Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Lao Magician in action

Here's a Lao magician in action, although there aren't many details on the context:

Interestingly, Sisuepahn Phila is a Lao magician as well, using her art with partner Brian Gillis to bring joy to orphans in Laos through the non-profit Magic 4 Orphans. The main website still needs some work, but it's an interesting project:
You can also see their regular magic act at:

Asian and Asian American Magicians

During the early 20th century there were a number of Asian and Asian American magicians of note, however, few of their lives have been actively studied and much of what we know about them has long remained unfortunately brief. Three to consider include:

Ching Ling Foo (1854 - 1922) from Beijing. He was the first modern East Asian magician to achieve world fame, and was immortalized in a song by composer Irving Berlin. He's particularly famous for offering a reward of $1,000 to anyone who could reproduce his most famous trick of producing a child from a bowl of water that was itself created from a piece of empty cloth. Ching Ling Foo's act was ripped off by an American magician who donned yellow-face and claimed he was "Chung Ling Soo."

Long Tack Sam (1885-1961) is from northern China's Shangdung Province. He has come into renewed fame recently thanks to the work of his granddaughter who released a graphic novel and a film discussing the life and times of this magician. You can see a trailer here: An acrobat, magician, comic, impersonator, restauranteur and theater owner, the colorful Long Tack Sam was also Orson Welle's mentor in magic, a freemason and a world traveler.

De Yip Loo is a Chinese American magician with roots in the Midwest. In an article in the May 2004 issue of Magic Magazine, Mark Holstein wrote: “De Yip Loo was a Chinese magician who created the famous “Shang Po Magic Show,” not too long after several seasons of touring the world with the Great Blackstone and, later, the Great Dante." 

De Yip Loo came to America as a teen and started on a farm in Minnesota, but moved to Chicago where he set records for breaking more dishes than anyone else at a local Chinese restaurant. But then the Great Blackstone and from that point on the rest became history. His daughter Mai Ling maintains a great website about his life at

Dr. Krysten R. Moon has a very interesting article: The Rise of Asians and Asian Americans in Vaudeville, 1880s–1930s.

Dr. Moon suggests "While playing to the lowest common denominator, vaudeville was also an incredibly democratic form of entertainment for the period, and a place where the children of immigrants often found success. It was in this environment that Asians and Asian Americans had opportunities to express ideas and traditions in ways that were not found in later forms of entertainment, especially film and television..."

Asian Week has a 2007 article: Asian American Magicians Have The Magic Touch providing a brief overview of the current scene for the emerging Asian American magicians today, including Andrew Ngo, Carlos da Silva II and the multiethnic troupe, Prophecies of the Element:

Time for a little magic: Jade

One of the few Asian American women magicians practicing today, Jade has won awards internationally for her performances which combine her heritage with contemporary showmanship and style. To this day she is the only woman to receive the coveted Gold Medal of Magic from her peers of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, an award given only a few times in the 20-year history of the World Magic Competition. You can see an example of her art here:

2009 / 2552 Year In Review

While from a Lao point of view, the year isn't anywhere close to being done yet, it still seems as good a time as any to do a look back on 2009. The year was filled with many new friends made, many places visited and many things learned and a few new books out. Not bad.

This was a good year as an NEA Fellow in Literature, and it encouraged me greatly to continue my work as a poet and keep taking artistic risks and experiment with new methods and approaches.

Receiving a 2009 Asian Pacific American Leadership award from the State Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans was also a great honor, as was the certificate of recognition from the Mayor of San Francisco during the International Lao New Year Festival and an award of appreciation from the students and staff of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Thank you all for your support.

Traveling across the country, it became apparent there is still much work that remains to be done to keep the literary arts a deep cultural passion of our nation. I'm very intrigued by what it would take to improve our artistic infrastructure to create a sufficiently supportive environment for our writers and creators.

From a travel perspective, I was able to travel to many cities and states including Tennessee, California, Arizona, Nebraska,Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and briefly passed through North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

I've emerged with a stronger sense of where our communities are at the moment, and there's a lot worth looking at. I even seem to have met a few long-lost relatives for the first time in 36 years. Who can argue with that.

This year my rate of publication was slower than usual or perhaps simply condensed with the release of my books Tanon Sai Jai and BARROW and a few other personal projects. However, work on my novel and short story collection went very well, and we've begun successfully fund-raising for Lao women's dance, the Lao Writers Summit and bringing Legacies of War and Refugee Nation to the Twin Cities for 2010. So, it's moving forward, not backwards or sideways.

Learn and grow. There's still so much to see and seek but I definitely have no big regrets about this year. Here's to the future and wishing everyone else a safe and prosperous season ahead! Thank you for making this journey with me!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts Announced

The National Library of Laos has announced the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts (DLLM), a web application which will make images of almost 12,000 texts from throughout Laos easily accessible for study. The digital library can be viewed at This is an exciting and interesting development. It should be very interesting to see improvements throughout the coming years ahead.

NEA 2010 Literature Fellows announced

The 2010 Literature Fellows of the National Endowment for the Arts were announced this month. This year the fellowships are awarded to creative writers working in prose.

I encouraged many of you to apply if you were eligible. The applications for poetry are due soon.

For Minnesota a big congratulations goes to Matthew Batt of Saint Paul and Gregory Blake Smith of Northfield.

Notable Asian Americans selected this year include: Padma Viswanathan, author of House of Sacred Cows and The Toss of a Lemon, Frances Hwang and Aimee Phan, a Vietnamese American writer and author of We Should Never Meet.

Congratulations to all 42 writers chosen! Over 25,000 pages were reviewed from 993 eligible applicants. The Fellowship awards $25,000 to support writing and additional projects necessary for the writers' artistic growth.

To apply, writers submit a sample of their best work. Prose writers submit 30 pages of fiction or creative nonfiction. Poets submit 10 pages of poems. These are judged blindly by anonymous manuscript and sent to a panel of distinguished American writers who spend five months evaluating them.

In my year, ca. 1,000 poets applied. Only 42 were selected, less than 1 per state.

The panel is split into teams, who pick their favorites to discuss in Washington, DC. Every chosen manuscript is read, discussed, and scored by a subset of judges who ultimately rank-order our work according to our combined scores.

