In researching Sinxay in Laos we were very fortunate to meet several times with Dr. Thongkham Onmanisone, a renowned expert in Lao literature who was awarded the Lao National Artist of Literature Medal in May 2011 for his devotion and promotion of Lao literature. In 2012 he published a book in Laos on The Role of Soumountha and the Light of the Wisdom of Sinxay, which highlights the role of Soumountha both as a protector and conserver of the identity of Lao Buddhist women. Dr. Omanisone praises Soumountha for her ability to negotiate, which Dr. Omanisone calls “having an international mind.” We will be writing more about his book in a later post.
In all our interviews we asked how our interviewees learned about Sinxay. What Dr. Thongkham told us was typical of the older generation in Laos who learned about Sinxay from hearing the story either told to them or having it read out loud. Dr. Thongkham told us how when he was a young boy living in a small village in southern Laos there was an older woman who would weave under her house (traditional Lao homes are usually built on stilts so the main rooms are protected from any flooding and the area underneath the house is shaded, allowing for breezes to blow through on very hot days, a perfect place to weave). When she wanted to rest she would take out a palm leaf manuscript from a special box that told the story of Sinxay and read it softly to herself. Dr. Thongkham, whose parent’s house was next to hers, would go and listen to her read the story every day and that’s how he fell in love with Sinxay. In a previous post we featured an illustration by Khamla Phanyasith showing Dr. Thongkham as a young boy listening to a weaver tell the story of Sinxay as she read from a palm leaf manuscript.
Unfortunately with modernity the value of storytelling has greatly declined. Of course it’s not isolated to Laos and even here in the United States television has taken the place of grandparents and parents telling stories. What adults don’t realize is that even with so-called educational TV, when a child watches the TV, which conveniently and addictively provides both the stimulus and response (audio and picture), the child no longer has to rely on his imaginative capacity, which atrophies. It’s this imagination which is the hidden power behind anyone becoming an avid reader.
For the featured image of this post we have included an illustration drawn by Khamla Phanyasith showing an elder in the village of Ban Na Ang telling the story of Sinxay to some children in the village as they gathered around a small fire on a brisk January evening. Many children in the rural villages of Laos, prior to entering school, have a rich, imaginative, language-rich upbringing. Upon going to school they run into a brick wall of parroted learning. It’s extremely sad and although there are organizations like Big Brother Mouse trying to help by publishing appropriate, interesting books for school age children to read, its a minute drop in the bucket of a pathetic education system.