Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On Asian American Poetry

Lo Pan says: You were not put upon this earth 'to get it!'

It's important to de-mystify poetry from time to time. And to humanize our poets and recognize them as human beings as ordinary as you and I.

And that's what brings up Lo Pan from Big Trouble In Little China today.

At one point Jack Burton is listening to Lo Pan and admits he doesn't get it. Lo Pan retorts: "You were not put upon this earth to get it!"

Which is snippy, but captures a common plight we all experience when reading some poets.

It's disingenuous of me to say I get everything every poet is writing, whether Asian American or not, because I don't. And I've come to terms with that.

While some might think 'not getting it' is a problem, in fact, that's part of the fun.

Puzzling it out, the way others might try to solve a video game, a mystery or a crossword puzzle.

To be honest, some of the poets I hate most are those who can be 'gotten' in a single reading.

There's a quote from Franz Kafka I like that explains much of what's happening in modern poetry today, and why we try to write it:

"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 run into people who feel terrible when they don't 'get it,' after reading a poem.

The secret is: I'm not certain all the authors themselves 'get it' either, nor are they necessarily trying to, nor is it certain that some poetry can ever be 'gotten.'

Yeah, I know. It's a real pain. :)

Poetry to me is a 'game' of language, of pushing words to do new things and to make us re-evaluate familiar words and appreciate what we've got. And what we need.

And it's a resistance to authorities who try to turn language into a dumb wooden block, a club that beats out all nuance in our everyday lives.

That "you're with us or against us" brutality trying to reduce the world to strictly "either/or." 'You love us or you hate us.'

That's Sith logic!

But we have many different words precisely to explain things at more complex levels.

One of my old teachers pointed out that the Greeks had many different words for 'love' not because they were bored, but because they wanted to be able to make that distinction within their lives- between love for a state, for the gods, for a wife or a friend, or an object.

When we drive language to be too pat, too everyday, too routine, we make it easier for our leaders to use simpler terms to push and sway us this way or that.

To limit our worlds.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said famously, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world," which caused no end of controversy, but it's a good starting point for considering what language means for any people, any society.

A limited language makes a limited people, and leads to the rise of dystopias.

Big Brother is Watching You.

It takes less and less language to lead us into wars. Sadly, the process to create peace is neither as simple or similar a matter.

All too often, we have things coming to us pre-packaged. That's good for candy bars, but it's lousy for opinions.

The purpose of language is to communicate.

A purpose of poetry is to communicate what can't be communicated by words, and perhaps those things that are under-communicated.

Watch it carefully. An entire meaning can hinge on a single word.

Except among sloppy poets. Ick.

But back to my point:

Hmong and Lao writers, among others, are faced with their history and their experiences being omitted from the textbooks like something out of an Orwellian future, and so they must turn to writing their own accounts:

Bamboo Among the Oaks, the first anthology of Hmong writers by Hmong writers. And as a bit of trivia, that's one of my photos used for the cover.

Even if it isn't as 'authentic' as a history written by some academic scholar, it's what they've got, something they can leave as a clue to future generations.

Why? Because we've been given so little reason thus far to trust that anything but the majority version of history will make it into tomorrow's textbooks.

So, after all this, what is good poetry to me?

Well, like the old quote about pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

Good poetry lingers with you. You want to quote it as easily as some might quote "The Simpsons" or Shakespeare. I know people who love certain poems so much that they keep copies of it in their wallets or even get it tattooed on their bodies.


Does Lo Pan really have that much to do with poetry? Can Big Trouble In Little China really be read as a metaphor for our engagement with higher literature and the fulfillment of human desire, the quest for immortality and shaking the heavens? Who knows.

But even as Roger Pao over at Asian American Poetry is bringing up a great discussion on poetry and Li-Young Lee's work adressed in the new book Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee by Boa Editions, featuring 20 years of Li-Young Lee being interviewed by different people, I have to say this, too:

The Li-Young Lee I know likes science fiction movies. :)

In fact, most of the poets I know watch things ranging from Star Wars and Star Trek to Blade Runner and The Matrix. They've read comic books and Tolkein right along with their Yevgeny Yevtushenko, their Pablo Neruda and T.S. Elliot. They watch anime, read manga, and groan at the latest Jim Carey movie.

