THE LIFE AND WORK OF OUTHINE BOUNYAVONG

Cover Photograph: the mural at Wat Luan, Luang Prabang Laos PDR by Waralan Bunyyasurat  Designed by T. Jittidejarak

From Peter Koret's Contemporary Lao Literature, PP 23-33: Mother's Beloved.

Outhine Bounyavong is a well-known author of contemporary Lao fiction. Prior to this collection, his works have been translated into Russian, Vietnamese, and Thai. Outhine’s development as a writer, which is described in the brief biography that follows, resembles that of many other major Lao authors from the same period.10

Outhine was born in 1942 in Sayabouri, a province in northwestern Laos. At an early age, he was sent to live with relatives in Vientiane, where opportunities for education and employment were greater than in the countryside. During his school years, French was the language of instruction, and literature classes taught students to appreciate works of French origin. Among Outhine’s teachers was Somchine Nginn, the author of the first Lao novel and a noted composer of French verse.   Outhine was forced to leave school as a result of financial difficulties. During the 1960s and early 1970s, he held a wide variety of jobs, including clerk at an electrical firm, librarian at the United States Information Service (USIS), and bookkeeper for a Japanese company that was expanding the runway of the Vientiane airport.

From the period of French colonization to the present, literary influences on authors of Lao fiction have been dictated by the limited supply of books available in the nation’s capital. During the 1960s, there were only two bookshops, one that sold Thai language material and another that sold works composed in French. Outhine became familiar with American fiction while working at the library of the USIS.

Outhine’s earliest writing consisted of short stories and prose pieces which appeared in various newspapers and magazines. The limited audience that existed at the time preferred humorous works to fiction with a serious theme. In the mid-1960s, Outhine published his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Sivith Ni Ku Lakone Kom (Life Is Like a Short Play). At the time, collections of Lao fiction were rare. It was not only necessary for an author to finance the cost of his publication, but also to take responsibility for its distribution. Outhine walked the streets of Vientiane, placing books in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and anywhere else he imagined an audience to exist. Approximately half of the two thousand copies of his book were eventually sold.

In the late 1960s, Outhine began to associate with a group of writers who were the children of the pioneering Lao scholar Maha Sila Viravong. He eventually married one of the most prolific writers in this group, Duangdeuane Viravong (Dok Ket), who remains to this day one of the most prominent female Lao authors.

The 1960s and early 1970s was a period of turbulence and traumatic change in Laos. A Lao revolutionary writer once described the society of Vientiane during these years as a "bastardized version of American culture" with its "whore-houses and dance halls" (Bo et al. 1987: 398--99), while the travel writer Paul Theroux described it in not dissimilar terms as "one of America’s expensive practical jokes, a motiveless place where nothing was made, everything imported" (Theroux 1977: 234). For its survival, the Royal Lao government depended on a massive dose of American financial aid. Corruption was rampant, and a few prominent families enjoyed conspicuous wealth while the majority of people lived in poverty. In a capital the size of Vientiane, the large American military presence was highly visible, accompanied by prostitution, drugs, and organized crime. Vientiane society was not only starkly at odds with the rest of the country but also with traditional culture. Whereas earlier works of modern Lao fiction had served merely as entertainment for a small elite, the generation of Lao writers who came of age during this time quickly grasped the concept that fiction was an effective form of social commentary and criticism. The earliest stories in this collection of Outhine’s works were composed during this period. "Death Price" describes the problems faced by a poor woman when she attempts to visit her husband, who is stationed up-country as a soldier. She is forced to wait at the airport for several days, continually denied permission to board a plane because she cannot afford to bribe the lieutenant in charge of seating assignments. In "Dic and Daeng," published in 1974, the behavior of certain members of Lao society is compared to the actions of two dogs and their owners. As the dogs bully each other in competition over scraps of food, the owners of the animals are continually drawn into their petty conflicts. On one level, the indirect nature of the criticism provides protection for its author. At the same time, in a country where dogs are viewed as contemptuously as they are in Laos, a comparison of this type is particularly biting.

After the communist victory in 1975, Outhine continued his career as a writer under greatly different circumstances. In the first decade after the revolution, he initially worked for the State Publishing House, followed by employment at the Progress Publishing House in Moscow, where he translated English and French works into Lao. In the early years of the new regime, authors were sent to interview revolutionary soldiers and record their life histories. A major result of this project was Sieng Kong Khong Latthi Vilason Pativat (The Echoing Sound of the Doctrine of Revolutionary Heroes), published in 1982, in which Outhine was the major contributor. Outhine was also one of the founders of Vannasin, a magazine devoted to literature and culture, which remains the most important literary publication in Laos to the present day.

