Monday, July 27, 2015

Laomagination: Rebuilding and re-imagining

One of my strongest beliefs over the years has been that a culture that cannot imagine its future will not have a future. At the very least, it will be one dictated by the agendas and interests of other powers. From a Lao American perspective, we have seen the disastrous consequences of this for our community already, with well over 700,000+ of us already living in some state of diaspora since the conflicts of the 20th century, and far more than this when we consider our brothers and sisters who were displaced by the conflicts of the 1800s that left much of Laos depopulated to other nations.

I have had some readers gently ask if this is not a quixotic task of rebuilding our culture. I have also seen many well-intentioned writers ask if my efforts are not better spent strictly on the historical and the "factual," such as it may be known. To me, this is the great challenge for a refugee community rebuilding. The frantic, and rightly expected effort to document and preserve our stories before they are lost. We are discouraged from great explorations of the imagination beyond the preservation of our common children's stories and folktales.

Over the years, I've been informed that Lao and Southeast Asian refugee fiction is often considered a suspect undertaking, and, to be taken seriously, must abide by US and European approaches that reject magic, a sense of the supernatural or a deep probing of the spiritual and the imaginative. If we do not uphold the conventional and accepted narratives that we presented in our early years, we risk excommunication from the world of Arts and Letters. I hope emerging writers have read me well enough to understand that this is in fact a trap, and if you tell the story we all "know" already, then you will become superfluous and unnecessary, since "that" story has already been "told."

I understand some of the elders' concerns. If we don't take time to write the stories of the people who were really a part of our lives, how can we dare to invent people and events. Yet, there is the issue that to write too true to some stories is to lose the power, the reason we tell the stories in the first place. There are some wounds that are still too painful to discuss outright. There are some stories where we can never get a full, fair, and balanced account from everyone involved. There are some cases where much of the truth that led to other moments of historic and cultural importance have been forever lost, taken to the grave or destroyed. But yet, to be a full people, we must still write.

And to my thinking, we must still dare to imagine. Or we shall become lost in the world.

Reading and creating speculative fiction such as fantasy, horror, and science fiction is one way to rebuild, to foster a true preservation of visionary hope, empathy, and an inclusive sense of progress that upholds the best of our cultural values. In the process of writing such stories, it often necessitates a level of research and recovery that we would not otherwise undertake in order to understand our origins.

If we write a story involving the rocket festival, to be fully realized, our aspiring writers must ask around and investigate: When does it take place. What is needed to build the rockets. What are the elders and youth thinking during such a time. What is the weather like, the food, the challenges, the types of music that people prefer to hear while it's all going on. What are the monks chanting? Do the festival participants find their fortunes changed in the rest of the year ahead? So many questions that can be asked. What if a real Nak came to attend, for example, and was secretly in disguise to light one of the rockets?

There are many questions we can yet probe with Lao speculative writing, when we invoke and commit to honoring our imaginations:

  • What if the fall of Lan Xang never happened? What if Laos had discovered the continent of North America first, and formed a democracy starting on the West Coast, expanding towards the East Coast?
  •  If we found a way to cure a terrible disease for the world, at the cost of sacrificing our biodiversity, would we accept that? What if it was only one species, but something unique to Laos and Southeast Asia, like the giant catfish, or the Laotian rock rat?
  • If we accidentally started the apocalypse, how might we set things right? Would Lao people want to live in a world without sticky rice and hot peppers?
  • If Lao mastered the sciences of robotics, how would we make them a part of our modern society? Who would they help? Who would they displace? What would happen if you had a Lao society that was completely automated? What would everyone do?
  • What if it turned out that the monkey warriors of the epic Phra Lak Phra Lam were in fact a kind of Australopithecus ally we had in the earliest years of our civilization. What happened to them, where have they been hiding. If we rediscovered a city of them today in Laos, would we welcome them, or turn on them out of fear?
  • If we were invaded by aliens, how would the Lao interpretation of the Buddhist 5 precepts apply?
There are so many questions we can explore, and so many ideas yet to consider. I am not saying that all of Lao art and literature must commit itself to exploring the possible and the imaginative, but to fully grow, we need a body of stories and art that let us consider possibilities.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Full Metal Hanuman print available!

In 2013, Nor Sanavongsay and I worked together to present the poem, "Full Metal Hanuman" which received a 2014 Reader's Choice Award from Strange Horizons Magazine. In 2015, working in the labs at Sahtu Press, we were experimenting with the idea of Lao American poetry broadsheets, and we have a limited number of prints featuring this poem now available, but not on the main website. So, if you're interested, drop us a line at to ask about ordering one. They're currently going for $10, but signed by both Nor and I. This run is limited to 100 pieces, and they're going quick. Thank you all for your support!

Sahtu Press celebrates first year

This weekend, Lao American publisher Sahtu Press is celebrating its first-year anniversary. It's been an amazing year with a lot learned and many roads yet ahead, but I'm glad to have a chance to be a part of that journey, and I look forward to doing much more with everyone in the coming years. In addition to Nor Sanavongsay and myself, we've been able to work closely with Krysada Panusith Phounsiri from San Diego, the wonderful folks at Rabbit Fool Press, Kevin Minh Allen, Soul Vang, David Zander and Sunny Chanthanouvong to help them share their voices with the world.

We've been able to take part in some historic events such as the National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit, and to observe festivals such as Wondercon, CONvergence, the Oakland Book Festival, the Bay Area Book Festival, and the Association for Asian American Studies Conference. We were able to tour to some wonderful cities such as Fresno, Ukiah, Minneapolis, Madison, Philadelphia, and many more yet ahead. We thank you all for the outstanding support you've given us, the insightful feedback and the energy and encouragement to reach for more.

Little Laos on the Prairie has the main write-up on the year that's been, and some of the incredible things we've been a part of. I'm looking forward to seeing what books we'll put out next year, and am still looking for new books of poetry, children's books and other creative works for the press.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Interviewing David Zander, folklorist, anthropologist

Recently, I interviewed folklorist and anthropologist David Zander for Little Laos on the Prairie. A longtime friend of mine and the Lao community, David has been an enduring and positive figure driven by a keen sense of justice and a love of the story.

I first met him while I was working for Hmong National Development and he was working with the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. Over the course of nearly twenty years, he and I have worked together in various capacities to make sure that all of the diverse voices of our community are heard.

Recently, he's been trying to get some traction going on his chapbook, Wolf and the Moon, and other Lao Folktales that he composed with Sunny Chanthanouvong, the award-winning executive director of the Lao Assistance Center in Minnesota. The collection consists of eleven folktales and a few retellings of the journey stories of Lao Minnesotans regarding how they came to America.

I'm very excited for him and his next projects, and strongly recommend Wolf and the Moon. While it's formatted in a very simple, brief style, it includes a number of tales that have not been previously recorded in any of the well-known collections I've seen. So that makes it a particularly good find, for me.