Human beings.

People who eat and sleep and breathe, who poop and love and fight. People who are as ordinary as you and I, but we all live in a world where everything is also far more than ordinary.

What you're seeing written down was written by a human, someone who is the product of thousands of years of all life fighting and scrabbling on the earth, surviving wars, famine, disease, plots and random acts of chance.

All people today among us are a result of that process: amazing, sacred things.

That they are human beings at all and not a chicken or a fish, it's something. And someone.

Under different circumstances, this Carp might have been a great poet like Li-Young Lee. With respect to

One that you might not always understand, much less agree with, but when you stop to think of the finite nature of all things, and how many lines of life have already ended, and will never be regenerated, surely, we can approach what they create with some interest.

We can wonder why, with the brief lives we all lead, they've chosen to use theirs to create whatever it is they have created.

Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. But what matters is what speaks to your soul, those spaces in your body beyond just your eyes, your ears, what is solid, and what is not.

New Mia Park Interview Up At Tripmaster Monkey

Mia Park is a fun TV host for a Chicago all ages dance show, Chic-A-Go-Go, and she's also been a musician and actress (You can catch her in the Lakehouse remake, for example.) I wanted to see what was going on in the Midwest in Asian American arts and talent.

Part of me also thinks there's got to be a great novel somewhere about a woman whose main co-star is a talking rat puppet. Go, Ratso!

Check out the interview at


There will be some all-new interviews with Barbara Jane Reyes, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Amy Anderson, Jenny Choi and many others coming up soon as well, so that should be exciting!

Monday, September 25, 2006

A New Life Awaits You

A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies.

Just picked up a new digitally remastered copy of Blade Runner over the weekend. The plus side: the print looks great, the sound is incredible, and it still holds up even after 25+ years.

The minus: The version I got has absolutely no extras, not even old material from the previously released Director's Cut.

I'm hoping that it doesn't devolve into a Lucas-style game of a bazillion different editions to force us to have buy a new version every other year. (New for 2007! The widescreen, high-definition, official bootleg extended director's cut with commentaries and extras and tissue samples from all of the actors!)

Blade Runner remains one of those guilty pleasures for me. I know people who take issue with the exoticization of L.A. and the insinuation that in the dystopian future, Asia will have a huge influence on the world, as if that's a bad thing, and people like Edward James Olmos will be speaking a mish-mash of Cityspeak as a result of that confluence.

The future of humanity?

But on the other hand, perhaps it's just me, but as a child growing up in the Midwest, Blade Runner's dystopian vision was actually somewhat reassuring, reaffirming. Some of my non-Asian school friends saw it as a terrifying, creepy proposition.

I thought of it as something to be welcomed. That one day, familiar images from Asia would be as commonplace and ordinary as images from anywhere else in the world, and we'd be less alien to one another.

Oh sure, plenty of people were miserable, but unlike, say, Serenity, there was a certain egalitarian element to that misery. Everyone was equally oppressed by the pollution, the constant rain and darkness.

Some might hate the character of Dr. Chew, the eye manufacturer.

Nexus, huh? I make your eyes.

I take it in stride and see him as one of many guys who was working in their particular, isolated loneliness, to create better humans. "More Human than Human."

Eyes are extremely complicated, and so essential to the themes of the movie, that I consider his a key role with which to discuss the other ideas within Blade Runner.

What does it mean, to be on the other side of the eye?

His English isn't all that great, but he's not some hand-wringing Fu Manchu or crafty mandarin. He's just doing his job, and trying to do it well, and who can blame him.

Weighed against a great deal of science fiction before and afterwards, Blade Runner rings as a film with culture that doesn't treat culture like a liability.

Why should this make us uncomfortable?

At least in this future, there are people from all points of diversity and ability. It's not some Lake Woebegone future "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average," where we're all one big happy family in the alliance, the federation, the empire or whatever mass-organizing system we have.

And it feels more real and honest as a result. Even more so than does Crash, suppposedly so fixed in today's world.

Terrible movie!

From a POC viewpoint, the themes of Blade Runner are significantly important because it raises the question: How do disposable humans fit within a society?

