Presentation Notes from UC Davis, March 7th, 2558
Preface: As a poet and a long-time presenter on various subjects involving Southeast Asian refugee literature in diaspora, I prefer my talks with my students to be conversational and organic rather than firm and fixed lectures.
Memory is a very funny thing, and I found recording what I talk about loses much of what I try to convey. I think poetry is best discussed in a certain 4-dimensional space that a camera from a fixed point or two rarely succeeds in capturing. So, I typically discourage recording for a number of reasons, including the challenge of creating a safe space for open dialogue on what are often sensitive issues. If a poet’s doing their job, then the best will stick and linger with you. Rarely the whole lecture. But something. And that’s an important part of our process.
Still, there are some things I like to consistently touch on. So, for those who couldn’t stay the whole evening, here are the notes I was working from. Those who were there will be able to tell you these were heavily adjusted on the fly to meet many of your questions. These might be helpful to you as you take your own literary journeys.
George Orwell, the author of the dystopian classic 1984 used to say that “A poetry reading is a grisly thing.” And I’ve been to enough in my lifetime that I can see where one might get that impression. A good poet tries not to leave the room with more, newer enemies of literature than when they first walked into it. I think that should be our professional courtesy to each other.
But why poetry? I think poetry is a form that’s mystifying to many people because of the way it is typically introduced to people in the early years. We’re used to forms of literature and language where written things spell everything out precisely and clearly. It’s a very modern American thing to love the simple and the practical and the obvious when it comes to using everyday language.
The physicist Paul Dirac used to joke, semi-seriously that “"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite." I think about that a lot as I create my own poems, as I think back to the transitions, the journeys that have led me to this path as a poet.
As a Lao American poet, my particular focus is on speculative poetry, a branch of poetics that embraces the fantastic, the imaginative, the mythological, the supernatural and the unreal. It’s an area where I presently seem to have little company, yet it’s a realm of significant and vital importance for refugees in our reconstruction, as I hope to explain throughout the remainder of this conversation tonight.
The Vietnamese poet Mong Lan used to say that all poetry is love poetry, and to a degree I agree with her. But love, true love, is a very complicated, labyrinthine thing, fraught with terror, hope, joy and sorrow. And so, too, poetry. To me, the literary voice of the refugee, of the survivor, takes many forms, but the one that demands the most attention in any community is almost always that of the poets.
Line per line, inch per inch, more of the human soul is compressed into those words than any other literary form. You don’t get the pages and pages of a whole novel to get your experience across. Not even a whole short story. A poem is ultimately, a very brief but powerful expression, a voice against the silence, a flickering light upon the secrets of the world. And there are many.
As refugees, in the process of rebuilding and trying to begin your life all over, often the jobs you take, the lives you lead give you very little time to mull over the proper construction of plot, rising action, falling action, or whether or not you’re using an imperfect narrator in the second person correctly. You get to write poetry between shifts. On breaks. Perhaps sneaked in during a commute or waiting for a shipment to come in.
Poetry at its best is a deeply democratic form that refugees at any post-conflict social strata can engage with as both a listener and a contributor. For many, though, our engagement with English was only for the practical, not the imaginative. Learn only the English that helps you get a job or finish school.
The language that lets you tell other about your journey is a luxury.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those of you I’m meeting for the first time tonight, it may be helpful to discuss my background.
I was born in the closing years of the Laotian Civil War, which took place following the end of French Indochina in 1954. Although Laos established its independence and was recognized by the United Nations, there was still deep uncertainty about how we might conduct our affairs as a people. Although we were officially a neutral nation according to the Geneva Accords, in fact, this led to a secret war between the US-backed Royal Lao Government and the communist Pathet Lao backed by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
During the war, the Central Intelligence Agency raised its largest secret army in the history of the agency and the second largest city in all of Laos became the secret airfield of Long Cheng where combat operations were organized to stop communist forces from taking over Laos, but also to prevent the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail that was secretly delivering troops, ammunition and supplies from North Vietnam to fight in South Vietnam. By the time the Secret War ends, more tons of bombs will have been dropped on Laos than on all of Europe during World War 2. Chemical agents such as Agent Orange will cause devastating environmental damage that continues to this day, all in an effort to eliminate foliage hiding enemy troops.
But few in the US knew that story. Few know the story of the Hmong who were assigned to rescue downed US airmen trapped behind enemy lines, often at a cost of 10 lives to 1 according to some estimates. When our communities began to arrive we were called invaders, a yellow horde, refugees who needed to go back where we came from, even though it was US policy that helped create the conditions that necessitated us leaving everything behind in the first place.
40 years later, watching the contemporary refugee and immigration crisis, there are many people who take our position for granted. I won’t remark on that now, other than to say I think it’s a poor thing for anyone to forget their roots.
Today in the US there are over 260,000 Lao, with over 12,000 in Sacramento county. California has over 60,000 Lao making it the largest state for Lao refugees. This county has the largest population of Lao in the US, but do you see that reflected or honored? Do you see resources committed to assisting Lao refugees reasonably?
