THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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19 posts categorized "Literature"

19 April 2021

Konlabot: Thai poetry from 'Jewels of Thought'

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Among the literary treasures of Thailand is the famous work Chindamani, "Jewels of Thought". The oldest version of this work is attributed to the seventeenth-century monk and court astrologer Horathibodi of Ayutthaya. It is thought that he compiled it around 1670 in Lopburi for King Narai, but he may have drawn inspiration and knowledge from older texts. Although the original work has not been preserved physically, copies of it are held in numerous archives and libraries in Thailand and abroad. Chindamani is a treatise about "writing", covering vocabulary, orthography, grammar, loan words from Pali, Sanskrit and Khmer, literary styles and poetry conventions.

Thai poetry is shaped by a combination of foreign influences and the 'poetic' character and tonality of the Thai language. Thai poets were inspired by foreign languages like Pali, Sanskrit and Khmer, but the nature of the Thai language governs, selects and adapts these imported influences. Poets in the past explored the possibilities of the language and indirectly established new conventions for the following generations. This can be seen in the techniques of word-play and punning as well as the many variations of Thai verse forms known as Konlabot.

The poem Suriyakanta nai chak (Lord Sun in the wheel) illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f.11
The poem Suriyakanta nai chak (Lord Sun in the wheel) illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f.11 Noc

A small treasure in the Library's Thai, Lao and Cambodian collection is a nineteenth-century folding book (samut khoi) made from mulberry paper with examples of illustrated Konlabot poetry. The poems are written in black ink, in a very accurate hand, on eighteen folios. Twelve folios contain coloured illustrations, most of which have Konlabot verses written in a geometric pattern. The size of the book is 340 mm x 107 mm, rather small compared to the larger Thai folding books containing Buddhist texts. However, this is the usual folding-book size for literary, historical and other secular topics. The first part of the book contains nine poems without illustrations and two poems accompanied by illustrations, including one about the popular folktale Kraithong, a story of a brave man who rescued a young lady after she was abducted by a crocodile and held captive in a cave. The second part contains poems which are embedded in paintings of fine quality, like for example two striking symbolic illustrations of the sun (above) and moon (below) which contain verses in praise of Suriya, lord of the sun, and Chandra, lord of the moon. The moon with the white rabbit is shown together with the demi-god Rahu who is trying to swallow the moon – a traditional explanation of a lunar eclipse.

The poem Phra Chandra (Lord Moon) illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 12
The poem Phra Chandra (Lord Moon) illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 12 Noc

Historically, Thai poets have cherished and explored the possibilities of language through the invention of various stylistic methods of Konlabot. In many major literary works in Thai language - like Lilit Phra Lo, Yuan Phai, Samuttakhot Khamchan, and Anirut Khamchan - there is an abundance of Konlabot poetry to break up the main text, or to poetically "illustrate" the main text. This serves the purpose of highlighting the mastery of an author and their ability to intensify the emotions in their work. Much dedication and effort are given to the novelty of imagery that can appeal to the feelings and the aesthetic senses of audiences. Therefore, the refinement of diction and embellishment through poetry is highly valued.

The poem Dragon flicking his tail illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 13
The poem Dragon flicking his tail illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 13 Noc

Although over time many different types of Konlabot have emerged, Chindamani is the only theoretical work to cover Konlabot poetry as a subject, giving examples of different types of Konlabot with their proper names. Ten of the most popular and best-known types of Konlabot are the following:

- Alternating letters
- Kinnara picking lotus
- Cows circling a stake
- Elephants joining tusks
- A serpent's composition
- The mountain covered
- Stems joining on to flowers
- Lions swishing tails
- Charioteers driving
- Flowers in designs

These ten types of Konlabot are also mentioned in an inscription from the treatise of Khlong Konlabot found at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok, the temple considered as the first university in Thailand founded by King Rama III.

The poem Thousand lotuses illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 14
The poem Thousand lotuses illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 14 Noc

From the different types of Konlabot mentioned above it is obvious that the name of each type of Konlabot implies certain characteristics corresponding to the name. For example, words or verses can be arranged in a certain geometric pattern, which is then embedded in an illustration. The reader needs to know the "code" to decipher the poem that is represented in the geometric shape. This geometric structure subsequently affects the sound pattern and the rhythm of the poem. Usually the poet includes certain key-words together with a suggestive title which enable the reader to decode a poem. Thus, Konlabot poetry can also be used to cover taboo topics, or to send secret messages to lovers, like for example the erotic poem about the Bird in the cave below. The title is a symbolic expression for love-making, and the poem elaborates on the poet’s desire for his lover, a gorgeous lady with a playful, chatty voice and a face bright and sparkling like a diamond.

The poem Bird in the cave illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 17
The poem Bird in the cave illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 17 Noc

The idea of poetry as a critical exploration of language is highlighted in the famous eighteenth-century work Klon Konlabot Siriwibunkiti, which contains eighty-four variations of versification. While this text is seen as evidence of the established importance and recognition of Thai written poetry since the Ayutthaya era (1350-1767), it also shows that the Konlabot genre is proof of the Khmer influence in Thai poetry. Like the Kaap, another popular form of versification in Thailand, Konlabot has exact counterparts in Khmer language. Generally, Thai classical literature embraces Khmer and Sanskrit loanwords, especially older compositions from before the nineteenth century.

Further reading:
Braginsky, Vladimir: The comparative study of traditional Asian literatures: from reflective traditionalism to neo-traditionalism. London, 2015
Cholthira Satyavadhana: วิจารณ์รื้อวิจารณ์ ตำนานวรรณคดีวิจารณ์แนวรื้อสร้างและสืบสาน = Wichan ru wichan tamnan wannakhadi wichan naeo ru sang lae suepsan. Mahasarakham, 2550 (i.e. 2007)
Herbert, Patricia and Anthony Milner (ed.): South-East Asia: languages and literatures: a select guide. Whiting Bay, 1990
Peera Panarut: Cindamani. The Odd Content Version. A Critical Edition. Segnitz, 2018
Peera Panarut: On a quest for the jewel: a review of the Fine Arts Department’s edition of Phra Horathibodi’s Chindamani. Manusya Journal of Humanities, vol. 18/1 (2015), pp. 23-57
Suchitra Chongstitvatana: The nature of modern Thai poetry considered with reference to the works of Angkhan Kalayanaphong, Naowarat Phongphaibun and Suchit Wongthet. PhD thesis, SOAS, London, 1984

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

I would like to thank Prof. emeritus Cholthira Satyawadhana, former Dean of School of Liberal Arts, Walailak University, for her advice and help in decoding poems in the Konlabot manuscript that is subject of this article.

08 February 2021

Boys, Boys, Boys: Enderunlu Fazıl Bey’s Hubanname

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In June 2019, I shared with you the British Library’s beautifully illustrated copy of the Hamse-yi Atayi, which included copious illustrations of same-sex desire. In that post, I had the opportunity to tease out how we see and interpret homosexual love and sex in pre-modern Ottoman literature, and what that says about our worldview today. Of course, Atayi’s Hamse is far from the only work of Ottoman literature that speaks to this topic. I would be remiss if I did not make use of LGBT+ History Month to highlight another item that helps queer our collections.