The full panel looks at the ranked list and makes its final recommendations, which then go through two more levels of review: the presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed National Council on the Arts and the NEA Chairman.

This is NOT an easy process.

That being said, I strongly benefited from my NEA Fellowship and had the opportunity to meet so many of you face to face because of it. I think it makes an exceptional difference in the life of a writer, not only monetarily but because it is one of the strongest affirmations from our peers.

These are some of the most distinguished writers in the country today judging our work on as little as 10 pages and 200 words outlining our plans. That's not a lot to work with.

The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts bringing the arts to all Americans. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest annual funder of the arts.

Retired WI principal aids UXO removal in Laos

A nice article from the Wausau Daily Herald about Jim Harris, a retired principal of Weston Elementary and his wife, a retired English and art teacher.

They formed the non-profit We Help War Victims to hire a bomb removal team to work in the Lao province of Phongesali that has received no official help in removing the unexploded bombs from the war for Laos (1954-1975)

He first went to Laos when he was still a principal to learn more about the culture of his Hmong students and the country they came from. Since retiring, over the last four years he's been volunteering with Phoenix Clearance Limited which specializes in UXO and mine removal.

During the war for Laos, more tons of bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped on all of Europe during WWII. 3 out of 10 failed to detonate and now, over 35 years later, they continue to kill and maim Lao civilians and children even after the end of the war. Many of these victims today weren't even alive during the conflict. At the current rate of removal, some experts expect it will take 500 years to get rid of all of them.

Man jailed for eating rare tiger, new bird discovered in Laos.

There's probably a lot of behind-the-scenes politics going on here, but a villager named Kang Wannian apparently just ate the last wild Indochinese tiger in China.

Kang Wannian lives in the Yunnan province of southern China, and claims he encountered the tiger and killed it in self-defense while gathering clams at night at a nature preserve near the Lao border. Four of his buddies were also jailed for sharing the tiger meal. He claims he didn't know it was rare. He's going away for 10 years for killing a rare animal and gets an extra two years for illegal firearm possession. He also got a fine of ca. $70,000.

Less than 1,800 wild Indochinese tigers are left in the world today.

Scientists have also found a new warbler named the "limestone leaf warbler" because its breeding habitats in Laos, which is a region where several other unusual species have been discovered including the Laotian rock rat, a unique striped rabbit and the bare-faced bulbul songbird, as well as many new species of frogs and salamanders. Of course, most of them are also now facing extinction like the Irawaddy freshwater dolphin. It's such a shame we're on the verge of eating our distinctive biodiversity, our heritage, to extinction.

General Vang Pao to return to Laos

The Fresno Bee and other news sources have been discussing a recent announcement by Hmong general Vang Pao to return to Laos on January 10th. He is celebrating his 80th birthday this week.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A good month for Lao art in Minnesota

In a special bit of news this month, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council of Minnesota recently announced three grants awarded to Lao organizations to support the arts in Hennepin County in 2010. The total is $15,000 in support to Lao arts here, and I'm immensely pleased to see this belief in our community and an interest in our creative work in this state.

The Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota is receiving $5,000 in funding for Refugee Nation, which will include a month-long community residency pairing professional artists with community residents to create cultural awareness through performance art. You can see an example of a performance here:

The Lao Womens Association has received $5,000 to offer free traditional Lao music and dance instruction. The project will include multiple performance opportunities for participating students.

And finally, Lao writers have received $5,000 to convene the Lao Writers Summit in Minneapolis, the first national literature summit for Lao American refugees in 35 years. The summit will take place August 13-14, 2010.

Overall, this is significant moment for the community and an exciting opportunity in the years ahead.

The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council promotes incorporation of the arts into the daily life of communities by providing leadership, advocacy, grants, and services. 

The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC), which serves the 7-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, is the largest of the regional arts councils established in 1977. Each regional arts council is an autonomous organization designated to assess arts need, develop programs and services to meet those needs, and distribute funds to arts programs in its region. The majority of funds come from the Minnesota State Arts Board through an appropriation by the Minnesota legislature. MRAC also receives a generous grant from The McKnight Foundation.

4th Annual Lao Education Conference a success

A big thanks to everyone who organized the 4th Annual Lao Education Conference in Sacramento, California on Friday, December 11th. The mission of ALEC is "Inspiring and empowering Lao American students to pursue higher education for the betterment of self, family, and community."

The event was a fine and positive conference this year with some amazing talent from across the country and the state of California.

Speakers included my colleagues Catzie Vilayphonh of Yellow Rage, Ova Saopeng and Lidet Viravong of Refugee Nation, fashion designer Nary Manivong, Phoumy Sayavong of the Center for Lao Studies and Noi Sourichanh (Sirch) Chanthyasack, MBACEO of LANA. So many other exceptional professionals and role models in the Lao community also played a big role in this event and it's clear the Sacramento community cares about the future of its youth.

The students were very engaged in a series of interactive activities, panels and workshops to discuss the Lao American movement, academics, jobs and getting to college and their heritage.

Although there are over 200,000 Lao in the US, there are only a few other student conferences organized for Lao youth anywhere else in the country and it is often difficult for these activities to acquire sufficient resources to reach out to all of the local children.

As of 2000, fewer than 7% of the Lao community had graduated from college and less than 1% had advanced degrees. Hopefully, this statistic has changed and will be reflected in the Census 2010. But in any circumstance, families and community members need to continue to work together to ensure the best possible opportunities for their children and to take positive steps in their education.

The conference was organized by the Lao American Advancement Organization. By the year 2013, the vision of LAAO is to be an advancing organization and will have in place the board, staff, facilities, and financial resources necessary to make it one of the most effective Lao American community development agency in the United States of America. I look forward to seeing what their fifth conference looks like.

Again, I extend my deep thanks to my hosts for their hospitality and their generosity and giving me the opportunity to speak with such wonderful students and wish them all great success in the future!

White House recognizes Hmong New Year

Through the White House office of the Press Secretary, President Obama issued a nice statement for the Hmong community as many of them celebrate their Hmong New Years across the country this holiday season. His nyob zoo xyoo tshiab was a particularly nice touch.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Good News in Lao Publishing

A grant from Planet Wheeler, created by the founders of the Lonely Planet guidebooks to fund innovative grass-roots initiatives, has been awarded to Big Brother Mouse.

