Anyone who knows me well will know that the country of Laos holds a very special place in my heart. I was lucky enough to spend three months in the city of Luang Prabang in 2013/14, and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Luang Prabang is an incredibly charming place with a dynamic culture and heritage. One of my favourite institutions there, the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre (TAEC), is dedicated to documenting and preserving that culture for the benefit of visitors, locals, and most importantly, future generations of Lao people.
The TAEC was where I first discovered ‘Stitching Our Stories‘, an initiative which would end up inspiring my Masters Thesis. Since leaving Luang Prabang I have followed the TAEC’s work closely, so when news of their latest project landed in my inbox this week, I was eager to share my thoughts.
The new project I’m referring to, ‘Women and Folktales‘, harnesses the power of digital storytelling to disseminate traditional folktales and legends to new audiences. In partnership with the Luang Prabang Film Festival and the US Embassy in Vientiane, TAEC staff spent a year travelling through Laos, visiting Hmong, Kmhmu and Tai Lue communities and asking women there to record their stories. They then transcribed, translated and illustrated the stories to create 19 animated clips, a handful of which are now available to view on YouTube.
I love photography; I love writing – and I feel a great sense of privilege to be able to communicate my worldview on a daily basis with the click of a few buttons. As a professional writer and amateur blogger, I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have the resources and skills to record my life experiences through stories. As a journalist, I take great pleasure in giving voice to other people’s stories, too – but I believe that everyone has a right to tell their own story, from their own mouth. This isn’t a privilege everyone enjoys, of course, and it’s certainly not the prevailing reality for most women in Laos. As the organisers of ‘Women and Folktales’ explain,
Women are important storytellers and bearers of cultural heritage in Laos. However, their voices are rarely heard outside their communities, due to their traditional homebound responsibilities and their lack of confidence in participating in public forums.
This is especially true of women and girls from minority backgrounds. Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries on earth, but in many ways, it’s still a place that’s rife with inequalities. What most of us understand about Laos – its history, its contemporary culture – has been penned and framed by cultural outsiders, not by Lao people themselves – and certainly not by any member of an ethnic minority community. ‘Women and Folktales’ has stepped in to fill that knowledge gap, putting the power of storytelling back into the hands of the people who have traditionally been denied this right. It’s a powerful gesture of empowerment, and the project has had beautiful results.
As I see it, there are four layers to ‘Women and Folktales’:
2. Rural women
3. Rural women who use a native language
4. Rural women who use a native language to express a worldview that is different to the norm
What an incredible privilege it is to finally hear from the people who have been largely silenced in discussions about their own cultures and their own country for generations. What a joy it must be for young people in these communities to see videos made especially for them.
Last year I volunteered with young members of the Lautem ethnic group in Timor-Leste. My project there was about encouraging children to write storybooks, and many of my workshop participants chose to re-write legends that their parents and community elders had passed down to them. If there’s one thing I learned from this experience, it’s that traditional tales are fluid. And that’s what makes them so valuable. Some features of a story might remain constant, but other elements are constantly adapted and reinterpreted depending on who is telling the story, where and how they live, and to whom they are speaking. By taking traditionally oral tales and adapting them into a video format, ‘Women and Folktales’ creates a more permanent, immutable version of these transient stories. The project holds a single version of that story beyond the life-cycle of the storyteller, and helps to pass it down to the next generation in a format that is easily accessible and understood.
Just like in Timor-Leste, traditional folktales are a critical component of life and culture in many Lao communities. These stories transmit moral lessons, teach important history lessons, and help explain things about daily life that might otherwise be taken for granted (such as why people eat three meals a day). They are creative and imaginative and often fantastical, but they are equally drawn from timeless influences, like nature and the functions of the human body. In all these stories you can find elements that seem to be timeless and essential – traditional costume and unchanged agricultural practices come to mind – but the message the audience extracts from them often changes over time.
These videos are not only creative works, they are a powerful educational resource. The TAEC has plans to share the clips with children in local primary schools as well as members of the Lao diaspora, which I think is a great idea. I’ve no doubt that these videos will perfectly demonstrate the ability of storytelling to unite people across oceans and cultural barriers.
The TAEC has now released a handful of the videos, all recorded in the storyteller’s native language and with English and Lao subtitles added, on YouTube. These clips weren’t created for me or for other tourists, but if you’re planning a visit to Laos – maybe to experience a village homestay – you might like to watch them as preparation. If you’re in Luang Prabang, I also strongly encourage you to visit the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre and support their invaluable work in cultural preservation.
If you’re passionate about supporting literacy and indigenous language learning in Laos, The Travelling Library and Big Brother Mouse (Luang Prabang) are two more very worthy projects that I recommend checking out.
[All screenshots by TAEC, taken from YouTube].