Earlier this year, Sinxay Publishing released its debut book, Sinxay: Renaissance of a Lao-Thai Epic Hero. Little Laos on the Prairie had a chance to talk with Peter and Bai Whittlesey, the founders of Sinxay Publishing to understand their journey and what inpired them to put out a new translation of Sinxay.
Sinxay is a legendary hero whose deeds could easily be compared to many of the legendary heroes of Europe, Asia and around the world. Many of today’s youth aren’t familiar with the character in the US, however, so this is a very interesting proect to revitalize an interest not only in Sinxay but in other cultural traditions for the Lao community in diaspora. You can find out more about their book at www.sinxay.com
Peter and Bai Whittlesey currently live in Sacramento, California. Peter has been an educator for over thirty years and is currently a high school librarian. Peter began traveling to Laos in 1998 when most people believed Laos was a country wrapped in mystery and too difficult to attempt to travel to.
Peter quit his job teaching in 2000 and moved to Laos, wanting to learn the language and immerse himself in the culture. During the year he lived in Laos he worked on a variety of research projects and traveled throughout the country photography the amazing diversity of the country and its people. His award-winning photographs of Laos have been published in many online and print journals.
Peter met his wife, Baythong (Bai), in 2001, and they were married in Laos in 2002. Bai came to the states in 2003 and became a naturalized citizen in 2006. They have a daughter, Phetmany Sidachan, born in April 2012. They have been living in Sacramento since 2003, yet continue to visit Laos yearly. Bai grew up in a village where many of the women are weavers, and Bai too, was taught to weave at a young age.
Before they became aware of Sinxay, Peter and Bai made a decision to establish an online business to promote Lao weavers and their beautiful textiles, which they named Laos Essential Artistry. Over the years they sold textiles to customers throughout the world and their website became an educational resource for anyone to learn more about the wide diversity of Lao textiles.
In 2005 Peter first learned about the story of Sinxay when Peter and Bai visited Bai’s parents in Ban Na Ang, the small village where she grew up. The village is located in the Muang Fuang district in the northwestern part of Vientiane Province, known for its spectacular karst formations. One early evening as they were walking on a dirt road back to the village, they stopped to gaze where the sun was setting over the rocky limestone cliffs, serving as a backdrop to a patchwork of village rice paddies. While they were enjoying the sunset, Bai pointed to where a section of rock seemed to be missing. She told Peter that according to a local legend, it had been knocked out during a battle between a famous Lao epic hero named Sinxay, and an evil ogre named Nyak Koumphan.
This captured Peter’s imagination and when Peter and Bai returned to Vientiane, the capitol city, they looked to see if there were any Lao versions of Sinxay in book form. Luckily they found one, and over the next two years Bai and Peter painstakingly translated the Lao prose version of Sinxay into English. It was during this lengthy process of translation that they decided they wanted to write a book about Sinxay.
What was one of the biggest challenges getting started with the translation of Sinxay?
I think the biggest challenge was just overcoming inertia and starting the translation. Translation is a very, very time consuming process and thankfully at the time Bai didn’t have a job and could work on the translation at home during the day. We began by translating Outhine Bounyavong’s prose verison of Sinxay. It was a very slow process. Bai might translate a paragraph or two during the day, and when I came home after work we would work on fine-tuning Bai’s translation. Every day. Day after day. It’s an interesting experience to be reading a text so slowly and thoroughly. In the introduction to Sinxay we talk about how we felt we were being marinated in Sinxay, that Sinxay was slowly infusing every pore of our being. The process took close to two years.
After we were done and after many years of researching Sinxay we came to realize that Outhine had left out many passages from Sang Sinxay in an effort to simplify Sinxay for the common Lao. We then spent about a month over two summers working with a Pali scholar to translate original passages from Sang Sinxay that we could incorporate in our retelling.
You commissioned a lot of original, incedible art for this edition of Sinxay. What were some of your thoughts you had about how you wanted the final book to look?
In the Preface to our book we talk about the importance of illustrations in Sinxay. We begin by quoting from Appleton, Shaw, and Unebe’s book, Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-Century Siam, where the authors write: “In temple art Jātaka depictions can be far more varied and full of incident than those in manuscripts. There is simply more room on a wall for extensive depiction of a number of scenes from a single, often intricate story, sometimes arranged chronologically, but often in a non-linear succession . . . Their presence (in a manuscript), however, is like bringing a sense of the temple to the space of a manuscript.”
