“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
As the adopted son of an American pilot who flew in Laos during the Secret War, our house was filled with various topographical maps and globes, charts, calculators and measuring devices that captured my wonder even as so much of it was an abstraction to me, as it would be to any child.
When I first tried to understand where I was from, around the age of three or four years old, I was shown a globe and where we were in Missoula, Montana then to where Laos was supposed to be, as if that would explain everything. That the world could be understood in terms of maps and a few photos of a distant country you're promised you'll see one day, if things change enough.
Today, it's been almost 15 years since I was able to at last return to Laos after 30 years, searching for my long-lost family and reuniting with them in Modesto. It's been 20 years since I began searching in earnest for my roots among my fellow refugees in diaspora which would take me from college in Ohio to Washington, D.C. to countless states where nearly 400,000 of us were rebuilding our lives.
Some dwell in the major cities, many more in remote corners you'd scarcely have anticipated Southeast Asians to appear. From Anchorage, Alaska to Merced or Morganton, Saint Paul, Lowell, or Elgin, these cities have become indelibly intertwined with our stories. And all of this has brought me to consider questions of a new cartography.
How do we map our world, in our own words, on our own terms?
A question that's occupied me as part of the Laomagination project has been who defines the borders of our experience? Even in the age of the GPS, a map is always something of an abstraction as we place our marks on our papers and screens.
When we're born, we come into a world that's been here before us, filled with names and borders defined often long before our arrival, with their histories and significance to others that we might learn. But landmarks mean different things to different people at a personal level and a community level. How do we capture those significant spaces in our lives for the generations who will follow?
A case in point that illustrates this might well be the Frogtown quarter of Saint Paul, or King's Canyon Boulevard in Fresno.
Even as the mainstream community would point you to Saint Paul landmarks such as the Fitzgerald Theater that is home to A Prairie Home Companion or the Landmark Center, I would easily argue that spaces like the Sunrise Market on University Avenue or the Lao Family Community building holds deeper personal meaning to the Hmong and other refugees who began arriving in the 1980s.
Certainly, as a poet, I've done a great deal of work leaving literary breadcrumbs to remember the spaces that meant so much to us on our first decades in America. My particular concern has been to note not only how we've remembered such spaces but how we might express their potential future to us. To consider that future we see ourselves in, and to contemplate it in terms of both our inner and external lives.
One of the key exhibitions I helped to organize was the 2010 Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities interdisciplinary exhibition at Intermedia Arts with the non-profit Legacies of War, TeAda Productions, and Pangea World Theater that brought together visual art, poetry, theatrical performances, film, and other disciplines to mark the ratification of the United Nations Convention on Cluster Munitions and the issue of unexploded ordnance that continues to contaminate over 30% of Laos forty years after the end of the Secret War.
Among the more challenging parts of the installation was a massive wall map of the United States, Our Shared Journey that made an effort to gather brief personal stories and photos of our fellow Lao refugees where they were across the US today and to map where their families were from on a map of Laos that used the US government's records of where over 580,000 missions dropped over two million tons of bombs from 1964 to 1973.
Part of what made it so challenging was that many of our elders knew the names of the cities and provinces they came from but could not readily point to it on an American-style map. Because Lao geography is so rarely taught to our youth in the US, one can imagine the frustrations, even as one then questions what it means to even map our stories in such a fashion.
One of the books that came into my life during my formative years was James Cowan's A Mapmaker's Dream. As the publisher notes, "In sixteenth-century Venice, in an island monastery, a cloistered monk experiences the adventure of a lifetime—all within the confines of his cell."
Part historical fiction, part philosophical mystery, A Mapmaker's Dream told the story of Fra Mauro and his struggle to "realize his life's work: to make a perfect map—one that represents the full breadth of Creation."
In Cowan's book, "news of Mauro's projects attracts explorers, pilgrims, travelers, and merchants, all eager to contribute their accounts of faraway people and places. As he listens to the tales of the strange and fantastic things they've seen, Mauro comes to regard the world as much more than continents and kingdoms: that it is also made up of a vast and equally real interior landscape of beliefs, aspirations, and dreams. Mauro's map grows and takes shape, becoming both more complete and incomprehensible. In the process, the boundaries of Mauro's world are pushed to the extreme, raising questions about the relationship between representation, imagination, and the nature of reality itself."
For those of us in diaspora, I think such questions are deeply important, as is the notion of decolonizing cartography, and remembering there's more than one way to depict the world and to map our encounters, our sense of where we might want to return, and what we might warn others, perhaps in the same vein as the mariners of the ancient world once marked Terra Incognita or "Here there be monsters."
An arts installation from the early 2000s I often think of is Sanford Biggers' The Cartographer’s Conundrum. It was an installation, film and website inspired by artist, scholar and Afro-futurist John Biggers. A cousin of his subject, Sanford Biggers’s goal was to both study and expand the emerging genre of Afro-futurism, which engages science-fiction, cosmology and technology to create a new folklore of the African Diaspora.
Biggers began by traveling through western Africa along the same route John Biggers followed in the 1950s, meeting with colleagues and family members along the way. In its final form, his project included a new multimedia installation, as well as an exhibition, lecture, catalog and website chronicling John Biggers’s contributions to Afro-futurism.
Many of my readers can see how I've taken on the question of mapping our diaspora and our imagination in poems such as The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa, which appeared in my 2013 book DEMONSTRA, which included a map where the borders of our various Lao provinces were much more abstracted to symbolize an idea that our traditional legendary beings likely did not observe our demarcations of territory in quite the same way as mortals.
In the 2015 issue of the (Re)Collecting the Vietnam War, I continued many of the same questions, seeing what happened if I tried to summarize the major provinces of Laos in an American haiku style. More recently my poem "Vientiane in 12 Haikus" in Abhay K.'s 2017 anthology Capitals sought to consider the possibilities of how we might challenge longstanding descriptions of our cities and spaces.
I'm always hopeful such poems will not be the last word for such spaces, but instead demonstrate that even our humblest streets can be worthy of poetry and human memory. One day, I'd greatly enjoy seeing how my colleagues from the Iu Mien, Khmu, Tai Dam, Akha, Hmong, or Lue community write about the spaces we share, and the ones we don't, in both Southeast Asia, the US, and many of the other nations where we can be found today, and hopefully tomorrow.