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Smile As They Bow

3.55  ·  Rating details ·  229 ratings  ·  41 reviews
As the weeklong Taungbyon Festival draws near, thousands of villagers from all regions of Burma descend upon a tiny hamlet near Mandalay to pay respect to the spirits, known as nats, which are central to Burmese tradition. At the heart of these festivities is Daisy Bond, a gay, transvestite spiritual medium in his fifties. With his sharp tongue and vivid performances, he h ...more
Hardcover, 146 pages
Published September 1st 2008 by Hachette Books (first published 2008)
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Average rating 3.55  · 
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Wow. This story opened my eyes to an entire culture that I really didn't know existed (the natkadaws or spirit mediums/spirit wives at festivals in Myanmar). I was also surprised to learn that many of the natkadaws are gay men who openly dress as women, which is something I would have expected to have been illegal (or at least very dangerous) in a conservative society like Myanmar. Even though the story is fiction, a lot of the details seem to be very accurate (based on some additional reading I ...more
Mar 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
I had trouble getting into this. The festivals of Taungbyon were hard to imagine until I hit the internet. More difficult, though, was the voice. The narrative changes from first person to third and the first person changes. Some of the characters have two names and the gay men may have a feminine and/or masculine pronoun. Once I stopped trying to figure out who was who I could get into the story.

What a story it is! Daisy Bond (U Ba Si), like other gay men, has made a career of providing process
Aug 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: burma
I've been trying to understand about Burmese Nats. "Smile as they Bow" draws the reader headlong into the annual August festival in Taungbyon where the Nats are worshipped by way of the Natkadaws. Men, dressed in fancy clothing and jewelry in what we might view as like transvestites, offer their patrons promises of good fortune in exchange for money. Daisy Bond, the main character in the short novel, is an aging Natkadaw who feels he's always been a female born in a male body. He's more transgen ...more
sweet pea
Dec 29, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult-content, queer
this book is an amazing glimpse into a world few outside of Burma could witness. all the more amazing is that this is the first novel by an author living in Burma to be translated and published in the US.

the novel takes place during a week-long festival featuring natkadaws who channel spirits (nats) to give guidance to festival-goers. natkadaws can be either male or female. but the majority are queer males who dress in elaborate costumes to channel particular nats and dance for offerings. the n
Around the World Reading Challenge: MYANMAR (formerly BURMA)
3.5 rounded up

This was such an interesting read and basically *exactly* the kind of book I am most excited to read about for this challenge! Written by a woman who was born & raised in Myanmar, with queer themes and covering an event that is cultural important and unique to the country! I thought the author did a great job of providing some of the history and context for the Taungbyon Festival that's at the center of this novel (of w
Apr 24, 2018 rated it liked it
One of the 170+ books read by Ann Morgan as a part of her year of reading a novel from every country, SMILE AS THEY BOW was her Myanmar pick by Nu Nu Yi. This was also allegedly one of her favorites, which makes sense given the novel’s rich, evocative account of a traditional festival unique to Burmese culture. Beyond that it can feel somewhat slight (and, according to some Yi fans, not as politically charged as some of her other works), but this certainly fits the bill for readers seeking expos ...more
Mar 28, 2009 rated it it was ok
I have seen comments from readers that indicated that they thought the author was portraying gay identity in general as being trans-gendered. This book has nothing to do with gay identity. There is common cross-cultural prejudice that men can't surrender to spirit possession. So men who become spirit mediums are perceived as being either two spirited (see the work of anthropologist Walter Williams)or transgendered. As a result, spirit mediumship is a sanctioned cultural role for gay transvestite ...more
Alex MacFarlane
Jan 13, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, genderqueer
A Burmese novel about spirit mediums at the Taungbyon Festival. Daisy Bond, an elder medium, walks the world between man and woman in performance and reality. Min Min, Daisy’s young assistant and lover, wants to get away and be in a more ‘normal’ relationship. The novel deftly balances the extravaganza of a major festival with the minor — and nasty — mundanities of everyday life, which certainly don’t get left behind. Daisy’s gender defies easy definition. In places Smile As They Bow is not plea ...more
Aug 24, 2009 rated it really liked it
Not a bad read. It may take some people a while to get used to the way it is narrated, which is just the nature of the beast when you are working from a translation. Asiatic languages just have such a different structure that sometimes they don't translate very well. At least not without the risk of completely changing the meaning. I'm glad they did as straight a translation as possible.

Many readers wouldn't enjoy this as much as I did. The subject matter is unusual (just read the description o
Katie M.
Dec 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2010, queer
This book's credentials: Nu Nu Yi is one of the only contemporary writers living in Burma to be published in translation in the western world; she is also the first author living in Burma to be shortlisted for an international prize; she is also an AIDS activist; and this book was banned for 12 years by the Burmese government. Uh huh. ...more
Jun 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
A fascinating, frequently manic story of Burma's gay, transgender natkadaw community that provides a peak into a very different world. Well worth the read. Smile requires a bit of patience initially, however, as it frequently shifts narrators, and without clearly identifying each. ...more
Aug 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
i like how the author portrays the life of each different ppl in the introduction. even though i kinda knows how the ending will be, it is a really great book with full of knowledge about life, our underrated festival and natgadaw myar.
Dec 12, 2012 rated it liked it
This was a really great look into a not much talked about sub-culture in Myanmar. I learned a lot and now I really want to go to the festival next year.
Dana Schmidt
Jan 21, 2015 rated it liked it
Fascinated by the story which gave interesting insights on Burma. Narrative style was difficult to get into; I wonder if it has to do with some things being lost in translation.
Mar 02, 2016 marked it as to-read
Shelves: fiction
Selection for Myanmar/Burma
Ye Thu Lwin
Mar 06, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good one! Got the knowledge of "Taung Pyone" traditional festival. The words and usage between characters are interesting.
The book also has the English translated version.
*4.4 out of 5
Katelyn Sherman
Jul 31, 2018 rated it did not like it
I'm sorry to say I really did not like this book because I admire the author's attempt to describe Burma through one of its festivals. The opening pages gave interchanging perspectives of the beautiful sides and the dark sides of the religious festivities - those who come to ask selfishly for wealth, those who ask humbly for good health, and those who prey on aging grandmothers to pickpocket their gold.