We then write, “We have tried to convey this same sensibility of “bringing a sense of the temple into this volume with the illustrations and photos we have chosen to use.” Anyone who has been to Laos, Thailand, and Isan, has to stand in awe of the artwork seen displayed throughout wats, whether murals, reliefs or carved window/door panels. Sinxay is reflected in this art and we wanted our book not only to tell the story of Sinxay in text, but to include visual imagery that we felt we would honor the story of Sinxay.
What are some of the reasons you think Sinxay would appeal to Lao readers today?
In the introduction to Sang Sinxay written by Pangkham back in the late 1600’s he writes, ““I am in a contemplative mood and think so much during this time, seeing and understanding the Buddha in his previous lives. I want to write and have my ideas become known in the language of Lao. Raising my hands together in prayer I invite the gods of heaven to help inspire my thinking and fill my mind with worthy thoughts.”
I’m not Lao, yet it sends shivers down my spine every time I read, “I want to write and have my ideas become known in the language of Lao.” Sinxay is an inspirational story that can be read on many levels, as an epic tale, folk tale, or more importantly a jataka tale.
If a Lao reader wants to get a deeper understanding of Lao culture, our book not only presents the retelling of Sinxay, considered one of three Lao literature masterpieces, but we also provide four contextual chapters that includes an essay on Sinxay’s relation to the tradition of Jataka tales, another on the story’s position in Lao literature, an account of the revival of Sinxay in Isan, a guide to some of the best temple murals of the story around Khon Kaen, some notes on magic and a guide to some of the sites and temples associated with the story in Laos.
We liked how one reviewer wrote, “The story of Sinxay is one of loyalty to family, persistence, patience and commitment, how to overcome million-to-one odds and hardship, all wrapped up in an on-going adventure quest. It is a great story for children to learn the true values of life. Sinxay is my new folk hero.” Seems like these too would be good enough reasons for Lao readers to embrace Sinxay.
What’s one of your favorite parts from the Sinxay story?
That’s a difficult question of course, but I like the part when Phanya Kousarat, the king and father of Sinxay, travels to Sinxay’s palace to ask him to return to Muang Pengchan to become the king. Sinxay, although a bodhisatta, has a long memory and doesn’t quickly accept his father’s apologies, still clearly remembering how the king had banished Sinxay and his two brothers, Sangthong and Siho, and their mothers, Nang Loun and Nang Chanta from the palace when they were just babies.
Soumountha, Sinxay’s aunt, whom he had rescued from Nyak Koumphan, then took the initiative to speak to Sinxay and make the case on why he should return to Muang Pengchan. Soumountha is often overlooked in Sinxay, but in a book recently published by a famous Lao literary scholar Soumountha is praised for her international mind and her gift of negotiation and willingness to work toward peaceful solutions.
At the end of her speech to Sinxay she told him, “Nephew, please open your heart to the dhamma. Don’t close your mind. You need to come back to Muang Pengchan to inherit the kingdom, which is a Buddhist kingdom where you will be able to continue to earn parami for the long future. For anyone who wishes to enter nirvana, this is the only way, dear nephew.” Her words helped soothe the anguish Sinxay had caused and listening attentively to his aunt he happily agreed with Soumountha’s reasoning and told his father he would return to Muang Pengchan to become the king.
What’s your favorite Lao food dish?
My favorite Lao dish is Laap goi.
What’s coming up ahead for all of you as you get Sinxay out into the public eye?
Right now we’re working with the US Embassy and Monument Books to do a book launch for Sinxay in Vientiane at Monument Books, probably during the summer when we’ll be in Laos. We will be presenting on Sinxay at the Lao Studies Conference in early July in Bangkok and we will also be giving a presentation to the Siam Society on Sinxay when we’re in Bangkok. Hopefully we’ll be interviewed by Vannasone at VOA Lao and may visit some local wats to promote Sinxay.
Be sure to visit Sinxay Publishing at www.sinxay.com! Until March 13th at Sinxay.com there is a current 20% discount on Sinxay. Little Laos on the Prairie readers can now use the following coupon code, sinxay30, which will provide an additional $3 off for more than a 30% discount off the retail price of $24.95.
The coupon code can be added when checking out after adding the book to the shopping cart. There will be an additional shipping charge of $7 for Priority Mail shipping per book.