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SoutheastAsiaMonday as I was tutoring my Chin friends, the two school-age boys, Moses and David, expressed their frustration with learning to write in English. Both are making strides in speaking and understanding speech, but in their classwork they find it difficult to transfer their newfound confidence with the spoken English word to paper. During the discussion that followed, David (14) said “English is too hard. I have to write a poem. What is a poem?”

What is a poem? What a question. I tried to answer this question by comparing poetry to other forms of literature. For instance, I said, To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel (long fiction) and there are short stories (short fiction) and poetry would be even shorter, often rhymes, and usually follows some sort of pattern or rhythm. Then I began to recite some Robert Frost to give him an example.

I got confused looks in response.

David was recently supposed to read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class. I’m pretty sure he got to at least chapter 10 and as I looked through the book (which I haven’t read since I was his age) in order to help him with an essay a few weeks ago, I really felt for him. It would be hard enough to read a novel written in “proper” English for someone who just started to learn the language two years ago. But that book is written in dialect. Oh, my.

We got through our lesson, I answered some questions about how to buy airline tickets for a trip they are taking to Texas for a friend’s wedding, and then I got in my car and began to drive home to start making dinner. It was on the drive that it it hit me: The Chin do not have anything that can compare to the vast body of literature, both past and present, that exists in the English language.

They do not have libraries filled to bursting with novels, plays, short stories, poetry, histories, religious works, or diaries in their native language, one of almost 50 spoken by their ethnic group alone. The only written works I have seen in the Chin language they speak are the Bible and the English-Chin dictionary. I’m not sure what else exists out there, but their language did not even have a written form until at least the 1800s, so there can’t be much.

As a native English speaker who grew up with a history and a body of literature that is written and read, I can hardly conceive of not having hundreds of years of thought to access at the turn of a page or the click of a mouse. It is not that these lovely people do not have a history, it’s that they cannot access it.

Over the past couple years as we have met each week I have explained various American holidays, which often entails explaining American history, which then occasionally requires a lesson in world history. As a history buff and a history minor in college, I know all of this information off the top of my head. But when I ask my friends the history of their own country, I can get very little information from a time before the oldest in the family (at age 42) was alive. I cannot fathom knowing only what has happened in my own lifetime.

Why do these people not know their history? The biggest reason is because in Burma/Myanmar they were impoverished and persecuted. You don’t wile away the hours reading or even talking history when you are struggling every hour of the day to make a living from poor soil and avoid harassment by a military regime. The secondary reason is because no one wrote it down.

When you write, whether you write personal letters, diary entries, emails, blog posts, self-help books, novels, or histories, you preserve a small part of life for the generations that will come. If your words survive on paper or in digital form, people who live long after you are gone can surmise how you lived, what was important to you, what you feared.

When you write, you are in a small way immortal. That’s powerful stuff. It should cause us to examine what we are saying to posterity when we write, when we post on Facebook or Twitter, when we choose to put our nebulous thoughts into little black characters on a page.

What history are you writing? What legacy are you leaving? Does it say something important? Or will the generations to come find ours a trivial generation not worth studying?

My Chin friends are writing themselves a new history in a new country with new freedoms and new challenges. I hope my own small contributions to the vast body of literature in English will be so brave. And I hope yours will be as well.