Painted image of a park scene inside a palace with women and men in 18th century Ottoman dress engaged in various leisure activities, including conversation and music, with a body of water in the background
A view of Palace activities in the late 18th century taken from an illustrated copy of Enderunlu Fazıl Bey's Zenanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Zenanname, 1190 AH [1776-77 CE], Turkey. Or 7094, f 7r) 
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Frequent readers and fans of our blog might remember Dr. Sunil Sharma’s particularly popular post from November 2016 on the Zenanname, an Ottoman Turkish book on the women of the world penned by Enderunlu Fazıl Bey. The Zenanname is far from a work of women’s lib or a celebration of female feats and triumphs. Rather, it encapsulates an essentialist take on the characteristics of various women, their weaknesses and strengths, and constructs rigid typologies around class and country. Exceptionally misogynist at times, this literary piece was clearly destined for male readers. As Dr. Sharma points out, the Zenanname is actually a companion piece to the Hubanname, an earlier work by Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, which discusses the qualities of the beautiful young men of the world. This latter poem falls into a category of literature known as the şehrengiz, works on the beauties of various cities.

Who was Enderunlu Fazıl Bey? Although no definitive date can be found for his birth, he is believed to have been born in the 1750s or 60s in the city of Akka, Liwa of Safad, Ottoman Palestine (today Acre, Israel) to a family both well-placed in the Ottoman bureaucracy, and with a rebellious streak against central authority. His given name was Hüseyin, but he took the mahlas or poetic pseudonym Fazıl, as well as the qualifier Enderunlu or Enderunî because of his education in the Enderun. This was the interior court of the Ottoman imperial bureaucracy, destined to service the imperial family, and was located inside Topkapı Palace. He was ejected from the Palace in 1783-84 for his behaviour and spent more than a decade in destitution in Istanbul before seeking out Selim III’s beneficence. He wrote poetry to curry the Sultan’s favour, and also took positions in Aleppo, Erzurum and Rhodes. It was in this last location that Fazıl Bey lost his sight, which eventually resulted in his return to Istanbul, where he died in 1810. His grave can today be found in the municipality of Eyüp.

A page of text in Arabic script written in rık'a calligraphy in two columns in black ink
The opening of a combined version of the Hubanname and the Çenginame, a work on the male dancers of Istanbul. ([Collected Works of Fazıl Bey Enderuni], 19th century, Turkey. Or 7093, f 1v)
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What was the behaviour that resulted in Fazıl Bey’s expulsion from the Palace? Sabahattin’s article in the Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi claims it was “addiction” or "fixations" (“düşkünlük”) and "love affairs" ("aşk maceraları"). Love and eroticism, indeed, are key themes in his poetry, and large motivators for his fame today as a poet. This history of same-sex desire is part of the reason for the poet’s appropriation today by some LGBTQI activists in Turkey, as well as the interest of various Ottoman literary scholars in Turkey and abroad. The Hubanname is perhaps the best example of this orientation in Fazıl Bey’s work.

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
The opening text of Fazıl Bey's Hubanname. ([Collected Works of Fazıl Bey Enderuni], 19th century, Turkey. Or 7095, ff 47v-48r)
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The British Library holds three copies of the Hubanname text. It can be found in Or 7093 and Or 7095, both of which are collections of Fazıl Bey’s works, as well as Or 7083, a mecmua also containing the works of Atıf Mustafa Efendi and Hazık Mehmet Erzurumi. Sadly, none of the British Library’s holdings are illustrated, which provides a disappointing contrast to both the exquisite illustrations of the Zenanname (Or 7094), and to the paintings in copies of the Hubanname in other collections. For those readers who understand Turkish, there is a wonderful video from December 2019 of Dr. Selim S. Kuru describing and analyzing a number of images from the copy held at the Library of İstanbul Üniversitesi. The text-heavy works present in the British Library collections were all bequeathed by E. J. W. Gibb, whose six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry has long been a foundational text for Anglophone studies of Ottoman literature. As Sharma has pointed out, Gibb was not a fan of Fazıl Bey’s skill as a poet, but he did give him credit for the originality of his work, and for the use and adaptation of popular poetry within his own oeuvre.

Gibb’s lack of appreciation is far from surprising, especially when we consider his disdain for Atayi’s bawdy tales. This disapproval, nonetheless, is hard to square with our own sensibilities or, perhaps, those of Fazıl Bey’s contemporaries. As Dr. İrvin Cemil Schick explains, homoerotic themes were far from rare in Ottoman literature, including descriptions of sexual acts, which are absent from the current work. The author’s decision to depart from the usual şehrengiz template and to describe the young men of the world by ethnicity and characteristics, on the other hand, is both his claim to fame, and the area in which Fazıl Bey might have found himself in hot water today. For several years, intense discussion within the gay community, as well as other groups under the LGBTQI umbrella, have focused on the prevalence and impact of implicit and explicit racism. Some of the descriptions included in the Hubanname would be sure to raise eyebrows, even if the ridiculousness of the broad brush strokes employed might also elicit a few chuckles.

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
The end of the description of Jewish men, and the one on Roma youths, from the Hubanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Hubanname, 1210 AH [1795 CE], Turkey. Or 7083, ff 54v-55r)
CC Public Domain Image

In his presentation, Kuru focuses on the Hubanname’s exposition of the young men of Istanbul, where Greeks, Armenians and Jews are the first up for examination. Fazıl Bey is much taken with Greek men, claiming that they are the most beautiful of their peers. Nonetheless, these “roses” have peculiar accents, and their pronounced sibilants and confusion between sīn and shīn leave much to be desired. Armenians come next, charming Casanovas of the capital, followed up by Jewish men, who feel the poet’s particular wrath. While some light-skinned Jews take his fancy, our wily and fickle ways, and, apparently, horniness, make us “enemies to all nations”. Afterwards come the Roma, whose young men, with their dark features, are pretty, lithe, musically-inclined, commercially-oriented, and totally untrustworthy; which is why, Fazıl Bey tells us, they are unsuited to love. The list of Istanbul’s communities continues: Rumelians, Tatars, Bosniaks, Albanians, Georgians, and Circassians. These are surrounded, both before and after, by descriptions of men from other communities outside of Istanbul: Persians, Baghdadis, Damascenes (faces white as wax), Hejazis, Moroccans, Algerians (iron-hard, whether young or old), Ethiopians (lusty, strong, and charming), Black men (diamonds, coral, eyes of love), Frenchmen, Englishmen, Russians, Germans, Spaniards (each one exceptional in his beauty), and even the Indigenous peoples of the Americas (big-mouthed and wide-faced).

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
Description of Black men and Ethiopian ones, from the Hubanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Hubanname, 1210 AH [1795 CE], Turkey. Or 7083, ff 43v-44r)
CC Public Domain Image

Fazıl Bey’s sharp-tongued review of the gifts and flaws of the world’s most beautiful young men feels like a late 18th-century Ottoman drag act, complete with the zingers you’d expect from a vicious queen taking hold of the stage for an evening’s roast. They could be dismissed as mere fun, or even as personal preference. But the truth is that some of his phrasing and stereotyping cuts close to home for those of us who have been both victims and guilty of the typecasting and casual racism of the gay dating scene. As much as Fazıl Bey’s Hubanname is a testament to the forms of same-sex desire in different times and places, it’s also a showcase of how sex, stereotype, and prejudice can easily blend into one hot sticky mess.