In many ways, the Replicants are like the Chinese Railworkers of the 1800s or plantation workers. But I'm even more intrigued by the question this presents of: How important are the big issues, the deep issues of life and death, and of what we witness. What does it mean to experience, and to participate.

As the classic last lines of Roy Batty/Rutger Hauer go: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe... All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."

Is this moment as significant as those in Camus' Myth of Sisyphus?

I thought the voiceover in the older editions of the film were a little overdone, but the original lines that Harrison Ford speaks in those editions still resonates with me:

"I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody's life, my life. All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die."

The Replicants weren't out to change the world, they just wanted answers. More time.

It wasn't a Matrix-style, 'let's change the system' call for revolution. It was just trying to resolve universal human and non-human dilemmas.

And I think that has actually affected my poetic and other literary work over my lifetime. But I'm not going to go into that now.

Of course, the fun lingering question is: Is Dekkard a replicant?

Before anyone jumps on me about "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and all of the Phil K. Dick business, yes, I've checked it out, and yes, I know the larger theme is about a world where it's become impossible to tell human beings from machines because the humans are becoming less humane and empathetic, while the replicants are developing more complex emotions in a weird Frankenstein parable. That's great stuff too.

But I think we're also allowed to analyze a story from different lenses far beyond how the creator may have intended it.

The long and the short of it is, if you haven't gotten around to seeing it yet, the new version is great to watch, and I think, despite a few flaws in the script, that it should remain one of the great classics of science fiction literature.

New Eyes Call for Scripts

MU PERFORMING ARTS seeks scripts for its annual NEW EYES FESTIVAL, in which they foster the development of material for future production through public readings.

Submissions should be consistent with Mu Performing Arts' mission and be postmarked by Jan. 31, 2007. Playwrights and artists whose work has been accepted will be notified by March 15, 2007.

The NEW EYES FESTIVAL is slated for April 19-22nd, 2007 at the Mu Studio in NE Minneapolis.

Some of the works recently read at the NEW EYES FESTIVAL which have moved directly to their main stage production are 99 Histories by Julia Cho, and Cowboy Versus Samurai by Michael Golamco.

Mu Performing Arts Mission: To be a premiere artistic company that creates theater and taiko from the heart of the Asian American experience.

Mu Performing Arts Primary Artistic Values: They give theatrical voice and vision to the stories of our Asian American community and culture. They create and interpret works born of the union of Asian and American cultures. They envision theater as a total sensory experience, merging ancient forms, traditions and stories with contemporary ones. They are committed to the development of new artists. They create works that move, provoke and challenge our audiences to understand, embrace and celebrate cultural diversity.

Send scripts to:Randy Reyes c/o Mu Performing Arts, 2700 NE Winter Street, Suite 1AMinneapolis, MN 55413.

When submitting, please include your email address, as all further correspondence, including final decisions, will be done by email.

For more information about Mu Performing Arts, visit

Saturday, September 23, 2006

New Lao Magazine Launched

Bakka Magazine recently debuted online with its October issue.

In the present absence of many other online or print magazines for the Laotian community, Bakka seems like an intriguing effort to close that gap.

I've agreed to include some of my work for the first issue. You can see a trio of my poems: The National Library In Laos, Jaew and Boun.

You have to register for free to view the magazine, but that's no more annoying than signing in to the New York Times or any other newspaper online.

The editors have a lot of positive spirit and energy for the project. Today there are still a few links that aren't quite complete functional, but I imagine those will be resolved shortly. I'm looking forward to seeing future issues.

Looks like they're looking for work, particularly from more poets, writers, essayists and artists with connections to Laos. They've also put out a special call for non-fiction stories about life in the Thai refugee camps.

You can drop them a note at or even better, visit the website

Friday, September 22, 2006

Reading at Arcana Next Weekend.

The original graphic novel Uzumaki was better.

I was just informed my speaking time during my reading at Arcana has been extended up to 30 minutes in each session. And I will still be doing all of the other fun panels at this time, including: Women of the Horror Film, and Asian Horror Films 2, and Ghosts in Fact, Folklore, Fiction, and Film.

Arcana is a small convention of die-hard group of horror literature/film buffs that's been going on in Minneosta for quite some time.

The Descent. Surprisingly decent.

Fortunately, films like The Descent this year make these panels very easy to bring these subjects to light in an intriguing manner.

