Thursday, June 16, 2016

Writing Lao American Memoirs: Getting Started

Throughout the 3rd National Lao American Writers Summit in San Diego, one of the recurring conversations I addressed with many of you one-on-one was the nature of completing your memoirs and the stories of your family. Many of you felt that you weren’t writers naturally, and lacked a particular confidence in English, or a confidence in your understanding of particular aspects of Lao culture, Lao history, or how to tell your own stories sensitively outside of the way we tell our family stories among family.

There are indeed many great challenges to this. I would also say there are a number of traditional barriers for those who grew up in Lao culture that may have held many of you back. Beyond issues of education and literacy, for example, there’s a way to read the Buddhist traditions in a way that we are supposed to be concerned with the Truth, but not attached to the various moments that anger us, sadden us, or even those that delight us, because the world is a temporary thing. An improper reverence for history can often seem to conflict with those or similar spiritual values.

Paradoxically, we are encouraged to remember the sacrifices that our parents, our ancestors and elders made for us, presumably in an abstract sense, rather than specific details. This often happens because a full study of history often brings us to uncomfortable conversations. It often presents lessons we need to learn that often make seemingly easy or convenient choices difficult.

Just the same, I spent a good deal of time this year advocating for families to take up at least a personal record of their family’s journey from Laos to the US and beyond. My reason is because if a family does not have at least one person trying to record their story, in a matter of less than 20 years, the children in their families will have no place to find the story of their families except in the accounts of other people’s families. That is not inherently a “bad” thing, but I think most of those I spoke to could see it would feel odd for their children to understand who they are through the eyes of someone else, when they had a chance to hear it from their own elders and relatives.

I often feel bad for many families who took their elders for granted, who thought they had all of the time in the world to talk with their grandmothers and grandfathers, their aunts and uncles, or even cousins and siblings. Many suddenly lost those relatives to any number of tragedies. So many of those stories, those lovely conversations are now forever lost, and can only be guessed at from now on.

This is not to say that my own efforts at recording my family’s history have been perfect or are by any means complete. It is not necessarily something that can be done in the space of a day, a month, or even a year. But through the years, I’ve found some techniques that may be helpful for you to figure out where to begin, and how to structure your stories so that you might one day turn to them and polish them in a way that will be helpful for the next generation in your family, and the other families who have been close to you over the decades.

Personally, I think part of a good process is to build practice telling the story of other families, first, before trying to tell your own story. Human nature being what it is, you’ll understandably want to tell your own story the best. But because you’re not an expert yet, it’s better to get practice by speaking with other families, hearing how they tell their story, and finding ways to share that in an interesting and useful manner.

A memoir, and biographies in general, are NOT encyclopedias. It should not, and can not be an exact day to day or even month to month account. One way I found helpful to explain this is: It’s a life with all of the boring bits chopped out. No one wants to hear about what you had for breakfast every day for a month, especially if it’s the same thing, day in, day out.

They might appreciate knowing how you liked your tom mak hoong, but they’ll quickly set your book down if every chapter includes a page or two dedicated to how you made your tom mak hoong.

But here are ten starting points to consider. If you can answer each of these over the space of a two pages or more, you can be on your way. Over the rest of the year, I’ll try to look at each of these points in greater detail to help everyone.

1) Your journey begins
Who are your parents? Do you know who your grandparents were? What part of Laos did they come from? What were they doing during the war and before? As you were growing up, what stands out about the stories you heard your parents repeat the most? Do they talk about what was it like in the camps for your parents before coming to the US?

2) Settling in
Consider your family’s early years in America. What city did you start out in. What was the hardest for your parents to adapt to? What was easiest? What did they miss from the old country? What are they glad to have gotten away from? You might ask yourselves, what's the silliest ways they tried to 'recreate' Laos in the home, and what are the parts of lao custom and heritage they took really seriously? What was it like growing up with your siblings, the things you remember most. What frustrated you, what did you look forward to. Did you ever feel like your state wasn't really your home, or has it always felt more like home than Laos did?

