THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

4 posts categorized "Women's histories"

05 July 2021

Sisters from the shadows – Katsushika Ōi

Add comment

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts which will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

What helps us to choose a good story to read? Could it be an advertising strapline?  Or the headline in a book review? Or perhaps a hash-tag on Twitter? Of course, the author’s storyline itself is the core stimulus of our curiosity and feeds our imagination. But what about illustrations? Illustrations are unlikely to be produced by the author of the text but they definitely have an influence in attracting people to take a book from the shelves. 

Traditionally in Japan stories for entertainment were accompanied with illustrations to enhance their appeal to readers, and there is no doubt that they also acted functionally as visual aids for instructional books. In the same way, we tend to add images of illustrated pages to our blog posts to assist our readers who are not always familiar with the topics.

The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji
Fig.1 The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.62r.  noc

The majority of known Japanese artists are male, as in other areas of the creative arts throughout history, such as playwrights, novelists, travel writers and so on. However, there are a few exceptions where we find women illustrators and artists who seem to emerge from the shadows of history.

This article will focus on Katsushika Ōi or Eijo (葛飾応為 or 栄女),  a talented artist who depicted the ‘The Floating World’ (Ukiyo) of geisha and actors, and who happened to be a woman. However, she is better known as the third daughter of the great Ukiyoe master, Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), whom she cared for in his workshop in his later years, spending most of her life in close company with him. Hokusai produced a huge quantity of Ukiyoe prints, illustrated books and paintings throughout his artistic life and Ōi is believed to have assisted his creations from her youth by adding figures in his illustrations or colouring his paintings. It was common for artists of that time to establish their own studios, collaborate with their co-workers and produce artworks under the name of famous artists.

‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo
Fig.2. ‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo (栄女). From Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽 , an athology of Kyōka poetry illustrated by Hokusai and his followers ca 1818. British Museum, [1979,0305,0.411] (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 

Ōi was  rather good at drawing from a very young age. As the daughter of Hokusai, her environment must have given her impetus to develop her skills and career in art.  She married once but found the artist's life far more interesting than that of a doting housewife. In fact, she did not conform to the typical image of feminine virtue that women of her time were expected to live up to within the context of domestic life. She much preferred to dedicate her time and passion to art by assisting her father’s work as well as creating her own paintings and drawings. Although she was not keen on life as an ordinary woman, she depicted attractive female figures in her works with a remarkably high level of skill.

Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi.
Fig.3 Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Only two printed books have been attributed to Katsushika Ōi as the sole illustrator.  One of them is Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki 絵入日用女重宝記, ‘An illustrated handbook on daily life for women’, with text byTakai Ranzan 高井蘭山, published in Kōwa 4 [1847].

Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo
Fig.4. Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo (応為栄女) as the artist. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki
Fig. 5. Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki . Women are depicted in traditional female roles, such as playing the Koto, writing, sewing, spinning, and weaving. British Library 16124.d.21  noc

Many of the details of Ōi’s life, including even her birth and death dates are unclear. The total number of works attributed solely to her, as opposed to collaborative works with her father, is a mere ten.  It is as if she was hidden behind her world-famous artist father.  However, she was certainly recognised as an independent artist during her lifetime and has recently been rediscovered by art historians, allowing her to emerge from her father’s shadow.

 

Reference:

Julie Nelson Davis, Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family https://blog.britishmuseum.org/hokusai-and-oi-keeping-it-in-the-family/

 

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

20 May 2021

An inspiring Indonesian woman writer: S. Rukiah

Add comment

The current British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights (until 1 August 2021), documenting feminist activism in the UK in historical context, is accompanied by a wide-ranging programme of talks and articles exploring the complex history of women’s rights across the world. A recent blog post focussed on Inspiring women writers of Laos; this blog highlights another inspiring female writer from Southeast Asia, S. Rukiah (1927-1996).