Oh, you saw a Uwe Boll movie too?

I'm a little fascinated by how many films in the early 2000s decided that American horror themes are best conveyed through the voices of creepy little British girls. (Sorry, kids.) You know that if you hear some urchin in her East End accent going: "I warned you, now you're all going to die," it can't be good.

Films like Ghost Ship, The Others, and Resident Evil will certainly make my point. Issues of culture, gender, class and racism will also definitely emerge as we look at the Island of Dr. Moreau and the Island of Lost Souls, Species, 28 Days Later (not to be confused with Sandra Bullock's 28 Days.) and international fare such as The Eye, The Ring, Ju-On, Shutter, and Uzumaki and how they treat women in these.

Ok, I admit it. I hope Natalie Mendoza gets even more interesting roles in the near future.

Arcana will be an occasion to hear some new and classic examples of my speculative poetry and short stories, not only from the Monstro collection at my main website, but also pieces that have only recently begun seeing the light of day.

One of the funnier points during Diversicon was a discussion of the difficulties that I had getting my Lovecraftian stories into print, because they frequently intertwine authentic Southeast Asian cultural elements (that the editors seem to believe are fake,) with more well-known concepts from the Cthulhu Mythos. The pain of having to explain:

A Shoggoth! A Shoggoth!

"No, the Hmong are real. The Shoggoths are fake. Yes, there was a secret CIA army in Laos during the 1960s-70s. No, there's no such thing as a Tcho-Tcho."

And on and on.

On the other hand, the Japanese get to do it all the time without a hassle:

Asamatsu Ken's anthology Hishinkai, or Lairs of the Hidden Gods, a two-volume edition, no less, is a great example of the work that's been produced today.

I can't win. ;)

Oh well.

If you can make it to Arcana, it'll be great to see you there!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Poems From Captured Documents: A Reflection

First printed in 1994 by the University of Massachusetts Press, Poems From Captured Documents was written by Thanh T. Nguyen and edited by Bruce Weigl. I first ran across it in 1996.
This isn't a review but a reflection on the book, which I rarely seem to find extended mention of except in rareified circles.

There was an anecdote I ran across once about a young American serviceman, who, after a particularly heated battle with the North Vietnamese found a notebook among the possessions of a dead soldier. Excited that he might have found a code-book, secret battle plans or the location of secret bases, he ran to his squad leader to show him.
His squad leader took a look at the notebook, flipping through the pages, and then hurled the bloody document back into the long grass.

"It's just poetry," the officer explained. "They all write that shit."

That story always lingered with me, and Poems From Captured Documents represents something that, as a writer from Laos, is difficult for me to approach the way others might approach it.
The poems collected in this slim volume were drawn from the poetry seized from the personal journals, letters and documents recovered from the bodies of dead or captured Vietnamese soldiers by US servicemen.

Many of the originals were destroyed after being photographed for microfilm. Little effort was made to preserve the last poetic work of these men, as the search was, understandably enough during war, for information of more strategic value, not preserving culture.

Thanh T. Nguyen and Bruce Weigl worked rapidly to save and translate many of the poems that they found. Unfortunately we can never have a full accounting of how many of these were lost to us forever.

It's true many of these would be classified as ca dao, folk poems, or crudely sentimental doggerel and wistful pining under most circumstances, but they take on a a particular poignancy when recognized as the total sum of many of these soldiers lives and creative output.

Who might these men have become, had they survived, had their verse found their ways to more sympathetic ears? Might we have regarded each other as peers, mentors, friends, fellow artists in a world that needs less war, and more words?

Ua Neng, Kev Cai Qub or Hmong Shamanism

I admit, this post is written in part due to some recent posts around the APIA Blogosphere regarding spirituality.

Personally, I always find Frederick the Great's address to a convent of nuns to be appropriate: "All religions must be tolerated, for every person must get to heaven in their own way."

That being said, because of both my professional work and perspective as a religion major back in college, I'm frequently asked questions regarding Hmong shamanism in classrooms and community workshops, and how the tradition is intertwined with contemporary issues.

Interesting, but definitely not perfect.

