Earlier this month, we lost one of the young voices in the Lao American writers community, Keon Enoy Munedouang (August 17, 1980 - May 4, 2016). He was well-known for his blog Minority Militant, which was active from 2008-2010. In those three years he shared at least 423 entries with his readers, which was exceptionally prolific for a Lao American blogger at the time, and even today. He had very extensive opinions on the world, especially framed through an AAPI lens.
Keon came to the US as a refugee from Laos with his family. When he grew up, he heard the call of service, enlisting as a young man in the U.S. Navy. He achieved the rank of SK2 and left as a veteran with an honorable discharge. I think you can see a strong influence of those experiences and outlook in his writing.
Following his military tour, he became involved in Asian American activism, writing, and spoken word, with a highly developed sense of social justice. He didn't have much use for those who didn't walk the talk. But like many of us, there were times he felt challenged by this route. In one of his 2008 blog posts, he wrote:
I thought long and hard about giving up blogging and activism, but I will continue to do so because I really do care. And when I do decide to have kids, I refuse to have them live in an America that doesn't acknowledge the rights and wrongs of overt and covert racism, and everything in between. And to those eight hundred or so visitors who have come by my site in the last four days out of support, spite, anger, or because you love everything I stand for -- Thank you much.Keon's work inspired a fellow writer and activist to organize the Banana Conference, which eventually became V3Con, the largest Asian American social media conference in the world. I had seen Keon's work just as he was getting started with his blog, but we never met in person. He was one of the first to interview me in 2008 after I had received news that I was the first Lao American to receive a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts. In the years afterwards, we both continued to read each other's blogs, although we lost touch shortly around 2010.
As a community, we all lost something special and vibrant with Keon's passing. Towards the end, he was a very private young man, but I will miss not being able to read his perspective on where he felt we were going in the world, especially lately.
During the course of the 3rd National Lao American Writers Summit, we held a moment of silence for him and the many other writers, artists, and community builders we've lost over the recent years. We must never take our friendships, our time together for granted, because life is short and often uncertain.Thanks, Keon, for the good memories and what you shared with all of us.
But here is the interview he and I did by correspondence back on December 16, 2008:
The Militant Interviews Bryan Thao Worra
Over the weekend I had a chance to catch up with Bryan Thao Worra, a Laotian American poet that has been breaking ground in the literary scene. Along with three other Asian Americans, he's recently been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature, which recognizes and promotes excellence in the arts -- and comes with a $25,000 grant. He's been blogged about by Slanty, AAM, and Hyphen, not to mention other news venues in print and around the sphere. I had a chance to read some of his poetry and have come to appreciate what he's done for the Laotian and Hmong American communities in America, no less Asian American Literature.
As a fellow Laotian American, I've come to somewhat understand cultural identity and displacement, but have yet to grasp the entire concept. When I see a writer like Worra break it down for me in prose, I begin to see it come to life. As far as I'm concerned, he's done a great deal for history, literature, and the community. I think there's something admirable about not forgetting your roots and taking that extra leap for those who need a helping hand. Well, here's my exchange with Worra on his background, poetry, Asian American literature, activism, and life.
Q & A Transcript: Interview with Bryan Thao Worra
TMM: How did you start getting into writing, specifically poetry?
BTW: I started writing at an early age as part of a class assignment to write short story responding to a classic folktale. I still run into a few former classmates who mention it. I began with poetry particularly towards my last year in high school, but really began taking it seriously in college, although I did not major in English. A writer really has many start points throughout their lifetime, I find, as they reach different techniques and levels of understanding. It’s a very rewarding path for the curious and the imaginative.
TMM: You were an adoptee, correct? How did that affect you growing up as far as identity and self-discovery?
BTW: Yes. I was adopted by a pilot flying Laos during the 1970s. That experience gave me a greater appreciation for understanding questions like: “Who am I?” or “Why am I here?” and lets me challenge many things others might take for granted.
TMM: From the poems I've read of yours, from my reading on it, there's a lot of transcendentalism. Your unique style has been praised by many for its focus on an absence of home. Can you elaborate or correct me?
BTW: There’s an old quote that a person’s only true profession is finding their way to the center of themselves. I’m think it’s important for all people to take a journey to discover not just who they are and have been, but who they can be, not just as individuals but part of a community.
A writer has many starts, home has many meanings. But I think it would be a mistake to read any pessimism within a statement on the absence of home. Home becomes something to look for or even to build, when we approach the question with the right spirit.