This grant will allow them to set up both village and home-based libraries in sixty more villages in the coming year. It represents an exciting phase for Big Brother Mouse, who have been conducting great projects in children's book publishing since 2006.

They also have a number of other exciting things to share from this year, and I'd recommend people take a look at their efforts and support it if you can.

As always, for those who are fluent in Lao, I'd also recommend taking a look at Dokked Publishing the first private publishing company in Laos.
Ultimately, of course, I hope to see a stronger infrastructure in our community that supports a viable, progressive business model for Lao publishers around the world. This includes equitable distribution channels and fair market practices for Lao intellectual property.

I hope in the near future, enough sustainable interest in Lao publishing emerges both in and out of our community to allow more publishers to take diverse artistic risks and encourage high standards of craft.

By 2021, I hope to see at least 10 well-run Lao publishing houses across the US. I think it's viable to see the development of at least 1 to 2 new publishers in other nations as well, including Canada, Australia and France. By 2025, if not sooner, it would be wonderful to see the first Lao Literary Awards.

In theory, ambitiously, it could take as little as $100,000 to start all ten houses, or less than 50 cents per Lao in the US. Of course, the challenge is in the fundraising and ensuring there's good management and distribution available for the community.

From many conversations I've had across the country, there's a strong demand for Lao children's books among Lao parents. More than poets, I run into individuals interested in writing children's books or family memoirs.

With ca. 200,000 Lao in the US, with nearly 50% estimated to be under the age of 18, this can present an interesting and viable market. Young Adult writers could find a good market, given that the majority of Lao children's book writers are thinking of writing books for the younger end of the spectrum, but few books for teens.

Family memoirs, to me are a dicier proposition. They will have to be written so that they are of greater interest beyond just the immediate family of those involved, providing interesting perspectives for the reader. The good news is that almost every Lao immigration/refugee story I've run into also has enough distinctive and wild twists that family narratives could do better than many others currently available.

Naturally, I'd like to see more books of poetry emerge from within our community. I've seen some very promising manuscripts over the years, but many suffer from a chronic fear to engage with our culture or employ an unrepentant Laoglish. I want Lao American poetry to take on issues with a deep authenticity and a willingness to critique the inner and social worlds of our community with depth, breadth and risk.

I don't know if those types of books can emerge without our community finding ways to support and enjoy a healthy competition between a diverse number Lao publishing/media houses. I think it's something we need to work on in the coming years ahead. But I believe it can be done.

1st Reading for 2010: January 13th!

On January 13th at 7PM, I'm reading at the Birchbark Books Reading Series at Birch Bark Books, 2115 West 21st Street, Minneapolis, MN 55405  The Reading Series is sponsored by Birchbark Books and Isles Deli and features new, emerging, and established writers every month.

This is the first time I've ever formally read with Andrea Jenkins and Tammy Darrah Wenberg.  I hope to see you there! The series is every 2nd Wednesday of the month, from September through May.

The Bios:

Bryan Thao Worra  A poet, short story writer, playwright and essayist, his work appears in over 80 international publications including Bamboo Among the Oaks, Contemporary Voices of the East, Tales of the Unanticipated, Outsiders Within, Astropoetica, Hyphen, Journal of the Asian American Renaissance, Whistling Shade, and Asian American Press. His work in taught around the world and he is the author of On the Other Side of the Eye, BARROW and Winter Ink. Bryan holds a fellowship in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts and received a 2009 Asian Pacific Leadership Award from the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. 

Andrea Jenkins is an award winning poet and writer. Most recently, she was named a Givens Foundation Fellow, and won the Loft Mentor Series in 2002 and the Napa Valley Writers Conference scholarship in 2003. Her work has appeared in several local publications and she has performed with The Outward Spiral, Mama Mosaic, and many others. Andrea self-published a chapbook of poems called tributaries: poems celebrating black history; her upcoming self-published collection will be called Pieces of a Scream: New and Selected Poems. She currently is co-curator of the S.A.S.E, Carol Connolly GLBT Reading Series at Intermedia Arts. Andrea is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University and lives in Minneapolis, with her 8 cats, 3 dogs, and a parrot. (Ha! Just kidding)

Tammy Darrah Wenberg teaches writing for Metropolitan State University. She earned an MFA from Hamline University in 2006 where she is currently a doctoral candidate. Her first book of poetry, Evoked, Never Commanded, yet to be published, grew out of her thesis manuscript. She is currently working on a new book exploring the interconnectedness of two landscapes: the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains where she grew up and South Vietnam, which she experienced more as an apparition, as the daughter of a veteran of the American War. She lives and writes with her family outside of Saint Paul, Minnesota

UNESCO Creative City Program and the Lao

It's no secret one of the larger projects I'm committed to involves building the cultural and artistic infrastructure of my community over time, because I consider it essential to cultural development and growth.

I was intrigued by UNESCO's Creative City program. It's building a network to highlight cities who are accomplishing unique work in several fields such literature, film, music, crafts and folk art, design, the media arts and gastronomy.

Would I like to see a city in Laos one day meet those criteria? Absolutely, but I know that's a long way ahead. On a more 'practical' level, given the emergence of the Lao as a multinational culture, I believe effective resettlement/presence in any of our host nations benefits greatly from a commitment to cultivating this infrastructure. I'll discuss more of this throughout 2553.

I like film and writing, so these are the two areas I'm particularly hoping to see advocacy and growth in because I think they will be essential to growth and maintaining progressive cultural bonds.

For film-makers, UNESCO hopes a city would have:
* Notable infrastructure related to filmmaking, i.e. film studios, cultural/movie landscapes, cinematographic memorabilia, etc;

* historic links to the production, distribution and commercialization of films, especially within a native/local and culturally relevant context;

* cinematographic legacy in the form of archives, museums, private collections and/or film schools;

* tradition of hosting film festivals, screenings and cinematographic events;

*birthplace, residence and/or workplace of creators and artists in the film industry;

* depiction of the city in films, preferably realized by native creators and artists;

* existing films about the city.

For writers, the criteria are:
* Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses;

* Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools as well as universities;

* Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;

* Experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature;

* Libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature;

* Active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature;

* Active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.

I think these can be developed, even within a 'virtual city,' 'virtual nation' context, but to me, transportation, funding and presentation/distribution infrastructure definitely need to be in place. How best to develop and cultivate these over time?