The proclamation of Indonesian independence in 1945 towards the end of World War Two heralded another five years of armed conflict within the country: between Indonesian nationalists and the returning Dutch colonial power, but also between left- and right-leaning factions of Indonesia’s nascent military force. The period also ushered in a host of new literary voices. One Indonesian writer who came of age during this time, and whose writings were shaped by the pressures and anguishes of the Revolution, was S. Rukiah, whose 1950 novel Kejatuhan dan Hati (‘The Fall and the Heart’), is probably the most important early Indonesian novel by a female writer.

S. Rukiah, in ca. 1954
S. Rukiah, in ca. 1954, from H.B.Jassin, Seri esei dan kritik kesusasteraan Indonesian moderen (Jakarta: Gunung Agung, 1962, vol. 1, p. 208). Wikimedia Commons.

Rukiah’s early work is set in the foothills of West Java against a backdrop of guerilla activity during the Indonesian Revolution, but her writing transcends place and time by focussing on the dilemmas of an intelligent modern Indonesian woman and the societal conventions which bind her. Explored in Rukiah’s poems and short stories, and developed most fully in her novel, the constraints of the female predicament are contrasted with the freedom enjoyed by male characters, who have the luxury of pursuing their own destiny, often choosing to wed themselves to a cause. But this all-or-nothing revolutionary fervour does not appeal to Rukiah’s female characters – such as Susi in Kejatuhan dan Hati – who yearn for the seemingly impossible: to love passionately and work fulfillingly, but also to enjoy a happy and peaceful family life.

S. Rukiah’s 1950 novel Kejatuhan dan Hati was first translated into English by John H. McGlynn as ‘An Affair of the Heart’ and published in Reflections on rebellion: stories from the Indonesian upheavals of 1948 and 1965 (Ohio University Press, 1983; British Library, YA.1986.b.248). Shown above is McGlynn’s translation republished as The Fall and the Heart (Jakarta: Lontar, 2010). British Library, YD.2011.a.7962.
S. Rukiah’s 1950 novel Kejatuhan dan Hati was first translated into English by John H. McGlynn as ‘An Affair of the Heart’ and published in Reflections on rebellion: stories from the Indonesian upheavals of 1948 and 1965 (Ohio University Press, 1983; British Library, YA.1986.b.248). Shown above is McGlynn’s translation republished as The Fall and the Heart (Jakarta: Lontar, 2010). British Library, YD.2011.a.7962.

S. (Siti) Rukiah was born on 27 April 1927 in Purwakarta, a small town northwest of Bandung in West Java. During the Japanese occupation she trained as a teacher, and while teaching at a local girls’ school in 1946 she published her first poems. She also began writing for the magazine Godam Jelata, ‘The Proletariat Hammer’, one of the founders of which was her future husband Sidik Kertapati. Around May 1948, Rukiah became Purwakarta correspondent of the influential literary journal Pujangga Baru (‘The New Poet’), and over the next few years she published 22 poems, six short stories and her novel Kejatuhan dan Hati, which first appeared as a special issue of Pujangga Baru (Nov.-Dec. 1950) before being re-issued by Pustaka Rakyat.

S. Rukiah, Kedjatuhan dan Hati (Djakarta: Pustaka Rakjat, 1950). British Library, 14650.f.148.
S. Rukiah, Kedjatuhan dan Hati (Djakarta: Pustaka Rakjat, 1950). British Library, 14650.f.148.

Rukiah’s first collection of poems and short stories, Tandus (‘Barren’) – mostly work which had previously appeared in journals in 1948 and 1949 – was published in 1952 by the government publisher Balai Pustaka, and the following year it won the inaugural National Cultural Council award for poetry. The esteem accorded to Rukiah’s work can be judged by her fellow awardees: Pramoedya Ananta Toer for short stories, Mochtar Lubis in the novel section and Utuy Tatang Sontani for drama, later regarded as three of the top Indonesian writers of all time.

Tandus, the rare 1st edition of 1952  S. Rukiah, Tandus, 'Barren', a collection of poems and short stories (Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 2nd ed. of 1958).
S. Rukiah, Tandus, 'Barren', a collection of poems and short stories, published in Jakarta by Balai Pustaka.  Left: the rare 1st edition of 1952, British Library, 14650.f.46; Right: the 2nd edition of 1958. British Library (shelfmark pending).