This LGBT+ History Month, revisiting the Hubanname lets us delve into the history of same-sex desire in the Ottoman Empire. It can also help us reflect on the power dynamics encoded in our own gaze. Enderunlu Fazıl Bey might have been maligned for his sexuality, but he was also still part of the Ottoman elite. His work, and others like it, is an opportunity for us all to problematize the boundary between predilection and prejudice, preference and persuasion. At the end of the day, love is love, and sex is sex, and they should be available to all, without detriment to one’s dignity or human worth.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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Further Reading and Listening:

Çil, Okan, “Osmanlı'nın eşcinsel şairi: Enderunlu Fâzıl”, Duvar Gazete, 21 October 2019. Last accessed: 10 January 2020. <https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/kitap/2019/11/21/osmanlinin-escinsel-sairi-enderunlu-fazil>

Kücük, Sabahattin, “Enderunlu Fâzıl: Mahallîleşme eğilimini ileri bir safhaya götüren divan şairi”, Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi. Last accessed: 6 January 2021. <https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/enderunlu-fazil>

Schick, İrvin Cemil, “Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ottoman and Turkish Erotic Literature,” The Turkish Studies Association Journal, 28:1/2 (2004), pp. 81-103. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43383697>

For the Ottoman History Podcast based on Schick’s study of eroticism in Ottoman literature, see here.

Yılmaz, Ozan, “Enderunlu Fazıl Divanı’nda Yahudilikle İlgili Unsurlar ve Andnâme-i Yehûdî-Beçe”, Türkbilig, 22 (2011), pp. 1-30. <https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/990142>

The Hubanname was most recently published in translation into modern Turkish by SEL Yayncılık. The work was translated by Reşit İmrahor, an alias that has been employed by a number of authors and translators for more than 30 years.

25 January 2021

Inspiring women writers of Laos: (2) Kongdeuane Nettavong and Phiulavanh Luangvanna

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The current British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights (until at least 21 February 2021) explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. This two-part blog post presents four female writers in Laos, all of whom have had to overcome traditional societal barriers to achieve recognition. The previous installment discussed the sisters Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong; this post focusses on Kongdeuane Nettavong and Phiulavanh Luangvanna.

Kongdeuane Nettavong, born in 1947 in Xieng Khouang, northern Laos, is a well-known Lao writer, storyteller, researcher and musician. After fleeing the Vietnam War that was devastating Xieng Khouang and other parts of Laos, and finishing secondary school in Vientiane in 1967, she went on to study at Laval University in Quebec for her Bachelor's degree in Geography in 1970. She continued her studies in Paris and graduated with a Master's degree in Archival Studies in 1974. After her return to Laos she taught geography and history at the Teachers Training College in Vientiane. In 1976 she was appointed Deputy Director of the National Library Museum and Archeology Department. With great dedication she initiated a literacy program by setting up public and school libraries, organising "book boxes" (book donations for rural libraries), and by publishing textbooks and books for juvenile and beginner readers with the aim of promoting reading.

Kongdeuane Nettavong giving an online talk on the role of teachers in society, September 2020. Image courtesy of Lao Economic Daily.
Kongdeuane Nettavong giving an online talk on the role of teachers in society, September 2020. Image courtesy of Lao Economic Daily.

From 1989 until 2010 she was Director of the National Library of Laos where she was involved in the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme and the creation of the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. A major international event which Kongdeuane Nettavong organised in 2004 in the context of the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme was a Conference on the Literary Heritage of Laos, which presented the research of over thirty scholars from seven countries and resulted in the publication of a conference book, a major source for the study of Lao literature and manuscripts until today.

Front cover of the conference publication The literary heritage of Laos: preservation, dissemination, and research perspectives, edited by Kongdeuane Nettavong, Vientiane: National Library of Laos, 2005 (British Library YD.2010.a.7767)
Front cover of the conference publication The literary heritage of Laos: preservation, dissemination, and research perspectives, edited by Kongdeuane Nettavong, Vientiane: National Library of Laos, 2005 (British Library YD.2010.a.7767)

Among Kongdeuane Nettavong's many achievements is the establishment of the Archives of Traditional Music in Laos (ATML) project, which records sound and preserves audiovisual documents of the ethnic groups in Laos. The project also trains local staff to continue the culturally vital task of documenting and preserving traditional music and encourages the training of the younger generations in traditional music. A passionate player of the Lao mouth organ Khaen, she is president of the Khaen Club where young people can learn to play this unique instrument. She contributed to the inscription of Khaen music on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In addition to her musical ambitions Kongdeuane Nettavong is well-known as a professional storyteller, who co-authored the book Lao folktales (Westport, 2008; British Library YK.2008.b.4839) together with Wajuppa Tossa, an eminent Lao-speaking storyteller from northeast Thailand. They see storytelling as a powerful means to preserve and revitalize local cultural heritage by engaging and interacting with audiences of all ages and diverse backgrounds.

Kongdeuane Nettavong's book Mon saneh siang khaen phaen din koet, about Khaen music, Vientiane: Lansang Media, 2018 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Kongdeuane Nettavong's book Mon saneh siang khaen phaen din koet, about Khaen music, Vientiane: Lansang Media, 2018 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

As an educator whose aim is to transform knowledge into social progress it comes as no surprise that Kongdeuane Nettavong stars in an educational short film about an elderly school teacher. Mae Phim, who, though grieving the recent loss of her husband, cannot bring herself to retire from teaching when so much work is still to be done to educate the younger generations. Metaphorically, her daughter calls her Mae Phim Khong Sat at the end of the film, meaning "printing matrix of the nation".

Phiulavanh Luangvanna, born in 1954 in Muang Khoun, Xieng Khouang, writes under the pen-names Thidachan and Phiulavanh. She has authored 98 short stories published in five volumes, including the popular book Duan lap lae (Vientiane, 1996; British Library YP.2011.a.3749); 69 poems in three volumes; two plays; and six volumes of stories and tales for children; as well as dozens of research level articles on Lao literature, culture and art published in Lao and international journals like Vannasin (British Library ORB.30/6666) and Tai Culture (British Library WZOR.2002.a.5). She also translated several short stories, novels and poetry from Vietnamese and Thai into the Lao language.


Phiulavanh Luangvanna giving a speech at the Book Festival 2017 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Soubanh Luangrath.
Phiulavanh Luangvanna giving a speech at the Book Festival 2017 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Soubanh Luangrath.

While growing up during the Vietnam War when Xieng Khouang was the target of heavy bombing  Phiulavanh Luangvanna witnessed not only the atrocities caused by this war in general, but also the suffering and agony that especially girls and women endured when they lost parents, siblings, husbands and children. Her school education was disrupted by the daily shelling, and schools had to be moved into the jungle and caves. In 1970-71 many people from Xieng Khouang fled to North Vietnam. Phiulavanh Luangvanna trained and worked as a schoolteacher for Lao refugees near Hanoi from 1971-75. After liberation in December 1975, she moved to Vientiane and started work at a teacher training school, and from 1982-84 she studied for a Bachelor’s degree in Lao language and literature at the National Teachers Training College in Dong Dok (since 1996 the National University of Laos). There she worked for thirteen years as a lecturer for Lao language and literature teaching Lao and foreign students. In 1997 she went on to work with the Lao Women's Union as general editor of their magazine and as a radio/TV broadcaster for women's programmes.

Collection of poems entitled Mung su fan by Thidachan, Vientiane: Samnakphim Nakpaphan, 2014 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Collection of poems entitled Mung su fan by Thidachan, Vientiane: Samnakphim Nakpaphan, 2014 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Since 2014, though officially retired, Phiulavanh Luangvanna has been active in the Lao Writer's Association where she provides support to young and female writers. For her work she received the Mekong Literary Prize in 2007, and in 2010 she was given the title Lao National Artist. She was also awarded the Southeast Asia Write Award in 2019 for her novel Thaenkham Salaphap / The Confession.

