The main focus is clearly the story of young Mali, which begins with her carefree life in her native Laos filled with everyday reminders “that the world was big – ngai – and full of wonderful things.” Writer/artist Youme paints Mali’s joy climbing flowering trees, catching tiny fish, making spicy feasts, and tying strings around the wrists of family members and special friends as a reminder “that their hearts would always be together.”
Mali’s idyllic life is shattered when war encroaches, driving her and her family through a dangerous journey across the Mekong River. The family lands “in the worst place [Mali] had ever been, a crowded jail.” In spite of the fear, with the help of the strings on her wrist, she remembers her beautiful home and shares her wonderful memories with the people around her. Her memories are catching: “They remembered their own beautiful homes. And though the journey to a new home would be long and hard, their hearts were safe when they remembered where they had come from.” And so the story ends with “Soag sai – blessings.”
Then turn the page, and the real Mali appears, now a grown woman, an international artist. Her Self-Portrait faces her life story on the opposite page that begins “I am Mali.” Her full name – Malichansouk Kouanchao – she explains, means “‘fortuitously guided by the lights of the night sky.'” In spite of war, in spite of imprisonment, in spite of so much loss, Mali “grew up to be an artist and an activist so that all people may celebrate their own creativity even in the most difficult situations.” Having lived all over the world, meeting artists along the way, she’s learned that “we all find that our homes are safe in our hearts, even though they may not be safe in the world …”
On the book’s final page are the words of Thavisouk Phrasavath, a Laotian American writer, artist, and filmmaker, whose documentary The Betrayal: Nerakhoon was nominated for an Oscar in 2009. His words are haunting: “I was born in Laos during the civil war. There has never been a time without war for me …” His words are potent truth. War has not ended for Mali, for Thavisouk, for far too many people in the world … somewhere in the world, war endlessly wages on.
Today, December 7, marks the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “a date which will live in infamy,” as forever coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Seven decades later, infamy lives on, stealing childhoods, families, homes, lives. Now as another year comes to a close, we pray for peace … again and again … again and again … Here’s another hopeful, urgent prayer …