Meet Author Jessica Mudditt

Jessica Mudditt is a freelance journalist and the author of Our Home in Myanmar, a memoir about her four years living and working in Myanmar with her Bangladeshi husband, Sherpa. She shares her experiences as a foreign reporter and what it was like capturing that in her book with the Broad.

The Broad and Mr Broad visited Myannmar in 2005, an amazing trip through a country with so much beauty and welcoming people, but the political situation was always front of mind. So she was intrigued to hear from an Australian journalist about her experiences in the country and her new book.

Q. What was the inspiration for writing the book?

I wanted to record what it was like to live in Myanmar as an expat and a journalist during a significant time in its history. I moved to Yangon in 2012, just as the military had begun to take a few tentative steps towards transitioning from military dictatorship to democracy. I remained there until the year after the historic elections of 2015, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s government won by a landslide and came to power. Myanmar had been isolated for half a century and then all of a sudden it started opening up and there was an influx of expats and new businesses and freedoms. It was an exciting place to live and it had a lot of quirks, because the military had mismanaged the economy for so long. For example, rent was paid one year in advance. What complicated that further was that there was no international banking or ATMs. It results in all sorts of semi-surreal situations.

Q. How and where did you write it?

I began writing the book in 2018, which was the year my first child, Olivia, was born. While I was on maternity leave, I wrote every time she napped – and luckily for me, both my girls are really good sleepers. When I returned to work, I would get up early and write before my work day started, and I would allow myself to work on the manuscript for an hour during my work day, provided I didn’t have a deadline that ate up my day’s output. I also worked on it on weekends – there was no other way to finish it. I didn’t mind though, because I loved reliving my memories of Myanmar.

Q. How did you come to self-publish your book?

I was devastated when my book proposal was rejected at a publisher’s acquisition meeting in 2019. The feedback was that it wasn’t commercially viable because Myanmar was very niche and I am not a public figure. I tried a couple of other publishers and literary agents, but without any success. Rather than shopping it around and getting 10 or 20 more rejections that could potentially dishearten me enough to abandon the idea altogether, I decided to self-publish my book.

As a journalist, I am often writing about people who are innovating with new technologies and ways of doing things, so I decided to see what this exciting new marketplace is like. There is definitely an up-front cost to doing it this way, however I find it really interesting to learn about the book trade and so far, I don’t think being self-published has done my book any harm. It’s also great to be in control of things like choosing the cover and which countries it is sold in (all of them), and having access to my sales data in real-time, rather than getting a report every year or six months.

It is important to have a distributor, as that is the only way to get it into large bookstores like Dymocks. In Australia, my distributor is John Reed Books, and in New Zealand, it’s PDL. I also have an amazing publicist there called Karen McKenzie from Lighthouse PR.

Q. Any advice for people who hope to write a memoir or life adventure story?

I had always had niggling worries about potentially upsetting people who appeared in my book. I gave it lots of thought and in the end, I didn’t include anything that could hurt or offend anyone that I know. I certainly hope I have anyway. I found that I had enough to say about Myanmar itself and my own mistakes and weaknesses that I didn’t need to bring anyone down with me!

Of course, this isn’t always possible if your subject matter is childhood trauma or divorce, for example, but I just found it less stressful and more enjoyable not to be critical of other people in my book. That also avoids any possible legal issues. A friend of mine published her memoir under a pseudonym to avoid hurting her family – that is another way of going about it. Or you could just write fiction, as so many people opt to do. I am not a fiction writer or reader, however, so I had no other choice.

Q. What is it like trying to recapture real people and events in a book?

It was daunting in the beginning, although I enjoyed the challenge. As a journalist, I’m used to writing non-fiction but I always have a pretty tight word count and I can’t go into the level of detail that I would often like to. I rarely get to include my own feelings and reactions either. To refresh my memories, I went back through my photos, videos, blog and articles. Happily, I discovered that my recall was pretty good. I learned to have more confidence in my memories when I discovered, for example, that a photo I had posted on Facebook five years earlier matched up very closely with my memory of it. I don’t think we ever forget how something important made us feel.

Q. You’ve worked in Australia, London, Bangladesh and Myanmar. All very different places. What have your experiences been like? Any standout wonderful or terrible ones?

Working as a freelance journalist in a country where you don’t speak the language (or speak it very minimally) will always be far and away more challenging than where English is spoken. That said, I ended up marrying my translator in Bangladesh – so that was a major plus! I met Sherpa out the front of a garment factory in the capital city of Dhaka, and that is a standout experience in my mind. Those in the garments industry are mostly women and they were trying to get a higher minimum wage – they were demanding $80 a month (yes, a month) but the government set it at $48. So they had been protesting about that, as well as the appalling conditions they worked in. Sherpa showed a lot of empathy as he translated their distressing stories that night.

In Myanmar, two ‘pinch yourself’ experiences on the job involved covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, when I was just a few metres away from her. The other one was a speech by my hero, President Obama, at Yangon University. At the time I couldn’t believe it was real.

Q. What was it like living and working in Myanmar?

I found everyday life fascinating. Myanmar is a very beautiful country that appears to have been frozen in time. When I was there, the pace of change was breathtaking, whether it was the number of cars suddenly appearing on the roads as expats and ‘repats’ (Burmese people who had been living abroad) flooded in, or the fact that Coca-Cola billboards were popping up after a 60-year absence (the company left due to human rights abuses). ATMS arrived; as did mobile phones. There were many political changes too – such as being able to say Aung San Suu Kyi’s name aloud without fear of arrest (prior to about 2010, she was referred to in a whisper as ‘The Lady.’ There were many moments when I had the sense that I was watching history unfold in front of me. It was a very optimistic time, but there were also many everyday challenges, such as a lack of electricity and widespread poverty.

Q. How much of a culture shock was it coming back to Aus?

I left Myanmar very abruptly (for reasons I won’t go into, lest I spoil the plot) and perhaps that made the reverse culture shock more severe than it may have been if I felt like it had been my choice.

I was very unhappy in those early days after returning to Australia. Everything seemed sanitized, rule-oriented, and ridiculously expensive. I couldn’t relate to everyday conversations. I had insomnia and nightmares and wound up on a psychologist’s couch. She told me I had something called ‘cultural adjustment disorder.’ It took about six months for it to wear off. Nowadays, I absolutely love living in Sydney. I’m from Melbourne originally, so I appreciate the warmer climate and getting to know a new city makes me feel as though I am still travelling.

Q. How do you see the current situation in Myanmar and what are your hopes for democracy?

It is difficult to imagine a worse situation for the people of Myanmar to be facing. It is a humanitarian crisis. Millions of people are starving and have been displaced, and have suffered terrible violence at the hands of the military. As many as 50% of the population may have COVID-19. The trauma of losing loved ones to disease or state-sponsored violence will take generations to heal.

Despite this, I believe that the people will succeed in restoring democracy. They show no signs of giving up or submitting to authoritarian rule. But how many lives will be lost and destroyed, I wonder? The international community must do more to help the people of Myanmar.

Q. If people want to lend their support, do you have any suggestions?

A dollar from every copy of Our Home in Myanmar is donated to charities that are featured on the platform I Support Myanmar. There are a number of extremely worthwhile causes to support and the charities have been vetted, so you know your money will go directly to the people. Last week I donated $500 to providing emergency oxygen supplies in Mandalay Division. The process took less than a minute to complete. Aside from that, you can sign a petition calling on your local MP to do more to help the people of Myanmar.

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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