My colleague, Catzie Vilayphonh has also discussed the issue of the preservation of Lao cooking traditions, and I admit, that, too intrigues me. Under the UNESCO guidelines, such an environment would have:
* Well-developed gastronomy that is characteristic of the urban centre and/or region;

* vibrant gastronomy community with numerous traditional restaurants and/or chefs;

* endogenous ingredients used in traditional cooking;

* local know-how, traditional culinary practices and methods of cooking that have survived industrial/technological advancement;

* traditional food markets and traditional food industry;

* tradition of hosting gastronomic festivals, awards, contests and other broadly-targeted means of recognition;

*respect for the environment and promotion of sustainable local products;

* nurturing of public appreciation, promotion of nutrition in educational institutions and inclusion of biodiversity conservation programmes in cooking schools curricula.

I think it would be amazingly ambitious and interesting to see Lao gastronomy advance to a point where we have Lao food festivals, awards and other methods of recognizing truly great cooks and cooking traditions in our community, to see restaurants that openly advertise themselves as Lao and even to risk focus on regional cooking specialties, rather than the usual one-size fits all hodge-podge of the present. Of course, this too is a long way ahead, but I imagine it could be done in fifteen to twenty years.

Maybe sooner, if we really pull together.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

[Readings] Speculations @ DreamHaven Books, March 12th

In 2010, I'll be reading at the acclaimed Speculations Readings Series on Friday, March 12th from 6:30-7:30 PM at DreamHaven Books at 2301 E. 38th St. in Minneapolis. This series is organized by SF Minnesota,a nonprofit organization dedicated to speculative fiction education since 1992.

DreamHaven has hosted readings from internationally acclaimed writers including Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Clive Barker, Terry Brooks, William Gibson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Eleanor Arnason, Terry Garey, Samuel Delaney, Andrea Hairston, Catherine Lundoff, Kelly Link, David Schwartz, Kim Harrison, Kelly McCullough, Barth Anderson and many other masters of science fiction, fantasy and horror.

I'm honored to be a part of this tradition and looking forward to sharing new work with everyone including selections from BARROW and other special projects in progress, including Southeast Asian American folktales and other short stories.

We'll all be celebrating afterwards at Merlin's Rest at 3601 E. Lake Street, right across from the White Castle.  Mark your calendars!

SF Minnesota is a multicultural, multimedia organization dedicated to improving contacts among groups and individuals interested in speculative fiction, both inside and outside of the traditional SF community. They are committed to making Minnesota's SF community more closely reflect the cultural diversity of Minnesota in the third millennium.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Last Reading of the Year!: Sacramento, December 11th

December 11th I'll be presenting at the ALEC Conference in Sacramento, California with Catzie Vilayphonh, Ova Saopeng and many others! It's my last reading of the year and my last reading of the year, and I want to thank everyone who's been a part of that journey!

Given that the Catzie and I have never presented together in person before, that's exciting. If you're in Sacramento in December, come join us. You also get a chance to meet Thavisouk Phrasavath, the Oscar-nominated director of Nerakhoon. It's one day only and a really short day!

Friday, December 11, 2009 from 9:00 AM - 3:00 PM
California State Univeristy Sacramento - Student Union Ballroom
Registration begins October 2009 at 

Price: FREE for middle/high school students & their parents. General Price is $40 per person.  Group fees are available.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

[Puppoetics] The Indonesian Wayang Golek tradition

In the distinctive Indonesian puppetry traditions, we find the three-dimensional puppet form of Wayang Golek. It was performed in Java for all audiences, not only the aristocratic class.

Although children are often fascinated by the art, it is a thoroughly adult form of entertainment, drawn from Hindu and Islamic tales including the Mahabharata.

The puppets are made of wood, with the facial features, colors and costumes defining which characters they represent. The heads can turned by the puppeteer, with the rods attached to hinged arms that move at the shoulders, elbows and wrists. This allows a significant degree of versatility in expression. The costumes are made from leather, sequins, beads, batik and other fabrics.

The audiences are familiar with the characters and all of their personalities, powers and weaknesses to such a degree that one can often make pop culture allusions to them in Indonesia and be understood.

This is a demanding tradition- it's a solo show as the puppeteer handles all of the characters and speaks for all of them, making sound effects and directing a live musical ensemble. A puppeteer can have between 50 to 90 puppets. The larger collections are found in West Java where the Hindu epics tend to be the most popular and require more individualized characters. In northern coast of Java, the collections tend to be smaller, and many puppets act as more than one character.

A show lasts many hours and can't be interrupted, or else tradition suggests it will cause disruption in the everyday world it is paralleling. These shows depict war and comedies, confront social problems of poverty and relationships between the state and the people, and a master of the art is considered to have significant spiritual power.

The puppets basically break down into those with refined or crude personalities.
Refined characters tend to have white faces, bowed heads, narrow eyes and noses.
Crude, villainous characters have red faces, round eyes and big noses.

Refined nobles are given slow, smooth gestures and the voices are soft and elegant. Cruder characters are given wide gestures and grating, harsh voices.

When a puppet is not being used in a performance it is lined on the side of the stage. Those on the right side of the stage are heroes, those on the left, the villains.

William Blake, Orc and Blade Runner

William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Like many artists of his age, he was mostly unrecognized or considered mad while living, but his importance and significance have grown over the centuries. He was something of a mystic and visionary but while he was reverent of the Bible, he was hostile to the church. Overall, he's considered difficult to classify.

In Blade Runner, one of the interesting lines by Roy Batty is a misquote of Blake's poem:
"Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc"
This line was suggested by Rutger Hauer, adapted from Blake's America: A Prophecy.
"Fiery the angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll'd. Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc."

Interestingly, Orc in the mythology of Blake is a complicated figure, and not the monstrous sea monster or humanoid cannon fodder of Tolkien and 20th century fantasists. Orc appears in four of Blake’s prophetic books: America, Europe, The Book of Urizen and The Four Zoas

Shortly after his birth, Orc transformed from a worm into a powerful serpent. There's all sorts of relationship drama that results in one character using the Chains of Jealousy to confine Orc to a mountain, until the power of Orc's imagination awakens a deity who frees him to then go on a rebellious rampage. Orc is a force of revolution and revival with most interpretations regarding him as a largely positive figure of creativity, passionate energy.