3) Relatives. Weddings, birthdays and funerals
Who are some of the aunts and uncles who stood out for you growing up. There are always so many it can be hard to keep track of them all. Many families also had honorary aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, to add to the complexity. But how did those friendships start? Who were some of the cousins you hung around with the most? Who didn't you see too often? Who always seemed to be around?

Family life is often marked by weddings, birthdays and even occasionally funerals. What stood out for you as particularly memorable examples? What bored you?

4) Our children, our future
Here's where you might talk about the role of Lao children in the community. What was it like for you growing up in school. What did you like to study, what were the lessons that really stood out for you that weren't necessarily in the schoolbooks?

Who were some of your best friends? What was the hardest thing for you to wrap your head around, and what were the things that were easy for you to pick up? Who was a teacher who meant a lot to you? Was there ever an incident where a teacher made you feel like you had amazing potential?

Was there a teacher you disliked, and if so, why? What can we do to make things better for our kids in the schools these days that parents might not realize. What can kids do to better speak up for themselves?

5) Faith and moving forward
Lao culture is often connected with buddhism and animism, the idea that everything has a spirit. But there are also Lao christians in the community. What was the church or wat experience like for all of you, or the routine your family tried to follow? Some families, for example, prayed together nightly and went to church or wat on Sundays. What were the religious stories you remembered the most?

What were some of the stories that confused you the most? What was a memorable holiday for you? How would you describe the Lao religious community in your state in general? When was a time it really seemed to come together? What might be a great way for them to really make a difference in building the community in the future?

6) New Years: Resolutions, promises, taking chances
Lao culture is filled with many festivals and occasions for everyone to get together. And many families in the US celebrate 2 new years now, one in April, one on January. In both cases, the big question is: What are you going to remember from the previous year, what are you going to let go of, and what are the types of promises you find yourself making to yourself and to others. What are some of the big chances you took in life? What gave you the courage to try to reach for bigger and better things? What would you recommend for younger people to encourage them to take chances or to deal with people who try to hold you back?

7) Community service: Giving back and not giving up.
At the heart of many Lao customs is the idea of giving back to the community. Of helping others. You'll have talked about this a little in some of the other chapters, but as you've gotten older, what are some of the things you'd like to see more people get involved in to help other Lao and other people around the world. Here, you can talk a little about some of the causes you've enjoyed supporting.

8) Going back
Here's where you'll talk about your first impressions of going back to Laos. Or if you haven’t gone back yet, why or why not. But if you have gone back, what stood out, what are some of the things you think you'll remember most? What are ways of life you found different, what was it like for your other family members.

9) Inspiration and Imagination
Here, you can talk about some of the things you've seen some of the inspirational folks in your life do, and what it would mean for you and others if we had a community that was committed to innovation and imagination, whether it's starting a business, making new discoveries, etc.

10) What next?
This would be a wrap-up, catch-all chapter where you can touch on some of the things that you've thought about over the last two or three years, and what you'd like to do.

As you start to take down more and more notes, a particular story might seem like it should take up more space in your writing. Go ahead, and let it. The idea, from my end, at least, is not to have all of our stories sounding alike.

You’ll find that there are times you’ll need much different chapters. Perhaps you want to dedicate a chapter entirely to the lives of your grandparents, or someone famous in the family. If your aunt has a special way of making Lao beef jerky, or brewing rice whisky, you might want to discuss that so the family doesn’t lose the recipe.

Perhaps you want to take time to share the lessons you learned on the job, or to discuss a time you had to face a serious problem that other Lao might go through, too.

Perhaps you just want to have a collection of your favorite family jokes or your garage band’s top ten New Wave play list. All families are different. But I think in seeing this list, and seeing if you can start to answer at least some of these questions, you’ll get a lot closer to finishing that book for everyone.

Good luck!

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