This is the story of an American veteran returning to Laos twenty years after the Vietnam War, driven by the memories of a young Lao woman he had fallen in love with during the war, when he was injured and captured and looked after by Lao youths. It is a gripping historical novel of love and sacrifice, pride and remorse; a tribute to the young Lao women and girls who supported those fighting at the frontline, and those who lost their loved ones and their lives. It is also an insightful study of the human psyche after the war, on both sides, Lao and American, and she explores ways of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

Front cover of the prize-winning bi-lingual book Thaenkham Salaphap / The Confession by Thidachan, Vientiane: Samnakphim Nakpaphan Lao, 2019.
Front cover of the prize-winning bi-lingual book Thaenkham Salaphap / The Confession by Thidachan, Vientiane: Samnakphim Nakpaphan Lao, 2019.

The message that these inspiring Lao writers have in common is that women play a crucial role not only in education and the economy, but also as drivers of cultural progress and as sound decision makers, especially in difficult situations like war and in periods of extreme poverty. Like many of their colleagues in Laos, they emphasize that literature, storytelling, film and music are powerful means to influence mainstream conversations and challenge social stereotypes.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian  ccownwork

Further reading
ASEAN 20th Century Literatures, Selected Poems and Short Stories from Lao PDR (accessed 15/11/2020)
Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, Phiulavanh Luangvanna, Laos (accessed 15/11/2020)
From Laos to the world, a bridge of blessing (accessed 16/11/2020) 
Kongdeuane Nettavong - Laos (accessed 22/11/2020)

11 January 2021

Inspiring women writers of Laos: (1) Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong

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The current British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights (until at least 21 February 2021) explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. This two-part blog post presents four female writers from Laos, all of whom have had to overcome traditional societal barriers to achieve recognition.

Although women have always played a major role as supporters of Buddhism, the main faith in Laos, and as musical performers and storytellers (mor lam) in traditional Lao society, they were not encouraged to actively write literary or Buddhist texts. While exceptions may have existed, female writers in Laos only began to emerge and to be respected for their work in the second half of the twentieth century. Their works have helped to shape contemporary Lao literature, and they have contributed significantly to women's rights and gender equality in Laos. This two-part blog post introduces the lives and works of four contemporary female Lao authors who are now celebrated nationally and internationally, starting with the sisters Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong.

Front cover of the book Kon cha thoeng van ni, a collection of short stories by Duangchampa. The photograph depicts a young woman in traditional Lao costume and hairstyle. Vientiane: Vannasin, 1988 (British Library YP.2008.a.5028)
Front cover of the book Kon cha thoeng van ni, a collection of short stories by Duangchampa. The photograph depicts a young woman in traditional Lao costume and hairstyle. Vientiane: Vannasin, 1988 (British Library YP.2008.a.5028)

Douangchampa (Lao for "Plumeria flower", the national flower of Laos) is the pseudonym of Dara Viravong Kanlagna, a Lao National Artist who has authored some sixty short stories, ninety poems, seven novels, and a screenplay for a popular feature film entitled Boua Deng which was screened at the International Festival of Cinemas of Asia in 1988. A selection of her works is held in the British Library.

Born in 1940 in Ban Oupmoung, Vientiane, as the daughter of the well-known Lao historian and philologist Maha Sila Viravong, Dara Kanlagna has been interested in literature since early childhood. She started her career as a schoolteacher in 1958 and began to write around the same time. Few years later she became an editor at Phainam Magazine, and she also began to translate literature books. After the revolution in 1975, Dara Kanlagna worked at the Ministry of Culture as a translator, editor and writer. In 1979 she established Vannasin (British Library ORB.30/6666), a literary magazine, together with other leading Lao writers. Much of her time was dedicated to working with the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme that ran from 1988 to 1994 with support from the Toyota Foundation, and from 1992 to 2004 with support from the German government. Subsequently this programme led to the establishment of the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts which today makes images of over 12,000 manuscript texts from across Laos accessible online. In 1996 Dara Kanlagna was awarded the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture and Community for her passionate work with the manuscripts project.

Dara Viravong Kanlagna during her work with Lao palm leaf manuscripts, 1996 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of NIKKEI Shimbun.
Dara Viravong Kanlagna during her work with Lao palm leaf manuscripts, 1996 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of NIKKEI Shimbun.

After her retirement in 2001 she continued to write, focusing on issues which occur in society. Her themes include the role of women in society and education, the struggles and obstacles that Lao women face, and inequalities which are often a result of ancient traditions and poverty. To raise awareness about the tradition of weaving and the fact that textile production is an important industry run and led by women in Laos, Dara Kanlagna teamed up with members of the Group for Promotion of Art and Lao Textiles, all experienced female weavers, to record their personal stories and research into practices and techniques of weaving and dyeing not only of the Lao, but also of ethnic minority groups. The project resulted in the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving, published with the support of the Japan Foundation Asia Center (Vientiane, 2001).

Front cover of the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving by Dara Kanlagna et al., Vientiane: Kum Songsoem Silapa lae Pha Phae Lao, 2001 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Front cover of the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving by Dara Kanlagna et al., Vientiane: Kum Songsoem Silapa lae Pha Phae Lao, 2001 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

For her collection of poems with the title Hak dok... chung bok ma (Vientiane, 2005) Dara Kanlagna received the Southeast Asia Write Award in 2010. She explained that she wrote the poems in honour of her mother, who raised her and her thirteen siblings with great patience and determination amid hardship and poverty and provided them with a good education despite being illiterate herself.

Duangchampa's prize-winning book Hak dok… chung bok ma, a collection of poetry, Vientiane: Dokked, 2005 (Reprint 2010)
Duangchampa's prize-winning book Hak dok… chung bok ma, a collection of poetry, Vientiane: Dokked, 2005 (Reprint 2010)

Douangdeuane Bounyavong, born in 1947 in Vientiane, is also known under her penname Dokked. Like Dara Kanlagna she grew up with a love of books and literature: she is another daughter of the historian Maha Sila Viravong and his wife Maly. After attending Dong Dok Teachers’ Training College in Vientiane from 1964 to 1968, she went on to study Physics and Chemistry at the University of Amiens and the University of Poitiers, France, where she graduated with a Master’s degree in 1974. She began to write while she was still a student in 1966. Her late husband, Outhine Bounyavong, was one of Laos' leading writers, and together they worked on various publications like Lao language textbooks, dictionaries, juvenile books and literary epics of national significance like Thao Hung Thao Chueang (British Library YP.2006.b.575) and Sang Sinxay.

Douangdeuane Bounyavong giving a public talk on occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 2019, in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Judy N. Souvannavong.
Douangdeuane Bounyavong giving a public talk on occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 2019, in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Judy N. Souvannavong.

While running a small publishing company named Dokked that specialized in juvenile and women's literature, Douangdeuane Bounyavong wrote eight novels, about forty short stories and over sixty poems, some of which are held in the British Library collections. Following in the footsteps of her father, she transcribed numerous folk tales and works of classical literature from old into modern Lao to make them accessible to younger generations. Her groundbreaking research on the national epic Thao Hung Thao Chuang (Vientiane, 1991, British Library YP.2013.a.2225) was re-published in Thailand in 1997 (British Library YP.2016.a.9036).

