Traveling on Tuesday — Laos

Laos (officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic)
Population: appr. 6,500,000
Biggest City: Vientiane (appr. 754,000)

Ever since Jessica’s last Traveling on Tuesday post, I’ve been thinking about doing my own ToT and have been trying to decide which country to choose. Well, as it so happens, Jessica and I have a good friend who recently was awarded a fellowship grant to go do research in Laos over the summer, and I thought I would use her hard work as inspiration! I previously had very little knowledge of Lao literature or even non-Lao literature pertaining to Laos*, so this was a good experience for me as well, even if the results are somewhat bare-bones.

Outhine Bounyavong (1942-2000, name sometimes romanized as ‘Uthin Bunny¯avong) continues to be one of the most well-known authors of Lao contemporary fiction; a collection of his stories about life in Laos has been translated into English as Mother’s Beloved. You can read some of his short stories here for free, thanks to the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University.

Douangdeuane Viravongs (b. 1947, name sometimes romanized as Duangdeuan Viravong), alias Dok Ket (sometimes romanized as Dok Ked), is a prominent female author of Lao contemporary fiction, and is Outhine Bounyavong’s widow. Unfortunately, none of her work appears to be available in English.

Further-unfortunately, while the literary scene in Laos appears to be thriving, especially as a political vehicle, very little native work has been translated into English. There are a small number of Laotian-American and Hmong-American writers such as Bryan Thao Worra and Kao Kalia Yang whose works are gaining recognition, and while their memoirs, poetry, and other published pieces are not quite what I’m looking for here, I’m hopeful that increased exposure of American-published works relating to Laos and other Southeast Asian countries will lead to greater translation and distribution of native literature from those countries. Perhaps in the future–hopefully sooner rather than later–we will be able to read novels by Theap Vongpakay, Chanthy Deuansavanh, or Khamlieng Phonsena in English.

Currently, the lion’s share of writing on and relating to Laos continues to be nonfiction works written by non-native authors, folk tale collections translated and edited by non-native authors (sometimes with the help of Laotian or Laotian-American writers and translators), and the occasional cookbook.

For more information, please see this helpful Introduction to Lao Literature, or this overview of Lao Literature since 1975. Any errors present in the small amount of information here are my own doing.

If you have any suggestions or requests for future entries in Traveling on Tuesday, please speak up in the comments!

*Other than the excellent book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which details the experiences of a Hmong family living in America with an epileptic child, and which includes a partial history of the Hmong people in Laos and American clandestine involvement in the Laotian Civil War. It departs from the intended area here, as it was written by a white American author and is nonfiction, but it is, I think, a very well-written work that looks at Hmong cultural and spiritual practices from a balanced point of view and which neither patronizes nor romanticizes the non-American side of the story.


Traveling on Tuesday – St. Vincent & the Grenadines

St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Population: 120,000
Biggest City: Kingstown (appr. 25,000)

This is a small country, so there isn’t a wide and varied literature to choose from. Here’s what I could find:

Shake Keane (1927-1997) was a poet and musician from Kingstown. He published five poetry collections from 1950 to 1994 and there is one posthumous collection of his previously unpublished work, published in 2005.

Richard Morris Dey was (is?) another poet. It looks like there are no collections of his still in print, but some of his poems can be found online.

G.C.H. Thomas seems to have published only one book, Ruler in Hiroona, which is out of print, but looks awesome and political. I’ll be keeping my eye out for it!

H. Nigel Thomas is a current (finally!) Vincentian author, though he moved to and still lives in Canada. He has books in print! (Good lord. You don’t know how much time I’ve spent on this dang post.) Okay! Thomas writes about immigrants, mostly, and coming of age. His Return to Arcadia looks most exciting to me, but his other available books are Behind the Face of Winter, Spirits in the Dark (this one is a close second for me, though dang it being out of print!), and a short story collection, Lives: Whole or Otherwise.

Last and least (b/c I’m prioritizing homegrown authors), Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s book, Bodily Harm, takes place on a fictional Caribbean island supposedly based on (and where Atwood spent a few years/months?) Bequia, one of the northern islands of the Grenadines.

And that’s all she wrote. Anybody have stronger Google foo than me? I would love to hear that I missed something!

Literature of the World: Venezuela

Venezuela is one of the northernmost countries of South America. “Like many Latin American countries, Spanish conquerors have had the greatest effect on both the culture and the literature,” but there was a strong tradition of oral literature, some of which has endured. (Wikipedia)

The capital: Caracas
Language: Spanish
Population: 26.8 million
Currency: Bolivar fuerte
Area: 352,140 sq miles (around the size of Nigeria or the size of Texas and Oklahoma put together)

Spanish speakers will have many options to read Venezuelan literature, but English speakers have a small pool to work with. Here are a few highlights. They inevitably reflect my own tastes, so YMMV. The list I just linked to has TONS of poets that you may want to check out, but I’m not mad for poetry so I didn’t look into it.

Teresa de la Parra was the daughter of the  Venezuelan ambassador to France.  Her novel, Iphigenia (The Diary of a Young Lady Who Wrote Because She was Bored), was published in 1924 in Paris, not Caracas, because of its controversial nature. Not only were many of the characters caricatures of Caracas society, but the novel is about an intelligent, educated young woman struggling against social expectations. She wrote only one other book, which is not available in English, before becoming a well-respected lecturer and finally dying of tuberculosis in 1936.

Published in 1992, Doña Inés vs. Oblivion is, in scope, Venezuela’s answer to 100 Years of Solitude. Ana Teresa Torres explores three hundred years of Venezuelan history through the eyes of her narrator (even after she dies!). This is a massive epic and does not always move at a quick pace, so make sure this is the kind of book you enjoy before you pick it up!

My last pick is Chronicles of a Nomad: Memoirs of an Immigrant by A. A. Alvarez, published just last year! It “is a first-person adventure narrated by Carlos Rodriguez, an intrepid young immigrant who embarked in a journey of self-discovery and reflection by confiding his secrets to the reader. Although he spends his childhood in abundance, at age fifteen, the worsening state of his troubled nation leads him to Denver, Colorado, where he ends up overstaying the time allowed on his tourist visa. Not many years later, he is left with no choice but to immigrate to Greece, where the ghosts of his past challenge his future and where his search for home leads him farther away from his hometown, Caracas, Venezuela.” Sounds great, no?

Any other suggestions for Venezuelan literature?