In 1952 Rukiah married Sidik Kertapati, and they had six children. By 1951 Rukiah had begun editing the children’s magazine Cendrawasih (‘Bird of Paradise’), and over the next decade, under her married name of S. Rukiah Kertapati, she published actively in the fields of children’s literature and retellings of Indonesian folk stories. In 1959, at the first National Congress of Lekra, a cultural association sympathetic to the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI), Rukiah was elected as a member of its Central Committee, and she represented Lekra at a writers’ Congress in East Germany in 1961.

S. Rukiah Kertapati, Djaka Tingkir, a retelling of a Javanese folk tale. Djakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1962. British Library, 14650.f.75.
S. Rukiah Kertapati, Djaka Tingkir, a retelling of a Javanese folk tale. Djakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1962. British Library, 14650.f.75.

The febrile political atmosphere in Indonesia by the early 1960s came to a head on 30 September 1965, with the murder of top military leaders in an apparent coup attempt. The aftermath saw a ferocious purge of Communist Party members and suspected PKI sympathizers, leaving up to a million dead and hundreds of thousands imprisoned. At the time Sidik Kertapati – then a PKI member of parliament – was visiting China; like many leftists then abroad, he was unable to return to Indonesia and spent the next four decades in exile. Rukiah herself was imprisoned, with no provisions made for the care of her six young children. Her books were banned and her writings were expunged from future editions of the authoritative anthology of Indonesian literature, Gema Tanah Air ‘Echoes of the Homeland’. She was eventually released in 1969 on condition that she did not write or publish again, and returned to her hometown of Purwakarta, where she lived quietly, aware that she was under constant suveillance as she struggled to support her family.

In 1985, at the suggestion of my supervisor Dr Ulrich Kratz, I made the work of S. Rukiah the subject of my MA dissertation in Indonesian and Malay studies at SOAS, and my first visit to the British Library was to look at the rare editions of Rukiah’s works pictured here. With the help of a close friend, S. Budiardjo – an Indonesian exile living in London – I was able to write to Rukiah in Purwakarta, and was overjoyed to receive a letter back from her. Addressing me as Ananda (‘Child’; I addressed her reverently as Bunda, ‘Mother’), she wrote, ‘I was so glad and touched to receive your letter, and to hear that you know and are studying my works that were published decades ago, for even I myself had forgotten them, it was so long ago.’

In another letter written in December 1985, Rukiah gave a harrowing account of her fate after 1965: “While in prison, I was not allowed to see my beloved children. And so all the time I was detained, I had no idea of the fate of my children: were they living destitute under bridges, or had they even starved to death? (For in those terrible times, nobody was allowed to take in or look after my children. If anyone had dared to do so, they themselves would have faced prison.) So you can just imagine how I agonized and suffered in prison. In the end, my desperate longing for my children and my fears for them forced me to write to the Government begging for release, under any conditions.

And so a suffocating deal was struck: “On 24 April 1969, I was freed fom prison and reunited with my children, on condition that I could never write again. I was clearly regarded as far too outspoken and critical. In the event that I might try to get something published, all publishers were informed that it was forbidden to publish my writings. The Government knew, of course, that this was the harshest possible punishment for any writer. But I agreed to everything, because of my love for my children, who were still so young, and who couldn’t possibly fend for themselves without a mother or a father.”

Extract from a letter from S. Rukiah to Annabel Gallop, December 1985.
Extract from a letter from S. Rukiah to Annabel Gallop, December 1985.

In October 1986, I came to Jakarta and Rukiah’s son, Windu Pratama, met me and took me to visit his mother in Purwakarta. I was overwhelmed to finally meet this courageous woman whose gentle smile and serene demeanour belied the horrors she had faced in years past.