The Tate notes that "the scholar Foster Damon believes that the name Orc derives either from Cor (the Latin word for heart), or from Orca, meaning ‘whale’."

Which isn't to say this makes Blake very easy to read by today's standards, but it's still one of the fascinating, more modern efforts to create new mythologies for the world.

But what are we to make of the significance of Roy Batty "misquoting" within Blade Runner? Is it a signifier that the lead replicant is fallible? Or is this a knowing shift to the text and its meaning. Many scholars have pointed out that the character of Orc embodies the young striking down the old, and has parallels in the revolt of  a son against the father. As the replicants of Blade Runner try to revolt in order to renew and extend their lives, and fight their way towards their creator, Eldon Tyrell, the imagery seems apt. Orc's activities are driven by emotion, and gradually degenerate into unpredictable chaos, terrorizing those around him. So, too, the degeneration of the replicants even as they seek vindication or redemption for their excesses. It's a matter of some interest to consider what it means for the angels to fall, according to Roy Batty. With whom, then does he feel the replicants should identify with, even as they're shackled with such limited time remaining to them?

But these are some of the ideas that I've considered at length as I composed my own books On The Other Side Of The Eye and BARROW, which even have a poem or two directly and indirectly inspired by Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner, in addition to thematic elements I thought compelling. I think there's some very interesting material worth revisiting in Blake if one makes the effort.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Tellabration! 2009 in the Twin Cities

This Saturday in Minnesota is Tellabration! an all-day storytelling event that brings together the MN storytelling communities. It's an all-day free event during that culminates in the Evening Concert, featuring some of the best story artists in the state.

Running from 10 am – 10 pm, you'll have a chance to "Hear Good Stories and Tell your Own." This annual event features performances by local and regional artists, family friendly storytelling room, storytelling workshops, liars contest, story swaps and open mics.

This year's concert features:
Katherine Glover, Khary Jackson (aka 6 is 9), Alison Bergblom Johnson, Rachel Nelson, Rik Reppe and Sara Boyle Trautner and is hosted by Katie Knutson. ASL Interpreted by Renee Kerrigan and Krystal Riordan. Each performer is telling his or her version of Hansel and Gretel, and the results are astounding! Note: this part is a concert for adults. For family-friendly events, come to the daytime activities at Tellabration!

Holiday Ordering!

My big thanks to all of you who've been so supportive since the release of BARROW and Tanon Sai Jai. Right now, I'm out of copies of On The Other Side Of The Eye, but if you'd like to order a copy of my other books, please let me know by December 10th in order to ensure that you can get a copy in time for the holidays.

As always, all copies ordered through me come autographed with a nice mesage. If you'd like a copy signed to someone besides yourself, be sure to let me know in the notes section of the order form! Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Films Set In San Francisco

While I'm out here in the Bay this week, it got me to thinking about films I connect to San Francisco. There's a lot but only a few that really, really linger for me: Big Trouble in Little China, the Dirty Harry series, The Joy Luck Club, Star Trek IV, Vertigo, The Conversation, The Rock and for some bizarre reason, The Presidio, with Sean Connery kicking some poor schmuck's behind with just his thumbs. Go figure. What are some of your favorite San Francisco films?

[NAM] The Immortal Game and Blade Runner

November is National Adoption Month, so I usually write a few posts on films like Blade Runner. One interesting bit is that the chess game played in Blade Runner is adapted from a real match known as 'The Immortal Game':
1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Bc4 Qh4+ 4 Kf1 b5 5 Bxb5 Nf6 6 Nf3 Qh6 7 d3 Nh5 8 Nh4 Qg5 9 Nf5 c6 10 Rg1 cxb5 11 g4 Nf6 12 h4 Qg6 13 h5 Qg5 14 Qf3 Ng8 15 Bxf4 Qf6 16 Nc3 Bc5 17 Nd5 Qxb2 18 Bd6 Qxa1+ 19 Ke2 Bxg1 20 e5 Na6 21 Nxg7+ Kd8 22 Qf6+ Nxf6 23 Be7 Checkmate.
This match was played on June 21, 1851 by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. The theme is usually considered the use of very bold sacrifices to secure victory, showing that as few as three active pieces could be worth more than a dozen at home.

There's a lot that can be said about the metaphor of this match. The whites sacrificed both rooks, a bishop, then ultimately, the queen, to secure a checkmate in what seems like it should be a devastating form of self-defeat. In the end, the blacks are defeated by two knights and a bishop. This was from an era when bold, rapid moves of gambits and counter-gambits were applauded, while holding on to too much material was scorned by most players.

In Blade Runner, the game is more than just a fight of corporately-manufactured 'replicants' against their human creators. 'The Immortal Game' is an apt description of the search and struggle for the longer life the replicants, and really, everyone, thinks they want in the film.

During the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival this month at the Oak Street Cinema, I read my poem 2019 Blues for the first time from BARROW.  My new book frequently draws elements and structure from Blade Runner and the Phillip K. Dick novel that inspired it, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The chess metaphor and 'The Immortal Game' also serve as symbols of our desire to escape our status as pawns, sacrifices and disposable humans that are bought and sold, trafficked to the highest bidder. Although the line is excised in later versions of the film, the classic remark that resonates with me is: 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?

Next to The Seventh Seal, where a knight challenges death to a game of chess until he can get home, Blade Runner is one of the great classic games of chess depicted on screen.

'The Immortal Game' was played as an informal game played during a break at an English tournament. I find it a classic example of how often the most remarkable things happen in between what's 'planned' to be the great works.

You can see this in the case with Chungking Express, which, despite being intended as a quickie to recharge the creative juices, wound up being far more popular than director Wong Kar Wai's epic Ashes of Time. Funny how things work out like that.

The term checkmate comes from the Persian phrase "Shāh Māt" which means 'the King is 'ambushed, helpless or defeated.' For a while it was thought to mean 'The King is dead.' The etymology seems to suggest the king is in mate when he is ambushed, at a loss, or abandoned to his fate.

For some unrelated fun, here's a few retro shots of my old co-workers and my neighborhood playing a game of live chess in North Minneapolis in 2008, as part of the FLOW Northside Arts Crawl. These pictures were taken by blogger Johnny Northside.

