Wednesday, May 29, 2013

HP Lovecraft and Lao American Literature

As we start making the final edits to DEMONSTRA, a few great questions came up on Twitter about how one might see the work of H.P. Lovecraft through a post-colonial lens, and how, surprisingly, the themes of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos might be a better influence on our literature than many examples of contemporary writing, whether from the Asian American community or mainstream literature.

I would say most Lao would rather hear an old ghost story than The World According to Garp or the angst of Dawson's Creek.  Many Lao can more easily connect to Blade Runner and Prometheus over American Beauty, Crash, or The Great Gatsby.

It's still a nascent idea, but in an applied example, I finished composing a Lao American take on "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Doom That Came to Sarnath," and I'm satisfied enough with them that they'll be included in my new book DEMONSTRA. I wanted to test if  the language and tropes of Lovecraft might be more effective to comment on the sensitive inner experiences of the Lao in diaspora. It's an experiment for Lao horror. As I asked before: What's honestly scary to a 600-year old culture that was secretly carpet-bombed and Agent Oranged during our bloody 20-year civil war?

As the non-profit organization Legacies of War points out: "From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years" of our conflict. Over 30% failed to explode immediately and still contaminate the Lao countryside 40 years since the end of that bombing. Between that and other ways the war was fought, I think it's safe to say it alters the dynamics of fear and our culture's sense of the cosmos.

Presenting the Lao journey as an analogue to "Shadows Over Innsmouth" might be more apt than the usual "USA A-OK" narratives on the market. "Peculiar folks are nice at first then turn into monstrous freaks who have horrific traditions they want you to join?" That's a bit of a hyperbolic oversimplification to be sure, but still. The seeds are there to be sown.

Colonials destroyed much of Lao and Southeast Asian history, violating and rewriting our story to aid their agendas. Horror as our literary and artistic response may work more effectively. In Rescue Dawn, Air America, Operation Dumbo Drop, and others, Lao are typically faceless, coolies, or the enemy. In the works of writers like H.P. Lovecraft we can start to flip the script. I think it's an unexpected direction from where we can start from, and avoid many of the colonial and feudal trappings that disempower us. Horror could also be a way to discuss things that are still very sensitive for many of the living participants.

Might some avoid a censor who is unsure if a particular tale is discussing the Secret War for Laos or merely recounting an alien war between Great Old Ones and Elder Things, with poor humanity caught between mindless horrors duking it out? I think our people can connect to that metaphor, as easily as using a retelling of the battles in the Ramayana to veil discussions of our recent past.

Granted, if we frame our history through such a lens, we might ask, tongue-in-cheek: "Are the Great Old Ones NATO or Warsaw Pact to the Elder Things/Elder Gods?"

"Nice plane when it's not bombing us, guided by alien processes from continents away in a bizarre language..."  How can we not see the themes H.P. Lovecraft pondered and not have them resonate?

Consider Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth, who appear in "The Whisperer in Darkness." We find they take the brains of their victims to their land in shiny metal cylinders. Science fiction horror, or do we see that as a Lao diaspora metaphor for the brain drain while we board the metal cylinders of a DC-10 or a 747 to escape our civil war?

Our current visual/literary vocabulary regarding Laos is currently Vietnam-lite. We see artists presenting it as a variation of Apocalypse Now, Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. Laos needs art without reinforcing cliche.   After 160 pages of poetry in DEMONSTRA, and plenty more I could have thrown in, I think having Lao American experience expressed through speculative literature works better than aping certain other poets today.

Horror and the fantastic allow ways to interrogate the present and past, vital for those recovering from civil war and sensitive topics For Post-colonials like Laos, can we invert the lens where we're the Other?

If Lao American poetry sounds like diced Joy Luck Club, we're not breaking new ground. Poetry probes that for which there are no words. Lao need new models. A key question for DEMONSTRA, and Lao poetry, was "Can a Lovecraftian lens, or the vocabulary of horror, address our diaspora best?"

Considering the alternative of imitating stock colonial narrative, I think we are obliged to try.

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