Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010.
In Mali Under the Night Sky, Youme beautifully renders the true story of Malichansouk Kouanchao, who, the flyleaf tells us, “walked from Laos to Thailand when she was five years old.” Bordered watercolor paintings capture the simple beauty of her early life in Laos—napping with her family, catching tiny fish in the rice paddies, making spicy traditional foods with her aunts—with key words translated into Romanized Lao as well as the original Lao script.
“But something was changing where Mali lived…Fighting in neighboring countries was bringing danger to the land and the people. Even the birds were disappearing.” Youme pictures a child at the edge of her house, the wide space beyond empty to the horizon. It’s not safe to stay any longer. After a leave-taking that includes the traditional tying of strings around the wrists of each departing family member, Mali, her parents and siblings cross the broad Mekong, offering ritual flowers and rice with prayers for safety. They are met the next day by soldiers and are imprisoned with other refugees. Things look dark, but the strings on her wrists remind Mali of her home, and when she tells the others her happy memories, “their hearts were safe…soag sai—blessings.”
The real Mali, now a beautiful young woman, is pictured on the front flyleaf along with an introduction to her present work as an artist and anti-war advocate. At the back of the book, one of her paintings is reproduced beside her message to young readers: “…when we share about where we have come from, we all find that our homes are safe in our hearts…” A further statement by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Thavisouk Phrasavath describes the effects of war on children and how books like Youme’s about Mali are a balm to heal those traumas.
Cinco Puntos Press has made a significant contribution in publishing Mali Under the Night Sky. Its tender images and heartfelt words will touch children everywhere. While it ends with Mali in prison, young readers also learn of her subsequent success in life and dedication to healing the wounds of war. The book’s value to Laotian families in diaspora is of course incalculable.