S. Rukiah in Purwakarta, 1986. Photograph by A.T. Gallop.
S. Rukiah in Purwakarta, 1986. Photograph by A.T. Gallop.

In her writings Rukiah had plumbed the depths of the dilemmas of heart and mind. In her life too, Rukiah, had been forced to choose between the very essence of her being – her writing – and her beloved family. Her surviving works are all the more precious for the enforced silencing of her original and inspiring voice.

Further reading:
Annabel Teh Gallop, The work of S. Rukiah. [M.A. thesis]. London: SOAS, 1985.
Yerry Wirawan, Independent woman in postcolonial Indonesia: rereading the work of Rukiah. Southeast Asian Studies, 2018, 7(1): 86-101.

Annabel Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

With very many thanks to John H. McGlynn of the Lontar Foundation for his advice and help.

01 March 2021

The Courtesan and the Preacher: The Romance of Mahsati, an Early Female Persian Poet

Add comment

Opening of teh Romance of Mahsati
The opening of the anonymous romance of the female poet and musician Mahsati and Amir Ahmad the preacher’s son. Copy dated Rabiʻ I 867/1462 (British Library Or.8755, f. 22v)
 noc copy

Mahsati was one of the earliest female poets of classical Persian but the biographical details about her are rather meagre. She probably lived in the eleventh or twelfth century and may have been from Ganja, but Nishapur, Badakhshan and Khujand have also been given as her place of birth by later authors. She is said to have served in the capacity of a secretary (dabirah) or singer and musician at the court of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1097-1118), but at least one historian also places her husband in the court Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (r. 998-1030). In the late fifteenth century, Dawlatshah in his biographical dictionary Tazkirat al-shu‘ara confirms the connection with Sultan Sanjar and lists her among the ruler’s panegyric poets, along with others such as Adib Sabir, Rashid Vatvat, ‘Abd al-Vasih Jabali, and Anvari. Dawlatshah describes Mahsati as “the beloved of the sultan and elegant lady of the times” (mahbubah-yi sultan va zarifah-yi ruzgar) and includes an anecdote about how she won the sultan’s favour with her verbal skills as he was trying to mount his horse in the snow. She is said to have uttered this poem extemporaneously:

Heaven has saddled the mount of felicity for you, King,
And praised you among all the rulers,
In order that your steed’s golden shoe not get muddied
It has spread silver on the ground.

Mahsati is better known for her earthy poems, especially for the quatrains composed on the boys of the bazaar in the shahrashub (amorous, sometimes bawdy verse) genre. The corpus of her poems has increased over the years and modern editions contain between 250 to 300 poems, many of which are also attributed to other poets such as ‘Umar Khayyam.[1] The Swiss scholar, Fritz Meier, made a life-long study of Mahsati and published a corpus of her poems in Die schöne Mahsatī.[2] His research, especially on the fifteenth century romance starring Mahsati and her lover Amir Ahmad or Pur-i Khatib, who was the son of a preacher named Khatib, was published posthumously by Gudrun Schubert and Renate Würsch.[3]

The anonymous romance, Amir Ahmad u Mahsati, survives in at least three versions. One of these is in an illustrated manuscript in the British Library, Or. 8755, which also includes two other short versified narratives: Manqabatnamah, or Qissah-yi shir u div, on the exploits of Ali, and Qissah-yi Isma‘il about Ism‘ail and Ibrahim. The eighteen paintings in the manuscript, thirteen of which belong to the Mahsati romance, are in the Turkoman style.[4]

The story of Mahsati and Amir Ahmad is narrated in prose with 475 quatrains making up the dialogue by the main characters. It is told that Mahsati is the well-educated daughter of a mufti in Khujand whose special talent lies in impromptu versification. The townspeople disapprove of her musical abilities but when they complain to her father, he informs them that according to her horoscope she will become a courtesan. After her father’s death she and her mother move to Ganja where she settles in a tavern. She drinks wine, recites poetry, and even gets the king to fall for her charms. In the same town lives a preacher’s son, Amir Ahmad, who teaches around four hundred students. One night he dreams that he is being offered wine by a houri in paradise. Upon waking up he goes out and sees Mahsati as she plays music on a harp:

