Monday, April 06, 2009

[Literature] Mother's Beloved: Frangiapani

In the late Outhine Bounyavong's collection of short stories, Phaeng Mae, Mother's Beloved, we find the short story, Frangiapani, about the dok champa, or the national flower of Laos. 

This is a relatively brief story, taking up four pages in the 1999 University of Washington Press edition. It's hard to believe this edition of Phaeng Mae is celebrating it's 10th year already. How time flies! 

The story opens with the narrator reflecting on the tamarind tree in his front yard. He observes the effect that the presence of the tamarind has people passing by the tree, and soon begins to recall his memories as a child when he saw a tamarind tree. 

Bounyavong's narrator uses the tamarind tree as an allegorical device for sharing:
"...this tamarind tree was near a road, so it belonged to everybody. We should all share it, not destroy it. It enriched our lives and our happiness. Wherever there was a tree, there was happiness."
At one point the tamarind tree is cut down by contractors in the name of progress to install power lines, much to the narrator's distress.  Contractors come off as indifferent thugs within Bounyavong's story. As could be expected in a story like this, the Municipality Bureau official could save the day. In this case, he suggests that smaller trees didn't need to be cut down because they won't interfere with the power lines.

The narrator then discusses the silence in his neighborhood with the absence of the tamarind tree and a sense of emptiness. The narrator considers planting a new tree, dismissing many candidates including star fruit, mango and longan trees because while they would provide wonderful food for the neighbors, they would eventually be cut down again when they grew too tall and possibly interfered with the power lines. His final choice is the dok champa or frangiapani plant.

The dok champa is chosen for its beautiful fragrance all throughout the morning, day and night. It was also, in the narrator's estimation, easy to plant, and he shares cutlings with his neighbors so they too can plant their own dok champa. Finally years later, after much nurturing, the dok champa in his neighborhood provides thick foliage and shade. 

The dok champa also can be read as an obvious allegory for Laos itself as he describes the plant:
"Champa grows to medium height. It blooms all year round. It blooms in the rain. It blooms when the wind blows and blooms when the sun shines..." 
Overall, there are a number of messages within Bounyavong's story, which like many of the ones included in this collection might easily be dismissed more as anecdotes. 

But within the context of many of Bounyavong's anticipated readers in Laos, his stories are also easy to tell and read within everyday settings. 'Frangiapani' is an interesting meditation on the significance of the dok champa as a national symbol for Laotians and as a practical plant within the community.

On the surface, 'Frangiapani' is a simpler work by Outhine Bounyavong. But I think a lot can be read between the lines, which is typical of many Laotian writers.

The romanticism is thick within this story. It idealizes and streamlines issues of the environment and progress, but is reasonably textured given the constraints of the format Bounyavong was using to reach his audience. 

There are many allegorical symbols embedded into the story. For its time, the story 'Frangiapani' asks some interesting questions about what is best and useful for a village, and by extension the nation. 

By pointing out how even a simple tamarind tree can mean so much to a neighborhood, but that a neighborhood also comes to accept the necessity of power lines and modernization, we see a certain expression of Laotian values and process. We also see Laotian perspectives on sharing and selflessness, values that ultimately contribute to the greater community good after many years.

There aren't many characters or even much action within this story. It can be summarized quite easily in probably less than a dozen words. But the route Bounyavong takes to get us there is charming enough. The characterization isn't as rich as his tale 'A Seat in The Grandstand,' but it suffices to get his point across.

And makes me want to get my own dok champa to plant around my house and neighborhood.

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