Thursday, July 02, 2015

Interviewed at Twin Cities Geek!

Twin Cities Geek did a nice interview with me this week ahead of my turn as a Guest of Honor at the CONvergence convention in Bloomington this weekend. Photo by fellow Lao American poet and photographer Krysada Binly Panusith Phounsiri. And I guess I'm going to have to talk to someone about getting more of these Tuk Tuk vs. T-Rex t-shirts made.

In any case, Twin Citie Geek and T.A. Wardrope asked some great and thorough questions regarding my techniques and approaches to Lao American poetry and literature, history, and where the imagination can fit in it all. You'll be able to ask me more about it at CONvergence this weekend throughout the event at the Doubletree Hotel by Hilton in Bloomington. 

I'll also be announcing and congratulating the winners of the 2015 Rhysling Awards live at the Giant Lizard Theater Reading at 8:30 PM on Friday at CONvergence, although 2015 chair Rich Ristow and the others of the SFPA have already made the official announcement among the membership and on the website this week.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Looking for Asian American horror writers

So, recently, I've been trying to find Asian American horror writers in the industry. There are numerous Asian American science fiction and fantasy writers, but when we specifically try to narrow it down to horror writers, it seems to narrow considerably. Or at least, they're not household names like King, Straub, Hill or Jackson.

Among those whose names have already come up who are writing at a professional level are Rena Mason, William F. Wu, James Wong, Jennifer Hiller, Shane McKenzie, Sam Sisavath, Aurelio Rico Lopez III, Paul Loh, Wesley Chu, Kristine Ong Muslim, Rissa Cortez Alcantara, Saymoukda Vongsay, Marjorie Lu, Burlee Vang, and Teresa Lo. This is clearly an incomplete list, so who else would you recommend adding for consideration?

I'm particularly looking for writers working in poetry, short stories, novels, and theater over movies and video games at the moment, but any leads there would also be appreciated.

There are folks who ask why this interest, and isn't that pigeonholing people, or any other number of questions. My position is typically that there are days as a reader I don't want to be placed into the default point of views so common in mainstream and even subculture horror at the moment. And while it's not a guarantee with the work of Asian American writers, I am interested in seeing where they take me in a story instead.

It interests me to see how we might take traditional venues common to Little Saigon, Thaitown, or Hmongtown and make them scary. How can we do it in a way that's sensitive yet compelling? What happens if you face a character like Hannibal Lecter who's Chinese? Do we end up with an amazing villain or just another Yellow Peril Fu Manchu?

How might their motivations be changed interestingly? What happens if our protagonists encounter the supernatural and the monstrous when they're steeped in Asian American traditions, such as they are. "Sure, we can address this like the Exorcist and call in the Church, but hey the shamans and Taoists aren't off the table if they get the job done!"

At their best, I think Asian American horror writers will still be able to deliver the scares and thrills of any writer, but they might also think to show those horrors from places in American and world literature that are still largely unmapped. I don't always need to go to a house in the hills to disturb things that should not be disturbed. But this is all part of an ongoing conversation, and the world is large.

Zhang Wei-Qiang as Dracula

In an interesting run-down of the best Draculas on cinema over at Flavorwire, Alsion Natasi mentions Zhang Wei-Qiang. I haven't seen it yet, but it sounds like a film to check out.

"Zhang Wei-Qiang is one of the few non-white Draculas in cinema, cast by Guy Maddin in the 2002 film Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. The Chinese actor bridges the gap between new and old Dracula, bringing a mesmerizing elegance and sexuality to the character, made all the more hypnotic by Maddin’s engaging cinematography."

The rest of the rankings are also solid. It's in interesting role. I often wonder how we would approach the matter in Lao cinema and literature. In Thai cinema, there seems to be suggestions that Dracula appeared as early as 1979 in a story with a Phi Krasue although further research needs to be done to corroborate this. It would be curious to see when a book or a short story about Dracula reached Thailand, and when an original version from a Thai perspective came out.

In some ways, of course, I think there could be some interesting takes on Dracula in Laos if you linked it to the Nyak tradition, and took some elements from the story of Phra Lak, Phra Lam where the fierce Nyak king kidnaps the beautiful princess to his island fortress, which leads to an epic war. The Nyak are typically presented as a race of giant, flesh-eating, perverse warrior-sorcerers similar to the Rakshasa of Hindu/Buddhist legend. In later centuries, many have come to be protectors of Buddhist temples.

Upon consideration, though, there are several entities in Laos that could have an counterpart to Dracula, from a Nak or more likely the carnivorous Ngeuak, and the Phi Kasu. The challenge is, most Lao are cremated and motifs such as cemeteries would be pretty uncommon. The lack of major castles or fortresses would certainly also be an element that's a little out of place in Laos, although there are remote regions and areas where superstition and black magic are thought to be rampant.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Preliminary notes on the language of dystopia

What is the language of dystopia?

