You may think I’m going overboard, but prose educates its readers. What does Houston’s NPR travel essay say to us about Laos and the people who live in Luang Prabang? Her prose insists that what she saw, we can see, and not for nothing. We can see it because these people (monks and women) do the same thing 365 days a year. After all, other than the monks’ complicatedly folded robes, it’s all so simple. Of course, her narrative is an absolute fiction. It’s trite. It’s crude. Houston’s prose illustrates just how safe traveling can be when we remain disengaged with everyday life where ever we go. And this is the way colonizers and consumers travel. Their lives are other where. The here and now during travel is an exotic place to experience life detached from the everyday. In this manner, the prose is highly insipid. It must be for it to mean anything to me because I haven’t seen what the author has and she’s not describing an actual event. Why would I want to have read this essay? It can teach me nothing more than what Pam Houston likes: the monks robes, for example, for they are the color of spices. How many white assholes have exoticized the monks in Asia, for crying out loud? The insidiousness is almost generic.
Warning: the following will make you vomit and turn your shit white.
Pam Houston directs the Creative Writing Program at U.C. Davis. Her most recent novel is Contents May Have Shifted.
Luang Prabang, Laos, is so close to the equator that daybreak happens at the same time each day. Also each day, a few dozen women set up rice cookers on small collapsible tables on street corners next to the more than 30 monasteries that grace this riverside town. If you get up with them and walk the silent streets in the misty Mekong predawn, you smell, under the sweetness of the frangipani blossoms, the thick odor of cooked starch.
I am a mountain girl, and my first love in Asia are the monasteries tucked between the snow-covered razor ridges of the high Himalayas. But I’ve been drawn south into these humid lowlands by the reported kindness of the Laotian people and the early morning ritual that is about the begin.
A rooster crows. A peacock screams. And then the bells of the monasteries begin to have their morning conversation.
When the monks come pouring down the stone steps of the prayer halls, they appear first as a river of color, a ribbon of saffron silk, shockingly vibrant against the chalky streets, the dusty footpath, the gray — almost mercuried — sky. All over Asia, monks wear robes the color of spices: curry, cumin, paprika. In Luang Prabang, every robe is brightest saffron, the cloth wrapped complicatedly around their torsos and hanging to their ankles, tied at the waist with a bright yellow sash. [White Exoticized Asia, complete with references to spices and waterfalls/rivers. Are you kidding me, robes are never wrapped complicatedly! But you can tell she wants to put one on. Like the white women who travel to Japan to fulfill their lifelong desire to dress up as a maiko or geisha.]
As they approach it becomes possible to distinguish one monk from another, hands clasped in front of the belly, echoing the shape of the wooden begging bowl they hold. [They always look the same.]
Like the Mekong they live beside, this river of men never stops moving; they pass in a quiet, contemplative gait that is two parts walking, one part floating. One by one they drift past the woman, who also keeps a kind of time with her motions: one large scoop of steaming rice into each hand-carved bowl, refill, release, refill again. Every monk bows to her deeply and moves on.
THE WHITEST MOMENT IN THE STORY!!! —-» Every few streets the same thing is happening: different woman, different monks; same bright, graceful river passing in front of her. And again a few streets over, an unmistakable flash of color, and again, a few streets beyond that. This is what happens here every morning, 365 days, year in, year out. [THAT’S RIGHT! THEY’RE LITERALLY ALL DIFFERENT YET PERMANENTLY ALL THE SAME. It’s white supremacy, the entire history of its ideology, working in one paragraph to frame an entire culture and its people in one fictional moment for memory’s sake. Does it get more trite than this?]
The women up early, cooking in the dark, carrying their little tables in the milky first light. Then the monks, a small fire in the gray light, lightening their rice cookers, lightening their burdens. [Everything is small and little. Fully fetishized Asian women and their little things. Houston cannot resist the cliched white representations of SE Asia.]
The sun strengthens slightly. In an hour, the fog will lift and the heat will begin to press down. There is a flick of fire, a swirl of a saffron sleeve as a monk moves around the corner, back up the stairs and into the dormitory, like a magic trick of compassion, of generosity, of prayers offered and received.