Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Contemplating Sinxay

This month at Little Laos on the Prairie I interviewed the team at Sinxay Publishing, Bai and Peter Whittlesey, whom I've known personally for many years through their independent small business, Lao Essential Artistry. I've respected their work in what is a very difficult sector of the market. When the Whittleseys began, there were few people taking a gamble on Lao arts and crafts, even from business owners in our own community.

But I'm glad they took the risk to make these available to the public. One of my favorite things they'd found were from a Lao artist who made these wonderful cloisonne pins of legendary creatures from our traditon. They had the good eye to recognize how uncommon these were to see in the markets.

On their blog, Lao Essential Artistry went to great lengths to provide context for many of their offerings and to help both Lao and mainstream audiences appreciate what they were buying. Those posts, and conversations with them over the years comparing our notes were very helpful in building my personal understanding of Lao myths, legends and folklore. A great case in point being an effort to understand the roots of the legendary Nyak, ogres and giants of the Lao tradition, who are influenced by Hindu traditions of the entities known as the Rakshasa, but also Yaksha.

So, for many years now, I've been looking forward to their first book, a new translation of the epic of Sinxay. It's taken them over a decade to complete. This is clearly a labor of love, much like the work of Nor Sanavongsay to bring the story of Xieng Mieng to life, or the efforts to translate the stories of Outhine Bounyavong. I hope that it will spark a renewed interest in the legend of Sinxay for the next generation.

As a writer, I appreciate Bai and Peter's efforts deeply on many levels because I think their work is ultimately important not just for the translation of the tale of Sinxay, but for what it means as we make the transtion from a monarchy to a democracy, and as we become a global people participating in the world of arts and letters.

Good literature sparks great conversations. It creates great passion and it shapes our consciousness and transforms how we engage with our world later in life. My old English teacher, Margaret Emlaw, once taught me that Don Quixote was a novel you needed to read three times in your life. Once as a youth, once as an adult, and once as an old man. You see the story from different angles as you grow older. It doesn't mean your previous perspective was wrong. But you appreciate the tale again from a very new space.

I didn't get a chance to grow up with the tales of Sinxay because of personal circumstance and had only briefly become aware of it because of a very abridged version of Sinxay in the book Treasures of Lao Literature by Somsanouk Mixay.

I deeply appreciate Somsanouk's effort to present a simplified version of the story, but it wasn't until I talked with Peter a few years ago that I understood the full importance of what this story used to mean to our community, and how it might well speak to our community today.  He convinced me.

In the everyday Lao American community today, there are many Lao youth and many Lao adults who've never even heard of this story. But when we hear the community asking for stories in our tradition in the same vein as King Arthur, Charlamagne, or the Lord of the Rings, we don't have to look much further than this.

Bai and Peter have gone to extraordinary lengths to present a readable but accurate translation of the story, and to present it in a way that resonates with many us familiar with high fantasy and fine literature today. They invested a lot of money, time and research to produce a beautiful edition of this story. 

It's still difficult getting many Lao around the world to read avidly, but hopefully this will start to change many minds. An honest assessment would admit that often, many books of Lao literature over the past forty years has been presented in shoddy editions with flimsy binding, bad typesetting and questionable editing as the least of the problems we faced. This is a good step to counteract that trend and to raise our expectations of what we can get with a good Lao book.

This has been a very interesting challenge and partnership.  Watching Bai and Peter collaborate and seek out the input from others in our community, both in the US and back in Laos to create this version of the tale has been extraordinary. 

I hope many people will take the time to really read this edition and to see what's possible for all of us as writers and community builders. This is a book that deserves to find its audience.

Will this be the very last version of Sinxay? No, and we shouldn't worry about that. We take an example from how Steve Epstein did some wonderful work collecting Lao folktales, as did Wajuppa Tossa and Kongdeuane Nettavong did their work. These were a great beginning, but with folktales and legends, never the last word. As it should be. 

I anticipate we will see others presenting their original interpretations and editions of the stories that we grew up with. Some will have variant endings, expanded adventures, or place a different focus on different parts of the story. I will look forward to seeing those editions, too, whenever they appear. It will be very intresting to see what our community ultimately favors as the most canonical version of Sinxay, going forward. 

What retelling will we say makes it distinctively most Lao, and/or Lao American? When we consider this story also has versions in Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, as we stake out new territory, what becomes our literary strategies whereby Lao people around the world will recognize a particular version of the epic as their own?

That's what makes culture exciting and dynamic. Our stories change to reflect different values, different advances in the way we express ourselves or what we prioritize in preserving. We would do well to remember the example of Shakespeare who often took good stories and created an astounding version we still remember. We should further remember that others came after Shakespeare and presented different interpretations of his take. 

But I think this version will generate a very interesting and thoughtful conversation in the years ahead. It reads well for modern audiences, and it demonstrates what can be accomplished when we value those stories.

I also applaud the process because it was meticulous, respectful and grass roots. That an everyday couple took on what others thought would be an impossible project is exactly the kind of intitiative we need to grow a diverse and thriving community of artists and culture builders. It's not something coming from an academic ivory tower, but a sincere effort to maintain a living tradition. And this is so badly needed in our community.

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