In addition to writing poetry and prose she also carried out research on Lao weaving traditions, which resulted in three books on textiles including a comprehensive study of the textile collection at Ho Moune Thaentaeng Heritage Preservation Center in Vientiane with the title Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles (Vientiane, 2015). As co-founder of the Group for the Promotion of Art and Lao Textiles (1990) Douangdeuane Bounyavong was actively involved in projects for the preservation of traditional Lao textile techniques, and initiatives to raise awareness and to improve the social status of weavers and women in general, and to promote handwoven Lao textiles abroad. Currently she is Managing Director of the "Land of Bamboo Textile Museum and Medicinal Herbs and Plants Garden" as well as editor-in-chief at Dokked Publishing House. She was awarded the Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prizes in 2005 and was also a recipient of the prestigious Southeast Asia Write Award in 2006 for her novel The Charm of the Forest (Vientiane, 2005).

Front cover of the book Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles by Douangdeuane Bounyavong, Vientiane: Dokked, 2015 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Front cover of the book Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles by Douangdeuane Bounyavong, Vientiane: Dokked, 2015 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Among Douangdeuane Bounyavong's best-known books is her mother's narrative biography with the title When Mother was in Prison, published in 2004. The story of the girl Maly, who never had the chance to attend school and was bullied because of her mixed Lao-French heritage, is truly touching as she becomes a confident and intelligent young woman who, aged seventeen, divorces an obsessively controlling husband - something unthinkable in traditional Lao society. In 1939 she married Maha Sila Viravong, with whom she had fourteen children (in addition to a son from her first marriage). When her husband, a member of the anti-colonial liberation movement Lao Issara, had to flee to Thailand in 1940, her utmost priority was to protect her children through the precarious and violent time of WWII and later the Vietnam War, and to give them the best educational opportunities possible. The book encourages women to stand up for their personal rights and to not give in to coercive control, authoritarian behaviour and male violence.

Front cover of Douangdeuane Bounyavong's book When mother was in prison, Vientiane: Dokked, 2004 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Front cover of Douangdeuane Bounyavong's book When mother was in prison, Vientiane: Dokked, 2004 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

In the next installment of this blog post, I will introduce two more inspiring Lao writers: Kongdeuane Nettavong and Phiulavanh Luangvanna.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian  ccownwork

Further reading
ASEAN 20th Century Literatures, Selected Poems and Short Stories from Lao PDR (accessed 15/11/2020)
Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize 2005 [16th] Douangdeuane Bounyavong (accessed 20/11/2020) 
Lao Literature, Dara Kanlaya (aka Douang Champa) (accessed 12/11/2020)
Peace Women Across the Globe, Douangdeuane Bounyavong (Lao Peoples Dem. Republic) (accessed 20/11/2020)
Red Lotus (Bao Deng) by Som Ock Southiponh, Laos (accessed 29/11/2020)

19 October 2020

A Family Affair: The Dukagjinis in the British Library’s Ottoman Turkish Collections

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(Sorry, but there’s no RnB to be found here; you’ll have to exit now if you’re looking for some Mary J. Blige)

Manuscript page with text in Arabic script in two columns and floral illumination around the margins and at the header in gold, red, green, blue and black
The first page of a copy of Şah u Geda from a 17th century CE manuscript featuring illumination that was likely added in the 19th century CE. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Şah u Geda, 26 Zulkâde 1020 AH [16 January 1612 CE]. Or 16422, f 1v)CC Public Domain Image

Sometimes, large collections of data can only find their way into electronic databases through the mind-numbing, but essential, process of manual data entry. In the case of the British Library’s Ottoman manuscripts, the transfer of details by hand from acquisition slips into our online catalogue is the quickest means of making information about our holdings available to the widest number of people possible. There is, of course, an additional benefit to going through hundreds of these slips of paper. In doing so, I’ve been able to pick out patterns of acquisition, and to connect volumes of similar or identical content purchased by or bequeathed to the Museum or Library over the course of its history. In this blog, I’m going to explore one such group of items, all of which are in some way related to members of the Dukagjini family.

To be fair, the vast majority of the works in question are collections of poetry or prose by one Dukagjini, Dukaginzade Taşlıcalı Yahya Bey (Jahja bej Dukagjini in Albanian). Yahya Bey was born in 1498 CE in Taşlıca, today known as Pljevlja, Montenegro. The Dukagjin family were a fairly well-known Christian Albanian group in northern Albania and western Kosova. They are reputed to be descendants of the Progoni, founders of the Principality of Arbanon, the first state in Albanian history. While a branch of the family fled Ottoman rule and established themselves in the Venetian-controlled city of Koper (contemporary Slovenia), the rest stayed, gradually integrating into Ottoman suzerainty. A number of their children found their way to Istanbul in a pattern similar to that of Yahya Bey. Dukaginzade Ahmet Paşa achieved the rank of Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire in 1514-15 CE. His son, Dukaginzade Mehmet Paşa, went on to great feats too, becoming governor of Egypt in the mid-16th century CE. Aleppo even has a Dukaginzade Mehmet Paşa Mosque complex, which is known in Arabic as al-Adiliyah Mosque (جامع العادلية).

Yahya Bey was brought to Istanbul as part of the Devşirme, an Ottoman institution of forcible recruitment through which non-Muslim boys were selected by Imperial authorities, taken from their families, converted to Islam, and then entered into Imperial service. Yahya Bey therefore moved to Istanbul at an early age. He originally trained to be an archer, but eventually impressed Kemalpaşazade (Şeyh-ül-İslam and author of the Tevarih-i Âl-Osman) with a kaside he had written. He thus began his path through Imperial educational structures and into the bureaucracy. He was known as a sâhib-i seyf ü kalem, or master of the sword and pen, meaning a man who was both a warrior and a poet. Apart from his prolific poetical oeuvre, which we’ll see below, he was also a respected soldier, participating in the Battle of Çaldıran in 1514, the Ottoman-Mamluk War in 1516-17 CE, and even the Siege of Szigetvár in 1566 CE. But luck could be fickle for Ottoman civil servants and warriors. When Yahya Bey wrote a poem elegizing Kanunî Süleyman's first-born, Şehzade Mustafa, Grand Vizier Rüstem Paşa, Mustafa’s murderer, lashed out at the poet. When the dust settled, Yahya Bey was exiled to the Balkans. Some say that he took up residence in Zvornik, in present-day Bosnia and Hercegovina. Others claim that he actually spent his final days in Timișoara/Temesvár, Romania. Wherever it might have been that Yahya Bey lived in exile, it was there that he eventually died at some point between 1575 and 1582 CE.

Manuscript page with text in Arabic script in two columns surrounded by gold margins and topped with a floral-themed header in gold and blue
The first page of another copy of Şah u Geda, this time from a late 16th century CE manuscript. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Şah u Geda, 998 AH [1590 CE]. Or 1159, f 1v)
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The Library holds at least 15 different volumes containing works by Yahya Bey. Most of these are not combined with the works of other writers, although Add MS 7936 (ff 28v-106v, Gülşen-i Envar) and Or 1154 (ff 59-136v, Gencine-i Raz) are both mecmualar or codices containing poetry by Yahya Bey and other poets. The other volumes cover the breadth of his oeuvre, including his Hamse ( Or 1147 and Or 7222); Şah u Geda ( Or 1159, Or 7223, Or 7224, and Or 16422); Gencine-i Raz ( Or 37, Or 1162, Or 7225, Or 16390, Add MS 5979); Gülşen-i Envar (Add MS 19446); and Usul-name or Kitab-i Usul (Add MS 5978). The Hamse (which comes from the Arabic word khamsah خمسة, meaning 5) contains the other named poems, as well as a fifth work, Yusûf u Züleyha. The Library does not appear to hold separate copies of his other works, Edirne Şehrengizi and İstanbul Şehrengizi, and it is likely that other poems that feature in his Divan are scattered in various mecmualar forming part of the Library’s holdings, waiting to be catalogued in full and connected to his name.


