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Handbook Project Empowers Local Communities to Write Their Own Cultural Narratives

“No one could sing our song but ourselves.” — Inrasra, Chăm poet and anthropologist.

From the British Council and creators Giang Phạm, Bạch Tùng and Lê Dũng, The Handbook to Heritage Storytelling (Cẩm Nang Kể Chuyện Di Sản) is an informative guide to heritage preservation and storytelling in the digital age. Through the guidebook, villagers, craftsmen, and any grassroots organizers can be empowered to create educational media kits that can help sustain and promote their community’s culture.

The cover of one of the five installments of the series.

“There is no better approach than to vest locals with the ability to narrate the cultural accounts that they’ve long experienced, as it would unveil the most genuine and personal perspectives,” Giang Phạm, who curated the content and visuals for the guideline, tells Saigoneer in Vietnamese.

Among the five handbooks published by the authors are instructions for readers to generate promotional materials, using assets such as copywriting, photography and graphic design, to showcase different traditions. The case studies that the books focus on are the music and rituals of Chăm people in Bỉnh Nghĩa and Bàu Trúc villages, Ninh Thuận; the role of gongs in the life of ethnic minorities in Kon Rẫy, Kon Tum, and K'Bang, Gia Lai; and the presence of southern theatrical art in Saigon.

Pages from the handbook on southern theatrical art.

Each handbook consists of two main sections. While the first touches on the theoretical components of heritage–focused creation, the second discusses and analyzes samples from previous projects, in which the authors themselves got involved and worked with local denizens and artisans. The fruits of this labor include a set of postcards that celebrate the Chăm Village of Bỉnh Nghĩa’s new year customs and a community guidebook on the art of tuồng that can be given to new audiences before performances as a crash course.

An info card explaining the significance behind the folk costume of Chăm people in Bỉnh Nghĩa.

The team of authors first began making plans and going on field expeditions in December of 2020. From their arrival, the three participated in the festivities and other activities that typically take place in the community there. With data gathered, they proceeded with developing the “storytelling toolkit” and accompanying publications before returning to the sites to test and revise them.

One of the creators, Bạch Tùng, recounts her experience: "It was rather tedious to get all five of our booklets complete at the same time. We tried our best to be adaptive by keeping a consistent structure throughout the series while giving each installment a unique flair."

The authors communicated closely with the residents of Bỉnh Nghĩa to create the info cards.

Due to the pandemic, many of the project’s workshops had to be conducted virtually, which was less than ideal, as not all localities had access to the devices needed. This made teaching storytelling skills, already novel in isolated communities, an even more challenging feat.

Bạch Tùng recounted a time in which she had to instruct nearly 20 people through a computer screen on how to record and reproduce their village’s story: "In spite of the difficulties, it was an interesting and practical experience that I could never forget."

When asked about the reaction of the people they worked with, Giang said that they were very surprised to have been met with overwhelming enthusiasm, some of which came from the very elderly members.

"The knowledge and skills that we imparted upon these communities were all very new to them. But they all understood that this handbook was not only to preserve and pass on the legacy to the next generation, but to also benefit the current one in terms of financial and tourism gains," says Giang.

The authors and British Council are now working on the next stage of the project by building a portal site to expand and promote the digital storytelling manual to the wider public, which is freely available to view here.

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