A few years back after the release of Ann Fadiman's "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," people across the country began asking questions regarding cross-cultural medicial practice. TSCY&YFD raised interesting questions while stirring significant controversy particularly among the Hmong. Those issues are fairly easy to google, so I'm not going to go into those.

While there are other earlier books that covered much of the Hmong experience during the war and tried to study the relatively recent Hmong refugee experience, TSCY&YFD made the discussion of the Hmong animist beliefs and shamanism a particularly key focus.

TSCY&YFD ultimately was no doubt an inspiration for at least two TV episodes, one being Chicago Hope, the other Grey's Anatomy. You can catch a Youtubed version here.

Neither were particularly good (ok, they stink.), but it was still interesting to see Tinseltown's first major stabs at the Hmong culture since the dreadful Air America (1990) with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. (A terrible, terrible film.)

Oh Mel, when does your filmic torture of the world end!

But being a big fan of primary sources, I think now is as interesting a time as any to highlight some better resources for people who want to know more about Hmong shamanism, which embodies a significant body of knowledge and tradition that still needs a great deal of documentation and study.

Back in 1989, Dwight Conquergood and Xa Thao worked with Paja Thao, a Hmong shaman to discuss his life and beliefs in "I Am A Shaman."

Over at there is more information about the documentary, The Split Horn, that further discussed Paja Thao's experience.

"Hmong Voices in Montana" published by the Missoula Museum of the Arts Foundation, 1992 was also a favorite of mine, but is now largely out of print, but I like it because it contains the perspective of the shaman Kia Moua Thao, whose experiences and techniques were a little different than most Hmong shamans, and illustrated the variance that can occur within this belief system.

Hmong Voices in Montana. Currently hard to find.

And as always, you can stop by over at and check out the world's first Hmong bookstore, stocking the largest selection of Hmong books and books about the Hmong that you're likely to find at the moment.

But on an interesting side note to all of this:

Over in China a few years back there was a role playing game called Prince of Qin, and a spin-off MMORPG called World of Qin that featured the Hmong (referred to as the Miao) who you could play. One of the main character classes was translated as 'witch' in English, but I think it's safe to say that it's clearly a fantasy version of a Hmong shaman.

This was the character portrait they used:

It's certainly quite different from most of the community's traditional ideas of what a shaman looks like. Apparently they've shut down the World of Qin to unveil World of Qin 2, and I haven't taken a peek over there yet to see if you can play a Hmong person in this version.

In the near future, however, I actually hope we'll start to see more work documenting the metaphysical and cosmological perspectives of other communities from Laos, such as the Tai Dam, the Mien, and others whose beliefs are still largely undocumented.

Monday, September 18, 2006

One of those posts I really shouldn't write.

Putting on the lit hat for the moment, I'm having an internal debate about what we call poetry at an intercultural level.

A long standing assumption has been that every culture has, or is capable of and should desire, a poetic tradition. And that poetry is universal (and if you don't like it as a culture, you're Philistines.)

What if that's wrong?

The history of Hmong writing (or relative lack thereof, until recently) provides an interesting and relevant hook upon which to frame this discussion.

We know it's possible for cultures, even those in remote tribal areas, to have what might be called "poetry" but conversely, it seems there are few large cultures without poetry, or something that passes for it.

But does a culture need poetry, or can it even set its version of poetry aside like, say, the art of scrimshaw (which, while not extinct, is certainly not at the forefront of people's artistic consciousness.)

Some cultures don't have a tradition in sculpture, batik or shadow puppetry, and broadly speaking, they get along perfectly well in the world. Why should they have to have a tradition of 'poetry'?

And even with what we've said IS 'poetry' in Asia- are we sure it's really poetry, or is it a thing in itself?

When we talk of Haiku, for example, or Kanshi, or Kwv Txhiaj, we're talking about stylized language, but as Confucius points out, "wisdom begins when we call things by their proper names."

I've constantly argued that the zaj and naga aren't dragons, although they're often erroneously thought to be interchangeable terms. And there's a serious degradation of meaning and a loss of understanding when that erroneous interchange takes place.

That being said, I'm now beginning to think we should have an earnest interest in what the literary or oral forms truly are that we're using. Maybe it's not a poem after all. Maybe it is just a Kwv Txhiaj, nothing more, nothing less.