A two-page spread of a manuscript text in Arabic script, with text in two columns on each page, written in black ink with red headers and margins

The first two pages of Gülşen-i Envar from a Hamse-i Yahya Efendi, likely copied in the 17th century CE. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Hamse-i Yahya Efendi, 17th century CE. Or 7222, ff 373v-374r)
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Yahya Bey is well-represented within the Library’s holdings in part because of the high esteem in which he was held by contemporary literati and soldiers as well as by future generations of scholars. Even while in exile, he impressed the Ottoman soldier, poet and historian Mustafa Ali, then stationed in Bosnia, who was later inspired by Yahya’s story in writing his own poetic works. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his popularity was encouraged by the English Orientalist E. J. W. Gibb , a prolific collector of West Asian manuscripts and a giant in Anglophone Ottoman Studies. The full impact of his and other British Orientalists’ collecting and analytical practices has been succinctly reviewed by Dr. Nagihan Gür in a number of her published papers. Gibb claimed that Yahya Bey was a particularly creative and innovative poet, borrowing and adapting themes and styles from Persian poetry. He further elevated the poet for his mastery of Istanbulite Ottoman Turkish, claiming that it was not possible to find any hint of Yahya’s Albanian origins in his use of the Ottoman language. As Gibb’s six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry (OIF 894.351) became a staple of literary criticism for the Anglophone world in the 20th century, so too would Yahya Bey find a place within the Orientalist pantheon of Ottoman poets established by European and American scholars.

A manuscript page with a series of concentric circles subdivided by arcs and filled with Arabic letters and esoteric symbols in black ink
A geometric diagram featuring Arabic letters and esoteric (?) symbols from the start of a Gülşen-i Envar text found in a late 16th century CE Hamse-i Yahya (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Hamse-i Yahya, Safer 988 AH [March-April 1580 CE]. Or 1147, f 1r)
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In 1901 and 1909, the British Museum (whose text-based collections passed to the Library in 1973) received dozens of Ottoman Turkish (as well as Persian and Arabic) manuscripts from Gibb’s estate. It should be no surprise, then, that four of the Library’s holdings of Yahya Bey’s poetry and prose are from Gibb (Or 7222, Or 7223, Or 7224, and Or 7225). But there are, of course, other sources. Nine volumes pre-date Gibb’s bequest. Two were received from Hilgrove Turner (Add MS 5978 and Add MS 5979), while one (Add MS 7936) came from the Rich Collection, amassed by the Franco-British businessman and diplomat Claudius Rich. The copy of Gülşen-i Envar at Add MS 19446 entered the British Museum’s holdings thanks to H(endrik?) Edelman, and Or 37 was sold by George Cecil Renouard. In 1872, four volumes were purchased from the Polish-Russian diplomat and famed Orientalist (particularly within the realm of Kurdish Studies), Alexandre Jaba or Żaba. The volumes (Or 1147, Or 1154, Or 1159 and Or 1162) speak to Jaba’s broader interest in the languages and literary cultures of West Asia and the Caucasus, as well as the formation of a distinct school of Oriental Studies in the Russian Empire. His legacy, and that of the other scholars who worked on such texts within the Tsars’ realms, are taken up in The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies (ELD.DS.18320), edited by Dr. Michael Kemper and Dr. Stephan Conermann.

Manuscript page with numerous seals and couplets and inscriptions written in Arabic script in all directionsManuscript page with numerous seals and couplets and inscriptions written in Arabic script in all directions
Two final pages from an early 17th century CE copy of the Gencine-yi Raz produced by Abdi İbn-i Mustafa of Demirtaş (Teymurtaşı), featuring numerous ownership seals, couplets and inscriptions in Ottoman Turkish. (Dukaginzade Yahya Efendi, Gencine-yi Raz, 1034 AH [1624-25 CE]. Or 7224, ff 83v-84r)
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Another two items would join this list thanks to acquisition activities in the late 20th century. Both Or 16390 and Or 16422 are works that were previously held by C. S. Mundy, another of Great Britain’s well-known Turkologists, this time resident at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. These men, of course, were the final stop for the manuscripts before they entered the Museum or the Library. Before them, countless Ottoman and other readers bought, enjoyed, shared, and sold these works. Some of them left their names or seals on the pages and fly-leaves of the volumes, attesting to the great popularity of a number of the items. Much research is still needed to understand just what paths these texts followed throughout their lives, and how such histories reflect reading and collecting habits of Ottoman audiences.

A manuscript page of Arabic-script text in black ink with headers and margins in red inkA double-page spread of manuscript pages with Arabic-script text in black ink and headers and margins in red
A copy of a letter written to Dukaginzade Osman taken from a collection of compositions attributed to Veysi. (Münşeat-i Veysi-yi Merhum, 18th century CE. Or 7466, ff 39v-40v)
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The story of Ottoman Dukagjinis and the British Library’s Ottoman manuscripts does not end with Yahya Bey. Nor, apparently, did the story of the Dukaginzadeler in the Ottoman bureaucracy. Or 7466 is a münşeat of the late 16th-century Ottoman poet Veysi, which was purchased from I. E. Gégou on 9 April 1910. A münşeat is essentially a collection of letters and other texts that can be used as models for future correspondence. The genre is fairly common within our holdings. The general idea was popular in many cultures until fairly recently; I remember having a French correspondence manual in the 1990s as a supplementary text for high school and university French class. In this particular volume, we find a copy of a letter addressed to Dukaginzade Osman (died 1603 CE), Kadı of Cairo. While Dukaginzade was not nearly as well-known as his relatives, his name does appear in a number of different münşeat held in various locations and penned by different authors. Most recently, he came up in the chapter “The law school of Mehmed II in the last quarter of the sixteenth century: a glass ceiling for the less connected Ottoman Ulema” by Dr. Baki Tezcan, found in Ottoman War and Peace (ZA9.9.a.6407(68)). The British Library’s own holdings, then, would appear to mirror the broader fortunes of the Dukagjini family in the ebb and flow of the Ottoman Imperial order.

As more of our acquisition slips enter the online catalogue, it is possible that further volumes of Yahya Bey’s work will be reconnected to those already identified. Perhaps items relating to other members of the Dukagjini family might be found too. Whatever happens, those manuscripts already documented paint a picture of how one extended family had a profound effect on Ottoman society and history in the 16th century. They also show how collecting practices impact scholarship and our later understanding of the evaluation and appreciation of cultural products in Ottoman society. Finally, the Dukagjinis shine a light on the complexity of kinship, forcible recruitment, and ethnic origins in the Ottoman Empire. At times, statecraft and literary prowess are more than just learned skills; they’re a family affair.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of the Turkish and Turkic Collections
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23 March 2020

Ulli Beier at the British Library

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I occasionally come across relevant materials in the British Library collection in connection with my original mandate on the Yorùbá print materials (see earlier blog post), even when they are not published in my target language, Yorùbá.

Recently, I stumbled on the materials on Ulli Beier, the German writer, editor, curator, and art scholar and enthusiast who lived in Nigeria between 1950 and 1966, and whose papers and other archives reside now in Osogbo at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, and at the Iwalewa Haus at Bayreuth University in Germany.