But the story followed a bitchy gay transvestite who dresses up to participate in the week lon
Jul 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
To someone who knows little about Burmese culture, this was a tough but very enlightening read. Nu Nu Yi writes with a style that is unique and riveting, it is no wonder she is the first writer from Burma to win an international award. The subject matter is obviously delicate. It is the main reason why this novel has been banned for more than a decade by the government. To have this published now in Nu Nu Yi’s home country and abroad is a victorious ode to the rendering visible of queer experien ...more
Sep 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Realism, the spectacle of the natpwe, language that must have been crushingly hard to translate. I can imagine the book was originally scorned for its protrayal of a traditional culture that is as rich and as real as this.

About halfway through I wished the writer had explored all of the characters in more depth. The book could have been three times as long and perhaps add in the the nat histories that only get a glancing referenced.
Aubrey Stapp
Nov 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Wow, what an... unusual culture. The book didn't exactly have a plot, didn't really keep my interest that well (which is why it took so long to finish), but it had enough interesting cultural tidbits that I stuck with it. Worth the read, but I definitely will never read it again. Unless I'm going to Burma/Myanmar. ...more
Oct 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Quick read that provides insights on a unique cultural tradition with a deep history. And it's a lovely human story. More understandable if you have visited or read about Burma/Myanmar and the nat (spirit-medium) tradition. ...more
Mar 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Interesting to read if you want to explore about NAT-Ka-Daws
Reading the world - Myanmar/Burma

I know nothing about Burma. Of course, I've been aware there is a faraway country of such name, just no one introduced me to its culture. I was assuming it's similar to Japan's or China's. Blank page, nothing else comes to my mind.

The story is about traditions and celebration of Burmese festival as seen by natkadawa - a gay medium, and his unwilling lover, their struggles or conflicting goals. Solid 3*
Sep 20, 2016 rated it liked it
"As the weeklong Taungbyon Festival draws near, thousands of villagers from all regions of Burma descend upon a tiny hamlet near Mandalay to pay respect to the spirits, known as nats, which are central to Burmese tradition. At the heart of these festivities is Daisy Bond, a gay, transvestite spiritual medium in his fifties. With his sharp tongue and vivid performances, he has long been revered as one of the festival's most illustrious natkadaws. At his side is Min Min, his young assistant and lo ...more
Angelica Creixell
Jul 02, 2020 rated it liked it
For the full review and a short analysis of the gender gap and some initiatives or projects that are working to improve the situation of the women in Myanmar visit:

The novel starts with the start of the festival in honor of the Taungbyon brothers in Burma, it is celebrated to remember the fragile deaths suffered by the two brothers. Their spirits (and other spirits), to which people pray and pay respects are called nats, and the mediums that help people contact past spirits and ask for wishes a
Jonathan Widell
Set in Burma, "Smile As They Bow" tells us about a homosexual spirit-medium humorously called Daisy Bond (alluding to James Bond). If we are to believe this novel, Burma looks a lot like Bangkok, a place where sex, business and religion coexist in perfect harmony. Daisy seems happy with his life. He is successful. He is only worried about one thing: not all gays in his entourage are real gays. They fancy women and accuse Daisy and other gays of not being real women. This he finds deeply hurtful. ...more
Nov 08, 2013 rated it liked it
The ending was disappointing, but that shouldn't stop the interested from picking up this book. It's a glimpse into what is, to me, a very unfamiliar and intriguing world. (I'll save you from a synopsis, as those already exist in detail elsewhere.)

This is a novel without a clear villain, and I find myself arguing internally over who, exactly, is in the wrong in the tangle of personal relationships we see. That there's no clear scapegoat is just one indication of this novel's ambiguity; it's atmo
Nov 25, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: mosaic-lit, ccpl
3.5 stars. I appreciate the socio-historical significance of Smile as They Bow. It's a unique work in several respects, including its Burmese origins and subject matter. I enjoyed the early sections that switch between the points of view of various festival attendees. It was kind of a mosaic novel in those segments. The plot eventually settles onto Daisy Bond, who channels nats (spirits). Unfortunately, even though the narrative transitions to a supposedly more focused exploration of Daisy, I ne ...more
Michele Benson
Mar 25, 2016 rated it it was ok
This was my book from Myanmar (Burma) and was told from the viewpoint of Nat (spirit) wives who are in reality are gay men. They take money for carrying the prayers of the worshippers to the shrines of these national spirits. There is very little description of the country or culture beyond the spirit worship of the Nats. It is a very short book, but it took me practically till the end to figure out the worship ceremony and its purpose - or for that matter, that it was supposed to be a religious ...more
Tattered Cover Book Store
Oct 24, 2008 added it
Recommended to Tattered Cover by: Joe
Not enough money to travel to exotic Myanmar this year? Well this book can be your fix. This book is written by a Burmese writer named Nu Nu Yi, who has won many awards for her writing in Burma, is her American debut.

This short novel takes place in Burma, during the annual Taungbyon festival in August, when Nats, or the wives of the spirits, dance and commune with the spirits to bring fortune to those who pay for it. Most of these nats are transvestites, and the festival becomes a feast of sin e
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The Armchair Trav...: * Smile As They Bow * discussion 3 6 Jan 20, 2016 12:04AM  

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