This was one of the last projects I helped to coordinate for the organization as a staff member, but it was a memorable one between members from the City of Minneapolis and the residents of the Hawthorne Neighborhood. For locals, that's the Hawthorne Hawkman as a rook in these shots.

It would be fun to see the Hawthorne neighborhood bring back the tournament again. We even had a blog dedicated to the idea, but alas, we haven't really revisited the idea yet. Maybe in the future, and hopefully before 2019.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

[The Loft] Stephen King today at the Fitzgerald

A few of you might have heard of this fellow by the name of Stephen King.

Tonight, he's appearing with Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote The Time Traveler's Wife, which became a runaway bestseller (and is now a movie). Niffenegger's second novel is Her Fearful Symmetry, a contemporary ghost story about 20-year-old American twin sisters who inherit their aunt's flat in London.

Thanks to the Loft and the Talking Volumes Regional Book club program, they're reading and discussing their work on Wednesday, November 18, 7 pm, at the Fitzgerald Theater, in Saint Paul.

Unfortunately, for some reason, tickets are sold out already, alas. I'm going to be up in Saint Cloud around then, so I don't think I'll make it back in time to catch them. (Plus, I forgot to pick up tickets. Nuts. Buy them early, is my advice.)

In May, Monica Ali, the British-Bangladeshi author of Brick Lane, is coming to the Talking Volumes series. She was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2003. She was also voted Granta's Best of Young British Novelists on the basis of the unpublished manuscript. There IS a movie based on it, but try and read the book first. ;)

But back to my Stephen King musings.

I was introduced to most of his work by his films first and find that I enjoy more of his short stories than his novels. I rank his Cat's Eye as one of my top guilty pleasures as far as films go. Well, that, along with Hudson Hawk and Big Trouble in Little China, but let's not go there.

IT, Christine, Silver Bullet and Salem's Lot remain the films that have lingered with me the most. Needful Things and Apt Pupil remain the biggest disappointments to me- I admit, I expected more. Ok, I also expected way more from Maximum Overdrive, too.

Stephen King's audiobook version of Nightmares and Dreamscapes remains my all-time favorite audiobook. Well, next to John 'Mighty Mouth' Moschita's Ten Classics in Ten Minutes, but that's a different story. Tim Curry, Yeardly Smith and even Whoopi Goldberg all put in great readings on this audiobook, and to me it's a classic example of how it should be done.

Anyway, for those of you who got tickets for Talking Volumes tonight, lucky you! :) Enjoy and bring back notes!

[Diversicon] Arthur C. Clarke's VERY SHORT STORY

In 2006, Wired Magazine had a great project asking horror, fantasy and science fiction authors to submit six word stories in the tradition of Hemmingway's famous 'very short story,' which Hemmingway considered his best work.

Diversicon's 2010 posthumous guest of honor, Sir Arthur C. Clarke submitted:
"God said, 'Cancel Program GENESIS.' The universe ceased to exist."

True to form, he refused to trim it. But it's not a bad story. ;) You should take a look at the others submitted by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, William Shatner, Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson and Ursula K. Le Guin, and many others. Steven Meretzky apparently had a real field day with it.

Hmm. If I wasn't in the middle of NaNoWriMo I'd totally be doing this this weekend. :)

Roland Barthes

The London Review of Books made a note of two newly issued books by the late Roland Barthes. I hadn't really been familiar with Barthes' work until this article, but I'll have to reconsider it for the future

One book is set of transcribed notes of his from a 1974 trip to China in spring 1974, and the other is considered his diary of mourning following his mother’s death in 1977.

Michael Wood makes note of one of Barthes' quotes, that 'To write is to engage in a difficult relationship with our own language.’ And that Barthes considered himself:
‘un sujet incertain’: in Richard Howard’s translation, ‘a fellow of doubtful nature, whose every attribute is somehow challenged by its opposite’.
Well, how can I not be intrigued by that. Woods wrestles to present the significance of Barthes' work in the article- it's not always easy reading, but when he helps clarify many of the ideas, it's illuminating:
Emboldened by these lines, we could rephrase his own definition: to write is to have ideas in and through language, to look for what is missing from the words you have, and to learn to live with old tunes rather than dig into them.
This would intersect with my approach, especially with BARROW and poems like 'What Tomorrow Takes Away.' Although, I certainly also consider digging into the words an option.  So, some more things to plug into the grey matter and see what emerges.

Among the more interesting lines in Wood's remarks was his assessment that for Barthes, "It’s not that we keep meeting the dead. We keep meeting our failure ever to meet them again."

Reading at St. Cloud State University, Nov. 18th

I'm reading at the Atwood Little Theatre at the Atwood Memorial Center on St. Cloud State University on November 18th to celebrate Asian Students in Action's great Social Justice Week. This year's theme is "Open Your Eyes, Here I Stand: Asian American," and it all starts at 5pm.

I'll be reading a number of poems including 'Hunting The Asian American Male', 'Midwestern Conversations,' and 'Japonisme, Laoisme,' among others, concluding with a short conversation discussion on how Asian Americans have often been invisible within American society and institutions-politics, entertainment, education, etc-and the effects of this on our community. I'll examine some of the personal issues its had on me as I grew up in the Midwest, and what I've done over the years to overcome those obstacles and gain visibility for myself and our community.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

MN Transracial Film Festival a success

A big thanks again to all of you who came to join us for the MN Transracial Film Festival of Saturday, November 14th at the Oak Street Cinema. It was a brisk day but everyone reports there was a great attendance throughout the day. Considering the great lineup and the historic nature of the festival it was wonderful to see such vibrant support, and I hope we'll see more of these in the future.

I particularly applaud the festival's commitment to also showcasing the music and writing of other adoptees and our allies, with work from me, Sun Yung Shin, Mayda and Ed Bok Lee being included in the program. This isn't always an easy programming decision to make, and I deeply respect this commitment to all of the diverse voices of our community. Judging from the applause I would say our audience enjoyed this, and I hope it will continue to be a part of the festivals in the years ahead.