Many of us have been displaced in our lifetimes, and we hang on to many memories for good reasons, but we are also human beings and there is a great spirit, great and infinite potential making itself at home within our bodies and I think we are obliged to ask, how are we taking care of that?
A big house does not make a great person. Some of the greatest thinking of the world has taken place in a space no bigger than a prison cell. My themes like to explore the universe, the local, the inner and the outer and reflect on those connections.
TMM: I see that The City In Which I Love You is one of your favorite book of poems on your blog. I'm also a fan of Li-Young Lee. I've met him once. Has he or any other Asian American writer or poet have a major influence in your writing?
BTW: Li-Young Lee is a great writer who really helps spark an interest in great poetry. I’ve met him on several occasions. He has some brilliant insights, but he’s also wonderfully human. Adrienne Su’s debut, Middle Kingdom, also served as a good example of the direction Asian American literature can take. There are a few Hmong writers I admire who’ve been great peers over the years, including Burlee Vang. Writers from the Philippines like Barbara Jane Reyes and Anthem Salgado also have my respect and admiration as contemporary writers in active practice.
TMM: I'm also a Laotian American. Growing up, did you find it difficult to blend in with other Asian ethnic groups, like Koreans, Chinese, or Filipinos? Do you think there is a lack of Asian American culture in America?
BTW: I always joke about the old Far Side cartoon that talks about the three types of people in the world. Those who see the glass as “half-full,” those who see it as “half-empty,” and those who wonder “who’s been drinking out of my glass?” For my experience, I’m always feeling a little displaced, but over the years I came to realize, everyone’s a little displaced and alienated from parts of the human experience. But what matters is: Where do we go from there?
We should recognize that even with all of our differences, between cultures there may be astounding similarities. Where there aren’t similarities, we should ask ourselves, are there still lessons to learn and admire?
As Laotians, we can be proud of who we are without imposing it on others, we can be happy for others without them being the same as us, without being afraid that time spent with them will somehow magically stop us from being Laotians. Among Laotian artists that’s particularly one of the strongest and most important qualities we should respect about our work.
TMM: Do you go back to Laos to visit a lot? What’s the state of unexploded ordnance there now?
BTW: My first and last visit to Laos was in 2003 when I was still searching for my family. I’m trying to arrange travel there in the next year or so. UXO continues to remain a pressing problem. More bombs were dropped on Laos than on all of Europe during World War II. Nearly 1 out of 3 didn’t explode right away, and now, almost 40 years later, they’re killing and maiming people who weren’t even born during the war. It’s a major impediment to recovery and rebuilding.
TMM: Do you still volunteer in community work in Minnesota or are you taking a break from that? You know, since you're getting a little more recognition for your work.
BTW: I’m still an ordinary guy, and my commitment to our community does not change whether I get some recognition or even none. We help when and where we can. Awards are nice, but we shouldn’t be doing a thing because we want praise, we should do things because they’re the right thing to do.
You’ll never run out of places and things that need help. But sometimes we gain opportunities to help even more effectively. And those are special moments. There’s so much to life besides “wake up, eat, work, drink, sleep, wake up,” and I think the best moments in life come from helping others.
TMM: Are you working on any big projects now?
BTW: There are always big projects. One of my bigger projects besides my new books coming out is a journey to the different Laotian communities across the country and talking with people there to hear their stories and experiences.
I’m in the discovery phase right now. I don’t know what the end results will turn into. Perhaps a book, a play, a poem. Maybe just a really good dinner. But I’m open to outcome, not attached to outcome. There are moments when a person must be decisive and ‘in control,’ but there are also times when the joy of life arrives from seeing ‘what happens.’ I’m finding a good life is a happy balance between both.
TMM: Girlfriend, marriage, kids?
BTW: People often encounter these in their lifetime. Societies have been created by them, and societies have fallen because of them. Oh, you mean for me. I’m definitely working on that, but we’ll see.
TMM: Any last words or thoughts?
BTW: Keep inspired, keep energized, and always remember your infinite capacity to make a difference, and that that same capacity is within all creatures. Stand up for what you believe in. Being kind isn’t a guarantee everything will go smoothly in life, but it’s a good place to start.
TMM: I appreciate the time. Kop-Chai Lai Lai (Thank you very much).
Worra is known for his speculative and transience style. His first full-length book, On The Other Side Of The Eye, was released in August of 2007 and can be purchased on his blog or at a bookstore near you.