That Kwv Txhiaj is not less for being a Kwv Txhiaj any more than an Opera is not less for being an Opera (even though it is not strictly a play, a concert, a musical, or even a musical play depending on how exacting a definition you want to get into.)

We often default to saying that it's all a form of poetry, but aren't we just being lazy?

I wonder if we're not exploring these words and their organization to see what they really are. And importantly, how they interconnect to the culture, and the other cultures they encounter.

In Japan, a haiku is really much more than 5-7-5, bad grammar and incomplete thoughts.

The Ramayana is certainly organized in something that looks like poetry, but that's really short-changing it, isn't it?

What if in fact, we have new literary or cultural forms of expression that we're not recognizing because we're trying too hard to pigeonhole them into Western terminology for which there isn't yet an exisiting analog?

Some time ago, Yoel Hoffman wrote a book about the tradition of Jisei, or Japanese death poetry- and I find myself thinking that while it can be read by people from other cultures, it's a perfect example of poetry with a far more profound EXPERIENCE involved that also requires explicit engagement with the culture that cannot be commodified or bought like some tsotchke from the mega-bookstore. The Jisei seem far more than just 'poems' or what passes for poetry among today's contemporary letters.

Taking this down to real-world application, the question is, why do Hmong, Lao and Tai Dam writers have to write poetry that fits Western standards?

We should be writing in whatever way or form is necessary to capture the true cultural heart and soul.

This isn't to say that I'm advocating a free-for-all, anything-goes approach- let there be craft and interest in the matter, or else it's all just random gibberish.

But at the same time, do we have the nerve to do whatever it takes to express the collective and private hearts of our people and our selves, even if it means going outside the boundaries of 'established forms'?

If that means of cultural and personal self-expression looks like a Western-style poem, or a rap, or spoken word or an ear-splitting performance art piece that Yoko Ono would cringe at, so be it. And if it doesn't look like any of these, so be it. And even if it doesn't look like an Asian-style 'poem', so be it.

Ultimately, whatever emerges, I think it's important to start becoming aware that we have the liberty to make our own rules, and we can and should throw off arbitrary shackles.

I'm sure people were freaked out when they first ran into the Tale of Genji, but so what.

Look now: The world is filled with novels today. Perhaps tomorrow they'll be filled with Ca Dao, Kwv Txhiaj or some other magnificent new literary and cultural form we haven't even come up with words for yet.

Let's get writing and see what comes up.

Ed Bok Lee Interview At Tripmaster Monkey

Tripmaster Monkey has an interview of Ed Bok Lee, author of Real Karaoke People, that I did recently. If you get a chance, stop by to check it out!

Lao Canadian Writer Receives Award

I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Souvankham Thammavongsa's book, Small Arguments was recently tapped by the Canadian Author's Association for the CAA-BookTelevision Emerging Writer Award this year.

Judges comments included:
"Thammavongsa's poems are like prisms splitting thoughts, words and visions. And yet her work has a clarity that makes reading her poetry an easy pleasure"

"Her work, as demonstrated by her book of poetry Small Arguments, is definitely worthy of an Award. Indeed I look to seeing her on the list of G.G. winners in the not-too-distant future. Her poems, like prisms, split thoughts, words and visions until the reader is mesmerized by their beauty. And yet her work has a simplicity and clarity that make reading her poetry an easy pleasure. She is a joy to read.

"I was able to see by reading the book that Souvankham Thammavongsa could carry the excellence of her work to an entire volume without one single discordant or less well written poem."

A few years back I'd done an interview with her for Asian American Press, which is currently being archived along with a number of other interviews with Asian American women authors over at: .

Musing on The Protector

Just went to see The Protector last night, starring international action star Tony Jaa.

Jaa, who is from Thailand, first shot onto people's radar with Ong Bak, an incredibly kinetic high-action film about a young man from the country who has to go to Bangkok to recover a stolen, sacred Buddha head from the bad guys while enlisting the help of his cousin who now lives in the city as a wily con-man and general scoundrel.

Think Country Mouse, City Mouse with kick-boxing and the Buddha and you've got the basic plot. It was a very charming film with a big sense of humor.

And if it works the first time around, why not try it again? And undoubtedly, again.