At the moment, fewer than 1 in 10 Lao will graduate college, yet this story is unheard, and we have few advocates for the Lao community in the public eye. After 40 years here, we have less than 40 books in our own words on our own terms. And I’ve written six of them.
That being said, it’s taken me forty years to really grasp all of this, its scope, its scale, its meaning for us all. And I know there’s still much to learn. But I can tell you, growing up there were nearly no books on Laos, or our modern conflict. It’s a strange thing for many of us who have now spent more of our lives living outside of our birthplace than in it. For my generation and those before me to grow up to be strangers to our own homeland.
Trying to understand your history becomes even more difficult when much of the details of the Secret War were classified, marked secret, with records destroyed and testimonies denied. In our conflict in particular, poetry became helpful for me, and for many others, to describe our experiences, our inner lives, our emotions and so on, in a nonlinear fashion.
It’s been very difficult for many of us to write our tales because it’s difficult to fill in so many gaps we didn’t experience, or that we weren’t told. Often, the accounts we have on record so far are presented from a very biased viewpoint that always privileges the colonizing forces or the US perspective.
Frankly, growing up, much of my time incuded watching the movies such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, or even Bridge on the River Kwai where Asians are presented as faceless hordes or downtrodden villagers with no agency or “me so horny” prostitutes hungry for American dollars. On the other hand, the more I discovered my heritage and history, the easier it became to relate to my experiences through the lens of science fiction, of fantasy, and even horror.
In comic books in the 1980s and 90s, there’s a character known as Wolverine who was part of the Weapon X program to create a perfect super soldier, who had his memory tampered with so many times he had no idea who he really was. For me, that was as apt a metaphor for what it’s like trying to find your past if you came from Laos.
I could relate to the themes of Blade Runner more than the Asians of the Joy Luck Club, let alone the ladies of Steel Magnolias. Asking: “Who am I? Why am I here? How long have I got?” Often, science fiction has been able to express the emotional and even spiritual sense of what it is to encounter “the Other,” and what it means to resolve a conflict between cultures, and a question of identity.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some shared experiences that are universal, but it would be a gross mistake to assume that they can be found expressed in much of what has passed for mainstream media and art today.
There’s often that fear that if we criticize the US we’re demonstrating an offensive lack of gratitude. Forty years in, as I talk with the various oral history collection projects, it’s clear there’s a lot of sensitivity about the war and how we’re allowed to tell the story.
In part, that’s where speculative literature can and must come in. To allow us to imagine, and to hold a conversation that considers alternate perspectives, to use symbolic and imaginary or mythic imagery to discuss realities to painful to tell otherwise.
We’re allowed to create a coded world while still addressing the deeper lessons of our journey. We can call back to ours epics such as Phra Lak Phra Lam, the Lao version of the Ramayana and discuss what it means to be a people whose lives are shaped so much by conflict. I know of artists in our community who’ve been able to challenge our past, our history by framing it as ghost stories or as a zombie apocalypse.
And at another level, I think it’s so important for refugees to learn to write and express a future they see themselves a part of.
Although many dismiss it today, I think of Wittgenstein’s classic phrase “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” If you cannot express it, how can you move towards it? Thus, you’ll often find poems of mine that address a future Lao space program, or a science of Laobotics, or something as simple as making the world’s largest padaek factory.
In many parts of the world it’s not possible for people to express themselves freely. There are governments that let you say many things, as long as it doesn’t criticize the government or its officials. I often tell my students that in a democracy, we have a responsibility to write to the very limits of our imagination for the sake of our brothers and sisters who cannot.
I point out that no one can guarantee you’ll be read a hundred years from now, let alone a thousand. You might not be read ten years from now, or ten days. But if you don’t write there will be nothing to be found.
They say that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I look back on my path and realize what keeps us silent makes us weaker.
There is, of course, always an imperative to assemble memoirs, oral histories and children’s books in a community. But time and time again, refugee communities like my own found ourselves faced with the challenge that we aren’t present in the US at numbers to be “marketable” or “commercially viable” to mainstream presses or even smaller publishing houses.
The advice is typically horrible, especially in MFA workshop classes that have often left poets and emerging writers so riddled with self-doubt that they’re barely finishing manuscripts let alone texts that aren’t compromised to serve a mainstream narrative.
We’re encouraged to provide stories in which the US characters are always the heroes such as the Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino or the Mel Gibson film Air America. And there are certainly stories such as this, of deep friendships against the odds. But a mature community deserves and can handle diverse stories, diverse accounts. Or else their literature suffers and they become permanently locked into a narrative that you don’t exist unless you discuss your war or your family’s flight.
The inner lives and imagination are lost, and I think that’s a very toxic scenario for a refugee community. You don’t see every American novel include a response to the war of 1812, or a reflection on John Wayne and what World War 2 means to me. We get past that. But how does a refugee community rebuilding itself get to that point? I wish there was a perfect answer, but through poetry and a persistence to write, I think we come closer.
And I see we’ve run out of time for tonight. But thank you, and I hope this is helpful.