Mahsati sees Amir Ahmad for the first time
Mahsati and Amir Ahmad see each other for the first time (British Library Or.8755, f. 29v)
 noc copy

In true fairytale fashion they fall in love with each other. Amir Ahmad leaves his home and begins to lead a dissipated life with his beloved. When his father has him locked up in a cell his pupils come to intercede on his behalf and hear his laments. His poems about Mahsati are mistaken by his father for verses on mystical love and he is thought to be cured of his lovesickness. But upon being released, he goes back to the tavern to be with Mahsati. As the condition of a wager with his father, he mounts a mule and is ready to go to the mosque if the beast leads him there, but the mule takes him right back to Mahsati.

The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati  f. 70a
The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati (British Library Or.8755, f. 70r)
 noc copy

The father persists and sends his pious brother Pir ‘Usman to go and bring the profligate back, but he himself becomes drunk and has to be carried home.

A drunken Pir Usman  is brought home
A drunken Pir ʻUsman is carried home (British Library Or.8755, f. 75v)
 noc copy

Upon the intercession of the king, the tavern is ordered to be closed and the drinkers to disperse. Mahsati goes off to Khurasan followed by Amir Ahmad. There he discovers her at a feast with three hundred distinguished poets and scholars.

Mahsati at a feast with the poets of Khurasan
Mahsati entertaining the poets of Khurasan (British Library Or.8755, f. 87r)
 noc copy

The couple eventually returns to Ganja, where in the marketplace Mahsati sees and composes poems on a group of professional youths comprising a beer-seller, camel driver, spice-seller, bloodletter, barber, as well as a rind, a rakish drunkard.

Mahsati and Amir Ahmad encounter a drunkard in the marketplace
Amir Ahmad and Mahsati accosted by a drunkard in the bazaar (British Library Or.8755, f. 95v)
 noc copy

There she also encounters the master poet Sana’i whom she satirizes in ribald verses. In the meantime, Amir Ahmad finally reconciles with his father and resumes his old life. Mahsati also repents and is allowed to marry her beloved. They lead a devout life and bring up god-fearing children. Eventually Amir Ahmad becomes the preacher of Ganja after his father’s death, and after his death his grave becomes a shrine for penitent drunkards.

The romance about Mahsati provides a contextualized narrative built around her poems. She is transformed into a pious, married woman who is repentant of her past life, but her earlier non-conventional persona persisted in the biographical accounts about her. However, one must be careful to not confuse either persona, the one that comes through in her poems as a poet of the bazaar, or in the romance with her conversion, with that of the actual individual.[5] Even if we do not have historical facts about her life, Mahsati’s poems were never forgotten over the centuries. Especially in the nineteenth century Persian literati in Iran and India sought to retrieve the voices of women and create a female canon of poets for which the inclusion of some classical poets was necessary to provide the authority of tradition. Mahsati, along with Rab‘ia Quzdari or Balkhi, feature in the small group of the earliest poets in these anthologies and continue to be remembered and read in the erstwhile larger Persianate world.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
 ccownwork copy

 

-------------------

[1] Dick Davis, The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Washington, DC: Mage, 2019), pp. 7-14.
[2] Fritz Meier, Die schone Mahsatī. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der persischen Vierzeilers (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1963).
[3] Die schöne Mahsatī. Der Volksroman uber Mahsatī und Amīr Ahmad, herausgegeben von Gudrun Schubert und Renate Würsch (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
[4] G.M. Meredith-Owens, “A Rare Illustrated Persian Manuscript,” The Memorial Volume of the Vth International Congress of Iranian Art & Archaeology, edited by A. Tajvid, (Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Arts, 1972), vol. 2, pp. 125 -131.
[5] For a discussion on the gender implications of Mahsati’s poetic voice, see Rebecca Gould, “Mahsatī of Ganja’s Wandering Quatrains: Translator’s Introduction,” Literary Imagination 13/2 (2011), pp. 225-227.

11 January 2021

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

Add comment

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)