The chapters in Names for Light: A Family History, the new book by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, are each named for a locale where either the author or her ancestors lived. Among these homelands—cities in Asia, Europe and North America—are a curious pair of long dashes. It is in these chapters, demarcated by a place-holding line, that Myint writes of Santa Clara County.
“It was a place I had no name for, still have no name for,” she writes.
Born in Myanmar and raised in Thailand and the Bay Area, Myint describes our region as the closest thing she has to a home.
Names for Light interweaves three generations of family stories, many versions of which the author heard while growing up. Often, the past and present circle one another until they converge.
The stories which make up Names for Light coalesce around themes of hauntedness, migration, displacement, belonging and home. Written in lyrical prose, the book’s timeline is non-linear. Myint describes this logic as a way to explore her experience of migration and exile without relying on false binaries such as before and after, or here and there.
The author and her sisters grew up in an apartment complex on the edge of three different cities: San Jose, Cupertino and Saratoga. Often, defining the boundaries between the three seemed impossible. For example, her family frequented library branches in each.
“I didn’t want to label it one thing,” she says, “because the names weren’t important really. Even among my friends or classmates, we would hang out between all those places. It was more like that area itself felt like home.”
While awaiting their move to the US, Myint’s family resided in Bangkok. There, her father regaled his kids with idyllic tales from five childhood years in a Maryland suburb, replete with snow days and paper routes.
“I had this TV idea that America is filled with blonde children and indoor hallways and cafeterias,” Myint recalls. “When we came to San Jose, I was unprepared and shocked. There were a lot of students who were immigrants or children of immigrants. Everybody was, it seemed, by the time I was in high school.”
This posed difficulties for her and her peers when it came to claiming the region as their home. On a school trip to DC, she remembers, strangers approached her eighth grade class to inquire where they were from. When someone replied San Jose, the strangers asked if that was somewhere in Asia.
“There’s always a sense that [San Jose] is a place where a bunch of people who were displaced ended up together,” she continues. “Even though we grew up there, we’re newcomers and we’re always going to be perceived as newcomers.”
Myint says the history of San Jose was not a part of her school’s curriculum, nor was the history of Asian Americans in California. “That also fueled a sense of estrangement from one’s own home,” she asserts.
Names for Light—whose dedication reads simply: “for my family”—was inspired by Myint’s anxiety over her parents’ mortality. The effort to commit her personal and family history to paper spanned four years. During this time, her two remaining grandparents passed away. Adding to the need for an archive, Myint welcomed her first child in the weeks before her publication date.
Crucial to her creative process were a series of informal FaceTime interviews with her parents, who still reside in San Jose.
The particulars of family stories are often slippery, and Myint describes her research process as meandering, painstaking and necessarily messy. In addition to being good storytellers, she explains, her parents are characters. Early on, she learned she had to separate the pair because they would interject and correct one another when interviewed together.
“I was most interested in documenting the feeling I had growing up of these family stories existing,” she says, “rather than a very strict oral history that was going to have some sort of claim to truth value. I didn’t want to kill these living stories by having one definitive version of them.”
Names For Light