Friday, August 19, 2016

Coming of age in Lao legends

This week, Bai and Peter Whittlesey briefly discussed the possibilities of reading the epic of Sinxay as a Bildungsroman. This certainly presents us with a very interesting question of what our expectations of the genre are when we look at global literature. In technical terms, there are also several distinct variations of the Bildungsroman, such as the Entwicklungsroman ("development novel") the Erziehungsroman ("education novel") and the K├╝nstlerroman ("artist novel") regarding the protagonist's growth as an artist.

Of course, the epic of Sixay and many other Lao tales predates this German concept, but it's interesting to see where it might fit in. We would ask in such a case: does the young protagonist come upon the moral growth and understanding that is the hallmark of the genre? Is he at some points in conflict with his society and its expectations? There can be some interesting arguments made in support of this in the epic of Sinxay.

In the classic myths of Laos it often feels like many of the protagonists aren't in a critical state of conflict between their sense of duty and their desires. The moral path often seems clearly lain out before us. In the story of Manola and Sithong, for example, there are few who would suggest that Prince Sithong is grossly violating any of his royal duties or jeopardizing his crown in search of his wife, the Kinnaly princess Manola.

The epic of Phra Lak Phra Lam has some interesting moral twists and turns throughout the story, but the characters are really presented in a context where they are making the final steps towards maturity and understanding the world in some new light. They are, functionally, adults making adult choices unfettered by the uncertainties and caprices of youth.

In other stories where the princes and orphans are abused, cast out, or mistreated by jealous queens, nefarious Nyak or just the whims of the cosmos, the protagonists almost always choose the good of the realm and set aside the slights and torments they've personally experienced.

The exception that presently sticks out most in my mind would be the tales of the trickster Xieng Mieng, whose stories present a more interesting challenge for the community reading and presenting them. In those, he regularly demonstrates his wisdom often at the expense of the officials or figures in authority. It would be a stretch to call him an anti-hero, because he's not a nihilist, nor has he ever been depicted using his skills to deeply immoral ends. But there are cases where he definitely tests the limits of what can be tolerated.

In reading what's available, I think there is still significant room in our community for challenging coming of age stories and some conversations that are certainly necessary as our first wave of Lao American writers come of age themselves, and grow in their techniques and ideas.

Be sure to check out for some other blog posts exploring the possibilities of how Sinxay might speak to the present and future generations of our community.

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