In this latest film, Tony Jaa once more takes on the role of a humble man, this time as a protector of the elephants and a master of Muay Thai who must go to Australia to rescue his precious elephants from the bad guys.

The short take-away? Don't mess with elephants.

Thai comedian Petchtai Wongkamlao, who was a riot in Ong Bak, is also back this time around.

In the version currently circulating around the US, the editing seems very abrupt and many may consider it off-putting, but I think Thai cinema is largely experimenting with developing its own rules for cinematic language.

In one case, for example, we see an almost immediate switch from 'The elephant is kidnapped' to 'the kidnappers being kicked through a window.' In American cinema, we would have seen a lengthy exposition of Tony Jaa tracking them down, beating up a bunch of low-level thugs on the way or something.

Here, we just cut right to the chase. And why not?

The Protector isn't a terribly complex movie, nor does it pretend to be even remotely realistic. But hey, we're not going into this expecting Shakespeare or Scorsese.

The Protector IS politically insensitive in the stereotypes it presents about the Chinese, resorting to cartoon caricatures that are drawn straight from classic Dragon Lady motifs.

Given, however, many of East Asia's own stereotypes about Thailand in film (Such as The Eye or The Legend of Speed) even to the near-present day, it may be seen by some as an excusable reversal, or an example of an interesting international film dialogue in which Europe and America are merely bystanders for a change.

When The Protector is thrilling, however, (and those thrills come quite often) it's amazing.

Sure, sometimes the plot makes about as much sense as Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible, but The Protector reminds us what real action can look like, as opposed to the usual CGI-enhanced, MTV-style glam fighting that usually passes for 'action' in today's Hollywood blockbusters.

If Hollywood action heroes rarely get their butts handed to them, here, Tony Jaa presents heroes who frequently run into more powerful adversaries, and for whom there is still a sense of danger, that feeling that even if Tony makes it to the end, it won't be without a lot of bruising. And that's interesting and refreshing to see again.

It's like watching the oldest James Bond films as opposed to the later ones, where the action and fighting became routine and cartoonish.

Personally, I still prefer Ong Bak as far as a coherent narrative, reasonably deep characters with good interaction, and amazing action sequences, but if you're looking for a glimpse at a rising star, Tony Jaa's your man.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hyphen/AAWW Magazine Short Story Competition Finalists Announced

The Hyphen / Asian American Writers Workshop Short Story Competition Finalists were just announced:

Catherine Chung for "Accident"
Philip Huang for "Pineola Inn"
Shivani Manghnani for "Ugly"
Preeta Samarasan for "Our House Stands in a City of Flowers"
Naomi J. Williams for "Rickshaw Runner"

Looks like some pretty stiff competition. I'm curious how many Lao or Hmong short stories got fielded this time around. Congratulations to everyone who made it!

And for those who didn't become finalists, it's still good and important to submit and to get into the habit of sharing your work with others. Hopefully we'll see your best stories come to light soon, too!

It was nice of Hyphen and AAWW to hold a competition like this. I'd like to see the competition repeated next year and as an ongoing annual event!

AALA Finalists listed

The finalists for 9th Annual Asian American Literary Awards were just announced by the Asian American Writers Workshop:

Ed Bok Lee, Real Karaoke People (New Rivers Press)
Arthur Sze, Quipu (Copper Canyon Press)
Shanxing Wang, Mad Science in Imperial City (Futurepoem Books)

Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Sightseeing (Grove Press)
Yiyun Li, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Random House)
Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown (Random House)


Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop (Picador USA)
Amitava Kumar, Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India,
Pakistan, Love and Hate (The New Press)
Andrew Lam, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora
(Heyday Books)

I've got my own personal guesses on this one as to who's going to walk away with them this year, but they're all worthy books. Pick them up if you get a chance.

Season of poets

So, Barbara Jane Reyes is ranting over at Poeta En San Francisco about the usual things we face as Asian American poets, followed up by the aside that she's getting married next month, to which we at OTOSOTE say a happy congratulations, but we're too broke (being poets, after all) to fly out there for the occasion. :(

Still, we know she'll have fun! As long as BJR doesn't turn into Bridezilla or something. Or faces the peril of Groomzilla, a less-mentioned but no less a terrifying entity to behold.

