Love Songs From a Shallow Grave (Laos)

by Colin Cotterill

Daeng’s Noodle Rating: 1002 wide rice noodles with nam pa fish sauce!

And what better day to blog about love songs than Valentine’s Day? Add to the fact that this is a murder mystery and you neatly wrap up all the latent hostility many people feel towards the big Hallmark occasion. Ha ha.

Once Upon a Time: I worked for Auntie’s Bookstore. Publishers of first-time authors would send us Advanced Reader Copies of books before they hit store shelves, hoping we’d love them and start a literary flash mob. And that’s how I met Colin Cotterill. The ARC was called The Coroner’s Lunch: I thought, “The cover’s purple…I’ll read this one.”

Now I’m on the 9th book in the series featuring the sardonic Dr. Siri Paiboun and friends: His employee Mr. Geung, who copes admirably with his Down’s Syndrome, and Dr. Siri’s resident Hmong shaman are two of my favorites.

The strangest thing happened to me between (Laos) and (Afghanistan): Reading these particular books back-to-back was an accident, but a meaningful one. Each book informed the other.

In Love Songs, Dr. Siri finds out first-hand about the chilling human rights atrocities of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. Then 1000 Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseni showed communism, during the same time period, giving the women of Afghanistan rights they’ve never had before or since.

 Once upon a time, I emailed Colin Cotterill in Thailand to say I loved his book. By sheer coincidence, he was on his way to the US for a book tour! “How close to Portland is Spokane?” he asked incautiously and I crossed my fingers and said, “Oh, very!”

Not just another Anglo-Saxon: Colin showed us his Laos slides–Piles of unexploded ordinance as high as your head (from the Vietnam War), beautiful children who had never read, nor owned, a single book. And a large number of beautiful children with a small number of limbs.

At that time over 75% of hilltribe kids in northern Laos didn’t have access to schools. Colin’s Books For Laos project and its spin-off have brought books into the country and enabled 28 hill tribe students to become teachers in remote areas. ESPECIALLY after reading the (Afghanistan) book, I believe education is a basic human right. More on that in 1,000 Splendid Suns next.

PS–Censor This:
To this day, Laos is a communist country with heavy-handed (but painfully low-tech) censorship. Imagine 2 old Comrades sitting in a room piled high with all the foreign language books waiting for approval to enter the country. Like names on the waiting list for Trabant cars in the former East Germany, the books keep coming, but there’s a bottleneck. What is it?

It’s the fact that these men speak only Lao, and maybe a long-ago bit of French: They are using a phrasebook to translate every single word of every book before approving the book to enter the country. Unless it’s rejected on ideological grounds, of course. Not much gets in. And, I’m guessing, not much gets out.

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