A common element of modern science fiction featuring dystopias is the use of a futuristic language or jargon that signals to the reader that you're no longer in a contemporary setting, and that in the future, the language of the dominant society will be significantly different or evolved. I'll be giving a discussion on this topic at this year's CONvergence in Minneapolis because it's a topic of particular interest to me as a poet. There are definitely some significant intersections in our art form and the languages of the future.

The aim of the presentation is to demonstrate to both readers and writers that there are several different strategies to create a sense of "dystopianese" and each method has its particular strengths, weaknesses, and symbolism. For this discussion, I'll be looking at the language of dystopia in science fiction written in English. For other scholars, I would strongly hope work will be done to start looking at the dystopian language in the science fiction of other countries, such as Japanese, Chinese, Russian, French, German, Arabic, and Spanish, just to name a few.

In English-language dystopia, however, we can point to several basic textual strategies that have been popular for the last century. The English of the dystopian future often finds itself riddled with repurposed language, neologisms, portmanteaus, pidgin/polyglots, calques and loanwords, among others. Authors are typically careful not to include so many new words that the English becomes unrecognizable and unintelligible.

Prominent examples we can look at:

George Orwell's 1984 and his concept of Newspeak remains one of the classics. It was well-thought out in terms of creating a language that was repurposed and logical within that world, and the language itself was almost a character. At the very least, it was a very specific tool for creating and reinforcing the dystopia, erasing its enemies and keeping Big Brother plausibly in control. It also set a precedent where much of the vocabulary became a part of real life, such as doublethink, doublespeak, and the memory hole. Compare it to the vocabulary of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World whose dystopian vocabulary has not had as far a reach. 1984 demonstrates a case where the dystopian language is the mark of the mainstream, dominant culture.

In contrast, we have Ridley Scott's Blade Runner an adaptation of the dystopia of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It demonstrates a dystopia with a polyglot culture. In the beginning, we're introduced to the protagonist at a Japanese noodle bar in Los Angeles where a detective played by Latin American actor says "Monsieur, azonnal k√∂vessen engem, bitte!" a combination of French, German and several other languages. Interestingly, a class/culture divide is established- that only street-level, everyday people use this kind of language. Throughout the rest of the film, everyone else the characters run into use normal or formal English, with only a few idiomatic phrases to signify the future, such as the police officer who says "Have a better one."

One might look at the post-Apocalypse dystopia of poet Cathy Park Hong's award-winning Dance Dance Revolution for a more expanded sense of where this could go interestingly. Of course, A Clockwork Orange features the Russian-influenced Nadsat language used by the delinquents in that story, which was, for its time, a radical, almost vulgar proposition.

In Farenheit 451, language is at the heart of this dystopian tale, and the language in books that prompt too much emotion is blamed as the source of humanity's suffering. What becomes interesting here is that the language of the future remains largely unchanged, except for a few instances, where it is repurposed and inverted. A "fireman" is no longer someone who puts out fires, but someone who sets them. In the end, the rebellion is revealed to be a process whereby everyone becomes a living book.

Joss Whedon's short-lived Firefly series takes a lot of heat for it creating the society where the Chinese are the dominant culture, even though there are barely any Chinese actually seen in the series or movie. When the Chinese ARE see n, it's as bar girls and coolies. Most of the show is done in modern English with occasional Chinese loan words or Chinglish phrases. One interesting point, however, is the reference to Shan Yu, a warlord-philosopher apparently in the tradition of Fu Manchu, Shiwan Khan or Genghis Khan, whose writing is remembered centuries later with an orientalist cadence: ""Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano's edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man."

Overall, the Firefly show subconsciously raised the interesting question: given that we are watching this world unfold from the viewpoint of the outlaws/mercenaries, should we read their use of English to represent an act of subversive rebellion, where they lapse into Chinese only when absolutely necessary? Of course, if this were the case, they would surely use formal Queen's English or a closer semblance to that, I suppose. One might consider the world of Star Wars where everyone in the Empire speaks Queen's English with no slang or casual vernacular. On the other hand, the Rebel Alliance is filled with people who can make out the language of Wookies, Sullustans, Rodians, and Jawas without protocol droids. Ewoks and Hutts, not so much, for some reason.

So, knowing that, what future directions might we take with dystopian languages that haven't been fully explored yet? What happens IF a rebellion succeeds. Does everyone then go back to using the former dominant language, or does the rebel dialect take over? Many options could play out.

But what are some other thoughts or notable examples to add?