Just got a note a few moments ago that one of the journals my work was going to appear in just went belly-up, a common hazard of the industry, although I have to admit in the age of online journals, that always causes me to scratch my head just a little bit.

BJR is making a note of the whole contest and submission fee business, a classic topic for kvetching if there ever was one.

Personally, at this point, I've largely restricted my submitting to a handful of competitions, notably the Tupelo Press Dorset Prize, which, at $10,000 really raised the bar for most other competitions, who typically only offer $1,000 and publication. There are a few others that also grab my attention as well, such as the New Rivers Press competition that also brought to print the work of Ed Bok Lee, a great local Midwestern Asian American poet, playwright, all-around good guy.

The New Rivers Press competition is somewhat geographically restricted, but if you live in the eligible area, it's a good one to consider. But I'm going to make you fine you own dang link to it. :P

On the plus side, although I'm not going to speak out of hand on the matter, I am excited to hear that certain previously defunct magazines and presses are preparing for that rarest of things, an actual, phoenix-like comeback. Hopefully a longer-lasting comeback than Yolk Magazine. But I'm going to hold my tongue on the matter until I see it, lest I spoil the whole thing.

One area where I find myself rather disappointed is that I've got my google news feed set to bring in stories about Asian American poets and poetry, but it almost never brings in anything relevant back.

I know far too many Asian American poets who self-identify as Asian American poets to say the lack of news stories is because there aren't any of us, but I'm going to be disappointed if the dearth is due to people thinking Asian American poets and poems just aren't newsworthy on a regular day.

For those of you who are living out in the Midwest: is the official website for the 2nd Annual Asian Pacific American Conference at Minnestoa State University, and I'll be doing a ton of fun workshops out there including:

Why Are We Here: Explaining The Hmong and Lao Experience As Student Organizers.
1 Hour w/ Q&A and Multimedia presentation

Writing For Asian America
1 to 2 Hours w/ Q& A and Multimedia presentation

Communicating For Change In Minnesota. Asian Style.
1 Hour w/ Q& A and Multimedia presentation

Your Future Up In Smoke
1 Hour w/ Q& A and Multimedia presentation

It's going to be fun. Hope you can make it!

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Art of Dinh Q. Le

The Asia Society in New York maintains a nice online look at The Art of Dinh Q. Le, whose work was exhibited there between September 13, 2005-January 15, 2006.

A Vietnamese American artist, his work addresses Vietnam's history and its aspirations for the future. Some very interesting techniques and issues that he is taking on, with applications for many of the rest of us to consider, particularly Southeast Asian American writers and artists.
I'm looking forward to seeing how more of his work evolves in the future.

Presenting at Arcana 36!

Just in time for Halloween season, I just found out I'll be presenting as a panelist at Arcana 36, "A Convention of the Dark Fantastic" from September 29 - October 1, 2006 at the Holiday Inn Express-Bandana Square, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Topics I'll be discussing include Asian Horror Cinema, Women in Horror Films, and Ghosts in Fact, Folklore, Fiction, and Film. I'll also be reading some of my scarier work as time permits.

The guest of honor this year is David G. Hartwell.

The Wikipedia, reliable or unreliable as it may be, points out Hartwell "is an editor of science fiction and fantasy. He has worked for Signet (1971-1973), Berkley Putnam (1973-1978), Pocket (where he created the Star Trek publishing line, and founded the Timescape imprint, 1978-1983), and Tor (where he spearheaded Tor's Canadian publishing initiative, and was also influential in bringing many Australian writers to the US market, 1984-date), and has published numerous anthologies. Since 1995, his title at Tor/Forge Books has been "Senior Editor." He chairs the board of directors of the World Fantasy Convention and, with Gordon Van Gelder, is the administrator of the Philip K. Dick Award. He holds a Ph.D. in comparative medieval literature."

And all sorts of other goodies too.

Arcana typically draws in about 50 or so people a year so it's definitely one of the smaller conventions, but it clearly has a lot of longevity.

If you're going, I look forward to seeing you there!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Outsiders Within Arrived

I just received my copy of Outsiders Within in the mail today. Haven't had enough time yet to start reading much of it, but I'm looking forward to it.

Congratulations to the editors, and everyone involved. I look forward to seeing the interesting discussions certain to emerge from this collection.