Two stories in the collection of "Mother Beloved" are typical of literature composed in the years following the revolution. "Contribution," published in 1990, illustrates how people can serve their nation, regardless of their status in society. The story takes place in 1988, at a time when Laos and Thailand were involved in a short but violent border dispute. The main character is a poor man who supports himself by repairing shoes. As the tale begins, the shoe-mender is upset that a customer has not returned to collect a pair of shoes. When the owner of the shoes eventually returns, he is dressed in a military uniform and missing one of his legs. The man explains that he volunteered to fight in the border clashes, from which he has returned as a cripple. The shoe-mender gives the shoes to the crippled soldier without asking for payment. He realizes with pride that even a humble shoe-mender can, in his own way, contribute to his country’s war effort. A second story, "What a Beauty," first published in 1978, is similar in plot to several works from this period that describe the relationship of Lao women to the revolution. In this type of story, a Lao woman oppressed by the corrupt capitalist society of pre-revolutionary Laos ultimately finds respect and romance from the revolutionary cadres. The story’s heroine, a young woman named Phaengkham, is unpopular because she is poor. During the Lao lamuong dance described in the story’s opening scene, she cannot find a dance partner because her clothes are not fashionable and she does not know how to dance in western style. Eventually, however, one man shows an interest in her and explains to her privately that he understands the true value of poor people, farmers, peasants, and laborers. Only after the revolution does Phaengkham learn that her admirer is a member of the Lao People’s Army. As for the wealthier women who had been her competition on the pre-revolutionary dance floor, after the communist victory they all have either fled the country or been sent away "to one of those Women’s Islands to be re-educated."

 

In the early 1990s, Outhine was employed at the Ministry of Information and Culture. He composed children’s fiction, including Pa Kho Lopha (The Greedy Striped Snake-Headed Fish), a collection of short stories which teach moral lessons. He also rewrote Lao poetic classics in simple prose to make them more accessible to a modern generation. In 19’, Outhine traveled with his wife to the University of Washington in Seattle, where they both spent a year teaching the Lao language to American students. Upon returning to Laos, he helped establish a printing shop which was named Phaf Nam after the literary magazine founded by Maha Sila Viravong.

Outhine’s short stories of recent years provide a commentary on the changing state of Laos and its culture. Much of his work is devoted to environmental concerns. "Frangipani," originally published in 1980, describes an incident in which tamarind trees are torn down to facilitate the placement of power lines in a Vientiane neighborhood. The story reveals the action’s negative effect on the neighborhood’s people. The tale ends on a positive note, however, as frangipani trees planted by the narrator and his neighbors eventually grow to replace the trees that were cut down.11

Another topic commonly addressed in Outhine’s fiction is the wisdom of Lao villagers and the value of traditional customs. In the story "Wrapped-Ash Delight," published in 1990, a village girl steals a silver belt that a bather has left on a riverbank. Although she later feels guilty about her action, the young woman is afraid to return the stolen object and expose herself as a thief. The problem is cleverly solved through the use of a traditional custom. Each of the villages who had been present at the river bank when the belt was stolen is instructed to bring a packet of ashes wrapped in a banana leaf to the house of the village headman. By placing the silver belt in the banana leaf, the guilty woman is able to return the stolen object without being shamed. It must be emphasized that stories of this type are not merely intended as a patriotic expression of Lao appreciation for their own culture. These stories serve as a warning against the rapid pace of modernization as well as the unquestioning acceptance of foreign culture and values that is becoming the norm. Outhine writes at a time when traditional culture is increasingly being relegated to the status of an artifact, destined to be placed in museums for the sole purpose of bringing in foreign revenue.

In recent years, Lao society has rapidly changed as result of the increasing cultural impact of the west. Vientiane in the late 1990s is strikingly different than it was at the beginning of the decade. One hopes that the increased contact between Laos and the west will not only result in the westernization of Laos, but also in a greater understanding of Lao society in the west. This collection of short stories by Outhine Bounyavong is intended as a step in that direction. The fiction collected in this book not only serves as an introduction to contemporary Lao literature, but also provides valuable insight into the changing state of Lao society, as viewed from the perspective of a Lao author whose works span from the pre-revolutionary period to the present.

 

 

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