Thai Dominance at Vientiane Book Festival Spurs Reflection on Lao Literary Identity

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The Vientiane Book Festival 2023 (Photo: Book Festival Laos)

Additional reporting by Phontham Visapra

The Vientiane Book Festival 2023 kicked off on 27 November at the Vientiane Center shopping mall and is set to captivate book enthusiasts until 3 December. This event aims to instill a passion for reading, especially among children and students.

However, the evident prevalence of Thai books at the festival reflects a complex interplay of cultural, economic, and logistical factors that shape the reading preferences of many Lao people. The influx of Thai literature into the Lao book market reveals a broader dynamic where external influences play a significant role in shaping the literary landscape. 

Aiy Saiya, a resident of Vientiane Capital, expressed his enjoyment of Thai books, attributing their popularity to factors such as diversity and quality. He pointed out that the abundance of high-quality Thai books is a result of Thailand’s larger population, numerous printing houses, and substantial workforce compared to Laos.

“Most Thai books are of high quality. The information is more packed and up-to-date,” Aiy said. 

This preference for Thai literature, however, sheds light on a multifaceted challenge faced by the Lao book industry. Mana Jangmook, the founder of the children’s publication Meedee Book and one of the event organizers, underscored the limited choices available in the local book market, particularly for the youth and elders. 

“Observing that the majority of Lao books cater to younger children, there’s a noticeable absence of Lao how-to books and literature for the youth in Lao society,” Mana said. 

This observation points to a gap in the local literary scene, where a diverse range of genres and topics catering to different age groups is essential for fostering a robust reading culture.

“To elevate the quality of Lao books, enhancements can be introduced across multiple dimensions,” Mana added. “This encompasses refining aspects such as layout and book cover design, selecting diverse and engaging topics, improving content presentation in various areas, and more.”

To address this issue, there is a growing call within the Lao literary community to encourage local support for products produced by the Lao people. Phoumpanya Douangpaseuth, a Lao writer and founder of Jumpaa Comics, acknowledged the prevailing trend among Lao people to favor Thai products, extending to the relatively small-scale production of Lao books. 

“There is a common tendency among Lao people to shy away from consuming locally produced goods, and this extends to the relatively small-scale production of Lao books,” said Phoumpanya. “With only 15-20 publishing houses in the country, the industry is considered modest.”

To foster the growth of the Lao book industry, Phoumpanya urged fellow Lao citizens to embrace and promote their own literary works, advocating for increased diversity, quality, and variety in Lao-authored content.

But the festival is not only about books. It is also a platform for engaging with local bookstores and publishing houses, gaining insights from authors and book industry professionals, and engaging in skill-enhancing activities. Attendees can revel in performances encompassing singing, dancing, painting, and acting. 

To this end, the Vientiane Book Festival 2023 serves as a platform not only to celebrate the joy of reading but also to initiate conversations about the challenges faced by the Lao book industry. As the festival unfolds, it becomes a crucial space for dialogue and action, encouraging a shift towards a more balanced and thriving literary ecosystem within Laos.