply didn't get and they should be ashamed of themselves, because they focused on grammar and story-telling and completely forgot that this book isn't a story, it's a life, one of millions, and a positive one. Far too many other "stories" were not, and this book exists to speak for them, and to remind us of those people who cannot speak.
The author lived a life of misery and deprivation from the time she was fourteen until even after the time she was able to move to Britain, where she still initially had to suffer some more, but that treatment never once caused her to lose courage, and never once did she stop from speaking out for her people and their suffering. This woman is a hero. A real hero. And her story ought to be required reading. I commend this book for its honesty, bravery, and for the truths it reveals.