Yoruba myths Yoruba poetry

The distance between Beier’s work and the Yorùbá collections at the Library isn’t much, in fact. The writer’s creative output during his stay in Nigeria includes a number of original writings in the Yorùbá, translations from and into the language, and the promotion of work of writers producing in the language to the rest of the world. His work of translation of traditional Yorùbá poetry, myths, and proverbs into English are some of the most notable works of documentation done by any one person during that period.

His interest was in art and oral literature, but also drama, performance, and written literature. He helped introduce to an international audience, some of Nigeria’s later successful writers and artists, from Wọlé Ṣóyínká to Chinua Achebe with both of whom he founded the Mbari Club in Ìbàdàn and the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ in Òṣogbo; Dúró Ládípọ̀; and many others he published in Black Orpheus, a literary and arts magazine he edited. His first wife, Susanne Wenger, remained in Òṣogbo and became a devotee of the river goddess, and artist. As a creative writer himself, Beier also often published under the Yorùbá pen name "Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè".

30 years of Oshogbo art

The following are some of his works — or works related to him — that I have found in the British Library Catalogue relating to Yorùbá.

There are a number of other works about Beier, not particularly relevant to this write-up, just as there are a few dozen others about his work on Nigerian poetry in English as well as his work on Papua New Guinea. All these can be found in the British Library catalogue.

Yoruba poetry2 The stolen images

Here are a few more, including some published under his adopted Yorùbá penname “Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè”.

Researchers interested in the life and work of Beier will find a lot to benefit their work using the Library’s extensive collections on the man without whom a lot of what came to define Nigerian literature and art movements in the sixties and seventies may not have come to be.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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30 December 2019

African Literature through the Language Lens: The Yorùbá Example

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As one of the two 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellows at the British Library, my work revolves around literature produced in Yorùbá.

Literature written by Africans in African languages existed before African literature in English (or other European languages). This fact, frequently overlooked, has coloured the discussion of what we talk about whenever we explore “African literature”. Some of the first writings we instinctively think or talk about when discussing African literature, for instance, are usually in English: Amos Tútùọlá’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), among others. But the history of writing and publishing literature by Africans in Africa started much earlier, and in other African languages.

Periodicals
You can find some earlier newspapers published in Yorùbá at the British Library.
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On November 23, 1859, the first newspaper in Nigeria was published in Abeokuta, titled Ìwé Ìròhìn Fún Àwọn Ará Ẹ̀gbá àti Yorùbá. It was printed by the printing press of Henry Townsend, established five years earlier as an arm of the missionary endeavour he was involved in, and as a way to keep the few literate people in “high society” engaged in the day-to-day of society. The newspaper was published in both Yorùbá and English. It was published every fifteen days and sold for 120 cowries (about a penny at the time). Its readership rose to around 3000 subscribers before it went belly-up after the printing press was burnt during one of the skirmishes between the British visitors and the Ẹ̀gbá residents.

In 1891, another iteration of the paper resurrected in Lagos, retaining a version of the original name. Now it was called Ìwé Ìròhìn Yorùbá àti Èkó — the newspaper of Yorùbá and Lagos. The word “Yorùbá” at this point had just begun to be adopted as the general name for all the people who speak associated languages and dialect, and who live in South-western Nigeria. Before then, the word had only referred to the Oyo people. Others retained their own ethnic names: Ẹ̀gbá, Ìjẹ̀bú, Èkìtì, Ìjẹ̀ṣà, Yàgbà, etc.

Masthead of Yoruba paper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó. First page of Yoruba newspaper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó 9 May 1891.
Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó (1891) was one of the first newspapers published in both Yorùbá and English. (1866.c.5.(18.))
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Through these publications, many of which were printed in both Yorùbá and English, the educated elite found ways to learn about what was going on in other parts of the world. Through letters to the editor, they were also able to respond, and participate in ongoing civil and social debates. It was not surprising to read then, for instance, that many Africans had read, debated, and written rejoinders to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 which codified the demarcation of the continent. According to this Al Jazeera news opinion , “a week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that ‘the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.’" The Lagos Observer was another one of those newspapers at the time, established in 1882. (The British Library holds copies from 1882 to 1888 in microfilm).

In 1928, another one of those newspapers was founded, called Akéde Èkó (The Lagos Herald). It was edited by Isaac Babalọlá Thomas (1888-1963), journalist and writer. In 1929, he wrote what has been generally agreed upon as “the first Yorùbá novel.” The work, titled Ìtàn Ìgbésí Ayé Èmi Ṣẹ̀gílọlá Ẹlẹ́yinjú Ẹgẹ́ Ẹlẹ́gbẹ̀rún Ọkọ L’áíyé ( The story of my life; me, Segilola, one with delicate eyes and a thousand living husbands ), was published first as a serial, disguised as a letter to the editor by a dying old lady willing to spill the story of her exciting and sometimes tawdry adventures on the pages of the newspapers. When it was eventually published, with the author being credited merely as a custodian of the story by the “anonymous” lady, it caused some scandal in the new society not used to reading such open discussion of sexual relationships.

Cover of Print Culture and the first Yoruba Novel.
Print Culture and the First Yorùbá Novel” edited by Karin Barber. (Print culture and the first Yoruba novel : I.B. Thomas's 'Life story of me, Sẹgilọla' and other texts , edited by Karin Barber (Leiden: Brill, 2012). (YD.2012.a.5228)
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There had been many pamphlets, religious texts, poems, tracts, etc. published before this time, some of them unattributed to anyone but religious organisations. But over the next decades, scores of literary works — short stories, novelettes, novels, travelogues, poetry and other personal narratives were published to limited audiences literate in Yorùbá and in the culture of the changing times. By the time the first notable English language novel The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952, it had a whole generation of Nigerian Yorùbá literary oeuvre to longingly gesture towards, and borrow from.

The fame of the English language genre would come to eventually supplant and stunt the growth of Nigerian-language creative output in the subsequent generations. By the mid-eighties, long after the departure or nationalization of the earlier British establishment firms that had published some of the earlier Nigerian writers, including D.O. Fágúnwà, J.F. Ọdúnjọ and Adébáyọ̀ Fálétí, the creative output in the local language also seemed to gradually disappear. Today, there is no reputable institution publishing Nigerian language fiction or drama or poetry. There are still publications, but they are mostly self-publications with no peer review or professional vetting and critical appraising mechanism.

As a 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow, my work over this next year will examine the Yorùbá language collections in the British Library — containing over two hundred years of documentation and preservation — to draw patterns, find gaps, identify trends and relevant research directions for future researchers who will come to use the Library, and generally provide expert analysis of the Library’s Yorùbá language material holdings. And sometimes, non-Yorùbá texts of relevance will also come my way, as one did a few weeks ago when I discovered that the original typescript of Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Ìdànrè, eventually published in 1965, resides in the manuscript section at the Library, still bearing the marking, handwritings and musical directions of the then 31 year-old-author.

I also happen to be a linguist, interested in the growth, development, and sustenance of the Yorùbá language (and other Nigerian languages) in literature, education, governance and technology in the 21st century. And so, I will be looking to better understand the evolution of the orthography of the language, through the texts that have carried it in literature from its early beginnings until today. The work of forbearers like Samuel Ajayi Crowther to Ayo Bamgbose stand as guiding lights, as do the work of faceless and notable writers of the Yorùbá language whose texts provide the most visible account of the language and its journey from just a spoken language to a medium of transmitting generations of stories, both in fiction and history, in the many written patterns and styles.