For my part, I read selections from Tanon Sai Jai and BARROW, opening with the poem "A Sum of Threads". I read some newer pieces from these books and regulars like "Midwestern Conversations". Sun Yung Shin debuted newer work, while Ed read three poems reflecting his experiences as a Korean American. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay as long as I wanted due to a most unfortunate shortage of quarters, a Minneapolis traffic cop and the onset of the sniffles. But I'm definitely putting this event on my calendar for future years.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Umberto Eco interview at Der Spiegel

Umberto Eco is one of my favorite living authors, and he has great and lively interview at Der Spiegel that I would consider essential reading for the year:,1518,659577,00.html

For those of you in Paris, he's curating a new exhibit there at the Louvre. I imagine it's quite intriguing and would recommend you visit it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

[The Loft] Mystery, Crime & Thrillers

Over at the Loft Literary Center this weekend is the sold-out Mystery, Crime, & Thriller Festival featuring Vince Flynn, the New York Times bestselling author. (Who started out self-publishing. Interesting.)

Other award-winning writers include Carl Brookins, Philip Donlay, Jan Dunlap, Lois Greiman, Masha Hamilton, Ellen Hart, Erin Hart, Julie Kramer, William Kent Krueger, Mary Logue, Jess Lourey, Susan Runholt, and Richard A. Thompson. It's Saturday & Sunday, November 14 & 15.

It's a great lineup. There's also a great graphic novel & comic book festival coming up in 2010 I definitely want to catch, and will try to keep the rest of you updated on it as well. Gene Yang will be one of the key participants if I've read that correctly.

I enjoy the Mystery, Crime & Thrillers genre but haven't been reading much in it, lately.

My favorite authors in this genre who I recommend includes John Le Carre. I deeply admire the realpolitik feel of his writing, particularly his Smiley Trilogy which includes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carre broke ground as the first major writer who didn't sentimentalize or romanticize the world of espionage. This was such an important break from the trend, and opened the field wide open for good spy literature. It also spawned some unfortunate pale imitators whose work dilutes the poignancy of Le Carre's perspective to the point of what may seem like cliche today. But back then, it was a bold statement. I prefer his Cold War work including The Spy Who Came In From the Cold to his post-Cold War material. As an aside, he even includes a nod to the Lane Xang Hotel in Laos in his book The Honourable Schoolboy.

I'm old-school, and like classic hard-boiled detective stories and characters like Dashiell Hammett's Phillip Marlowe series, including The Maltese Falcon.

I can't get into Dan Brown. I find Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum much more intelligent and amusing, as well as The Name of the Rose. They've continued to linger with me for much of my life long after I'd read them. Jorge Luis Borges shouldn't be mentioned in these categories any more than Franz Kafka should, but when their work goes mysterious, I find them intellectually rewarding and satisfying.

Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American, but my favorite of his is The Captain and the Enemy, which is a strange little work but it's filled with some fine passages, and it lingers with me.

I'd also point out Colin Cotterill's work with his Lao detective character Dr. Siri Paiboun in books such as The Coroner's Lunch. One day, I hope we see Lao writers emerge with their own Lao mysteries.

I really wanted to enjoy Tom Clancy's work, but only The Hunt for Red October stood out for me. However, Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War and Day of the Jackal are great reads, although the Bruce Willis version of Day of the Jackal must totally be avoided. See the one with Edward Fox, instead.

For quick, cheap thrills, growing up I enjoyed many of the old Gold Eagle 'adventure' series including Mack Bolan: The Executioner, Phoenix Force, Able Team and SOBs. You can usually pick these up for a buck and they're fast reads, plot driven more than character driven. And they were among the first books I encountered that featured, for better or worse, depending on the setting Lao and Hmong characters. Inauthentically written, mind you, but it was precedent.

Have a great weekend!

Transcultural Adoption and Cinema II

There's a lot of science fiction films with adopted protagonists out there. Batman, Superman, Hellboy, Luke Skywalker. And antagonists, such as the Omen and Rosemary's Baby. As far as dramas go, not much worth remark, to me, although I'm sure there's one or two out there.

But here's my shortlist for films that to me, captured the essence of my experience, although they were not written or necessarily intended as such.

Alien Nation

Blade Runner


And a nod to 1987's Angel Heart, among others.

Transcultural Adoption and Cinema

With the very first MNTRFF at the Oak Street Cinema, I find myself deeply excited about the meaning and significance for transcultural adoptees, who have one of the largest populations in the world in Minnesota. The doors open at 1:30pm, with tickets sold until 5pm. And with those doors opening I think about the films that meant the most to me growing up as an adoptee.

In the cinema of my youth, I can't think of any dramas where I meaningfully saw my experience, my voice, my feelings reflected in what was on-screen. This has been a recurring complaint of Asian Americans, and one deeply felt as a transcultural adoptee. A TRA experience is almost never presented as anything but device and joke. This occurs often enough that I think: You know what? Forget it. I really just don't want to see TRA characters now, because people will never get it right. And I hate that it has come to such a point where I would be pushed away and repulsed by the depiction of my own culture's stories or the story of others in similar situations.

The worst of these, however, that still lingers in my mind, is Justin Lin's TRA character in 'Better Luck Tomorrow'. Which may not be fair, I admit. The thrust of Lin's story was not to be an expose or a meditation on Asian American TRAs, it was a first attempt at creating a majority Asian American film. The film was vital in a Hollywood environment where, despite the large concentration of Asians in California, their presence is all but ignored. Our issues as TRAs? Afterthoughts and throwaway moments.  Watching Lin's inauthentic TRA character Stephanie was more painful than any depiction I've come to expect from Hollywood.

This character was essentially a message:TRAs can never expect to be presented authentically in full-depth or context except by productions made by our own hand. 
That's why I find the MNTRFF filled with so much potential even as I go in knowing much of the work may be rough or worse, as dull as an Eric Byler film.

Let me be clear: I don't go to see a film to watch a TRA character 'on a journey to discover themselves/their lost family/their alienation'  any more than I go to see an Asian American film to watch a 'Wendy Wu' /'Joy Luck Club' Old Country vs. New Country kung-fu or an immigrant/refugee melodrama like Oliver Stones' 'Heaven & Earth'  Barf.

When I see a story with a TRA, I want to see an authentic consciousness depicted, no matter how absurd, fantastic or dramatic the situation is. I'd prefer a TRA film to have TRA characters and households within it, where their presence as TRAs is organic and integral to the story, but it is NOT the story.

The story should be the story. Characters should have a natural flow and response to conditions within that story. Not a 'Look at me! I'm TRA!' self-consciousness. That's amateurish and beneath us.

