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A different kind of book tour

Bestselling writer Colin Cotterill is smuggling literacy into Laos, the land that inspired his novels

Why write? One of the greatest writers of all time, Shakespeare, said of the arts: "There's nothing new under the sun." That was 400 years ago - surely there's less reason to put pen to paper now than ever.

Most of us have seen the same story told over and over, ad infinitum, op cit, et cetera. But, just when you think you've read it all, a new writer comes along who drives home the rejoinder to Shakespeare's infamous lament: It's not what you write about that matters, it's how you write it, and what unique perspective you take in doing so.

Colin Cotterill has not only managed to come up with something original with his new Dr Siri mystery series, but he's done it in a genre so hackneyed that its offerings inform the most cliched of Hollywood films.

Cotterill's sleuth is a wisecracking 72-year-old coroner in Laos whose lack of access to modern equipment is balanced by his devil-may-care outlook and a rare ability to contact the spirits of the departed. As convention dictates, he is an outsider character, but by introducing him to us in such an unconventional setting, enmeshed in a little-known culture, embellished with such outrageously different life experiences, the author provides that greatest of literary satisfactions: an alien whom we grow to love, in a foreign world we come to inhabit.

But not long after his success, an encounter left the author questioning the value of his writing, if those who inspired it could not read. 

With the windfall from his first book, Cotterill took a trip to Laos to do research for "Thirty-Three Teeth", his follow-up in the Dr Siri series. At Luang Temple in the historic town of Luang Prabang, a young girl asked him for money to buy sweets. A lifelong health nut, he insisted that sweets were bad for her, to which the plucky kid replied that he ought to buy her a book instead. He agreed, but after searching the local shops with her was dumbfounded to find that there were no books available for children.

"Books for Laos", a fledgling initiative to put books in the hands of young Laotians has since grown out of that simple encounter.

Somewhat unexpectedly, however, getting books into the hands of Laotian youth is shaping up to be nearly as challenging as getting published. Gifting literature to an impoverished, nearly illiterate country has proved not as easy as it sounds.

Bureaucratic snafus feature prominently in Cotterill's novels, set as they are in 1970s Laos, a rule-bound Marxist state. But, Laos hasn't changed all that much since then. It's still a disorganised country, riddled by the red-tape bottlenecks that both poverty and communism provide. And, fear of the capitalist threat from Thailand means that all books are screened for "decadent" material. Cotterill has taken the appropriate measures: He clandestinely trucks in books selected specially for their uncontroversial content.

On his website he documents a trip to a college in the remote north of the country, in a tiny sedan weighted down to the axles with 100 kilograms of donated books. After abandoning the car, braving flooded roads, broken bridges and fallen trees, he left the books in the care of an unknown truck driver. Cotteril finally arrived 29 hours later, filthy and exhausted at the college. The books were already there waiting, delivered by the truck driver.

Efforts to collect more books are ongoing, as well as attempts to ship them in directly from Bangkok to the Lao capital of Vientiane. Much of the funding continues to come from Cotterill himself but gradually others are coming on board. Additionally, sister projects such as a teacher-training programme for the college and a "Toys for Laos" workshop and charity benefiting even younger students are underway. 

While Cotterill waxes hilariously on his website about the attendant difficulties he's encountered, and has "rather been hoping some kind hearted computer mogul would bankroll the whole thing",  he continues to slog forward through the proverbial mud, gratefully accepting aid from benefactors willing to lend a hand.

The answer to the question "why write", then, is both simple and circular: so that people everywhere will always have something good to read. New under the sun or not, there is an insatiable human demand for the written word, and in many cases, too little supply. As both author and activist, Colin Cotterill has done quite a bit to shore up the difference.

Cotterill's Dr Siri series includes "The Coroner's Lunch", "Thirty-Three Teeth" and "Disco for the Departed". For more information on Books for Laos, visit www.colincotterill.com/


Oliver Benjamin

Special to the Nation

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