My thought process on these discoveries will be shared on the British Library blog as the year unfolds.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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27 June 2019

Shubbak at the British Library, 30 June 2019

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On 30 June the Shubbak festival of contemporary Arab culture returns to the British Library with a day of literary events. The British Library has hosted the festival previously in 2015 and 2017. Recordings from these events can be accessed through the British Library’s Soundcloud (here and here). This year, in addition to panels on new feminist and queer writing, and historical fiction, the festival will also features spotlight sessions on specific authors, and two creative installations by Moroccan artist Aïcha El Beloui and Saudi design practice Bricklab. Details of the programme can be found below and tickets can be purchased through the British Library website.

THE ENDLESS WAVE: New Feminist Writing, hosted by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
12 pm–1.15 pm

What does it mean to be an Arab feminist in 2019? How does the legacy of previous generations intersect with current creative practice and globalised movements like #MeToo? Three artists using diverse artforms discuss and perform their work. French-Moroccan journalist, commentator and Prix Goncourt-winning novelist Leïla Slimani‘s recent nonfiction work on Moroccan women’s sexuality generated much debate. Award-winning Egyptian graphic novelist and web comic artist Deena Mohamed is the creator of the veiled female superhero Qahera. Badriah al Beshr is a Saudi journalist, chatshow host and novelist known for tackling women’s issues.

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(Left to right): Lullaby by Leïla Slimani ; translated from the French by Sam Taylor (London : Faber & Faber, 2018). BL, H.2018/.9220. Shubbīk lubbīk : qiṣṣah muṣawwarah by Deena Mohamed (Cairo : 2017). BL, YP.2018.b.610. Mother of all pigs : a novel by Malu Halasa (Los Angeles, CA : The Unnamed Press, [2017]). BL, YD.2019.a.3105.

SPOTLIGHT: New Arab Writing from London with Malu Halasa, hosted by Jo Glanville
1.30–2 pm

Malu Halasa has co-edited five anthologies on Middle East culture and politics. Her debut novel, Mother of All Pigs, unveils contemporary life in Jordan, as one family confronts its secrets over the course of a weekend’s festivities. At times witty and energetic, compassionate and awe-inspiring, an Arabic translation is forthcoming in 2020. Malu Halasa reads from and discusses her novel and practice.

BOLD VOICES: New Queer Writing , hosted by Puck Khalaf
2.15–3.30pm

Building on Shubbak’s 2017 inaugural queer panel, Bold Voices brings together a new range of artists at the cutting edge of LGBT+ creative expression. Three artists from this exciting and defiant scene present their approach ranging from comics to storytelling and activism. From Beirut comes poet, playwright and actress Dima Mikhayel Matta, the founder of Beirut’s storytelling platform Cliffhangers. Syrian Swedish novelist Khaled Alesmael's Selamlik, a homoerotic depiction of Syria, has sold over 2,000 copies in Sweden. Joseph Kai, whose comics centre around the unspoken, marginalization and gender, is editor at the Lebanese collective Samandal.

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(Left to right): Revenge by Samandal (Paris : Studio Fidèle, 2019). Kursī : riwāyah by Dima Wannous (Beirut: Dār al-Ādāb, 2009). BL, YP.2012.a.2398. 

SPOTLIGHT: new Syrian fiction with Dima Wannous, hosted by Bidisha
4–4.30 pm

Damascus-born Dima Wannous is a writer and cultural journalist. She has written for multiple Arab and international newspapers, managed the cultural section of the online magazine Modon, and hosted a cultural TV show from 2008-18. Her second novel, The Frightened Ones, focuses on the notion of fear and how central it is to dictatorship. Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018, the novel is about to be published in Elisabeth Jaquette’s English translation. Dima Wannous reads from and discusses her novel and practice.

SPOTLIGHT: New Kurdish fiction with Bakhtiyar Ali, host by Bonnie Gree
4.45–5.15 pm

Bakhtiyar Ali is a prominent Iraqi Kurdish novelist and literary critic, essayist and poet, awarded the prestigious Nelly Sachs Prize in 2017. His novel I Stared at the Night of the City was a bestseller in Iraqi Kurdistan and made history as the first Kurdish novel ever to be published in English translation. He is joined by his translator Kareem Abdulrahman, currently completing the translation of Ali’s next novel The Last Pomegranate, to read an exclusive extract and to discuss contemporary Kurdish literature in the Arab region and beyond.

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(Left to right): I stared at the night of the city by Bakhtiyar Ali ; translated from the Kurdish by Kareem Abdulrahman (Reading : Periscope, 2016). BL, H.2018/8208. Ruqaya Izzidien. al-Nabīdhah : riwāyah by Inaam Kachachi (Beirut : Dār al-Jadīd, 2017). BL, YP.2018.a.5596.

TELLING THE PAST: Contemporary Arab Historical Novels, hosted by Laleh Khalili
5.30–6.45 pm

Many Arab writers create historical novels to recast fraught histories. What are their motivations and methods in approaching history through the creative lens? Twice shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Iraqi writer Inaam Kachachi‘s novels focus on contemporary Iraqi history. Iraqi-Welsh writer Ruqaya Izzidien‘s debut novel features Iraqi, Welsh and English characters in WWI Baghdad. Sudanese IPAF-shortlisted author Hammour Ziada‘s latest historical novel examines cycles of oppression through twentieth-century Sudan. Palestinian novelist Rabai al-Madhoun‘s IPAF winning Destinies, Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba is a four-part epic of the Palestinian exodus and right to return.

Installations:

Aïcha El Beloui: Morocco

Gathering personal narratives through interviews, researching the sound archives in the British Library and walking through West London’s streets, the artist discovered the agreements between Morocco, Spain and France as the catalysts to Moroccan presence in the city.

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Ces cités: Marseille 2018 by Aïcha El Beloui

Drawing from this material she will create one of her distinctive maps. Seemingly simply rendered in black and white, they are filled with richly textured incident and associative connections. Charting routes between Morocco and London, and recognising original dreams and aspirations as well as today’s experiences of second and third generation young people, the artist invites the viewer to reflect on themes of citizenship and belonging.

Aïcha El Beloui’s map will be available in paper formats, digitally and as an installation, travelling to different sites across the city.

Aïcha El Beloui is a Casablanca-based illustrator, graphic designer, and creative director. Trained as an architect, she worked originally for UNESCO in heritage preservation. She regularly works with communities to discover a neighbourhood and filters her observations into maps and illustrations.

Bricklab: Geographical Child’s Play

Bricklab, the designers of the first Saudi pavilion at Venice Architecture Biennale, create a new pop-up sculpture especially for Shubbak. 22 brightly coloured units equalling in number the 22 states of the Arab League are arranged in different constellations to offer new viewpoints of geographies, nations and the power to imagine other realities. No unit can stand on its own, but has to be grafted onto others. Some constellations seem hierarchical, others more egalitarian. Geographical Child’s Play conjures up poignant and surprising alignments and dependencies. Stretching nearly 10m as a line or barely 3m as a circle, Geographical Child’s Play is Bricklab’s most public and engaging sculpture so far.

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Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz.

The bright colours and low level hint at nursery furniture or playground equipment. It is an invitation to imagine geopolitics through the lens of play and a deliberately naïve hope.

Established in Jeddah in 2015 Bricklab (Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz) quickly established itself as one of the most dynamic current design practices in Saudi Arabia. Their work has been shown at 21,39 Saudi Art Week, Alserkal Avenue in Dubai and Venice Architecture Biennale. In 2018 they took part in the British Council and V&A International Designers Workshop.

Daniel Lowe, Curator for Arabic Ccownwork

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