To me, watching a TRA 'Roots' a 'Daughter of Da Nang'-style documentary is about as compelling as watching spackle dry. Pass.

I'm also totally uninterested in watching a dramatized sociology textbook on the politics of transcultural adoption. That's just my taste in films.

There are often overt or implicit suggestions TRA don't have our own culture. That we are neither fully 'white' nor fully 'Asian' or whatever our ethnicity or root culture may be. I, and I believe many others, grew up with a sense we belonged nowhere, truly-There is no place for us, unless we make it ourselves. Fair enough. So be it.

I go into the MNTRFF understanding that most of these films were produced with limited resources, certain necessary compromises and different aesthetic tastes, but I am sure there are also a few bright gems in this year's selections and I hope, over time in future festivals we will see work of great depth, great art that speaks with authenticity and honestly, kicks ass.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

[Musing] Sins of Writers, I.

There's not a lot I consider unforgivable sins when it comes to writing and literature.

Some are obvious, terrible, but not necessarily unforgivable. Merely unfortunate: Being boring, mediocre and unambitious. Others I take a firmer stance on. A writer gets many tools at their disposal. Tools that are prohibited to many other professions, such as lying. Fiction and many other forms allow and encourage lies to strike at deeper truths.

Still, even a writer has some responsibilities.

One unforgivable sin for a writer?

I'm going to call out writing to deliberately make another person or even one's self stupid.

I'm not talking about writing that's nonsensical like 'The Jabberwocky' or Vogon poetry. I'm not talking about policies or ideas that are wrong, confusing, vague or uninformed. I'm calling out work that has been written with the clear and deliberate intent of creating stupidity and somehow lessening intelligence within another being.

To have woken up and said, by god, I'm looking for a way to make a complete stranger a numbskull, for whatever purpose, be it commercial, political or some other ill-conceived social gain or even just for the hell of it.

To me, that would be one of the most unethical and unforgivable crimes a writer could deliberately commit. Now, this is not to say that this might occur unintentionally. But, the wanton intent would be reprehensible, the uncrossable line.

Visiting Oakland 11/19-21: APEN and Enter The Green Dragon

In a sudden bit of news, I'll be visiting Oakland, California from November 19th-21 to visit with the wonderful folks at APEN, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, who are celebrating their 15th year anniversary.

In particular, I and my colleagues at the Lao Assistance Center will be visiting the members of the acclaimed Lao Organizing Project:
The Laotian community in Contra Costa County, CA lives in one of the most toxic regions in the nation. Surrounded by more then 350 industrial sites and toxic hazards, their home, school, and work environments are exposed to dangerous levels of lead, pesticides, and other chemicals on a daily basis.

As refugees who entered the U.S. in the 1970's, the Laotian community is still a relatively new population with little voice about the policies affecting their lives. LOP was started in 1995 to bring together the diverse Laotian ethnic and tribal groups in Contra Costa County to respond to the needs of the community, work toward change, and provide a vehicle to build the community they envision. LOP has a membership base of 200 families and over 20 leaders.

"Enter the GREEN Dragon-APIs Winning Environmental Justice In California" 
“Enter the GREEN Dragon – APIs Winning Environmental Justice in California” is going to be a milestone 15th anniversary celebration for APEN and the low-income communities they organize, and a fun filled evening with their many supporters. They will be addressing the emerging importance of the Asian and Pacific Islander community to issues critical in CA and the US, such as climate change, as well as updating everyone about their current work.Oakland Rotunda: Thursday, November 19th 6pm -9pm

Interviewed at MNArtists.Org

Minnesota author Britt Aamodt did a great interview with me over at the famous MNArtists.Org website.

We discuss poetry, the uncertain terrain of personal history, and the day I heard from the NEA. And a lot of zany things in between, from the first poem I ever wrote to ovens, sex bombs and ways to make oatmeal when you're laid off. It's a deeply personal interview, but I hope it also inspires other poets and writers to keep at it.

And in case I haven't said it before, thanks everyone for all of your support over the years!

Claire Light reading in San Francisco 11/12

Sorry for the short notice, but Asian American writer Claire Light, a good blogger and writer is reading tonight, November 12th at Modern Times. 7 pm. It's at 888 Valencia St (@ 20th) in San Francisco.

She has an upcoming chapbook of work "Slightly Behind and to the Left" due next year, barring sabotage by gremlins. She's been actively involved with Hyphen Magazine, the Carl Brandon Society and many other interesting causes over the years. She has a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing from San Francisco State University and is a suspected cyborg. Considering I've only met her as a text-based entity, she's pretty cool in my book. But my books are quite strange, just as a heads up. Even so, check her out, tell her I said 'hi' if you go. Or tell her I said something really deep, profound and madness-inducing about the elder gods. That works too.

Call for Asian American Submissions: Kartika Review

Kartika Review is accepting submissions for upcoming issues of their online Asian American literary magazine.
They're accepting: fiction, flash fiction, creative nonfiction (memoir, reportage, essays, letters), poetry and visual art by Asian American artists. A quarterly journal, they read submissions all year. Full submission guidelines, including the email addresses for submitting work, are available at:
Kartika Review serves the Asian American community and those involved with Diasporic Asian-inspired literature. They scout for compelling Asian American creative writing and artwork to present to the public at large. The editors actively solicit contributions from established virtuosos in our community in hopes their works here will inspire the next generation of virtuosos. They also want to promote emerging writers and artists they foresee to be the future powerhouses of their craft. Ultimately, Kartika strives to create a literary forum that caters to and celebrates the wordsmiths of the Asian Diaspora.

Report from Normandale Reading Series 11/10

Matt Mauch from the Normandale Reading Series at Normandale Community College provided a great overview of the presentation on Tuesday, November 10th in Bloomington, Minnesota. My deep thanks again to the wonderful students, staff, faculty and community members who came to attend. It was a great evening with some excellent questions from young writers from diverse backgrounds around the world.
Bryan mixed talk on craft and theory and language with poems from his latest book, "Barrow." What was so great is that the talk on craft and theory didn't feel talk on craft and theory; it felt like one writer encouraging other writers to take risks, to listen to and trust themselves, to remain humble before the words. Allusions to pop culture and the literary canon shared the stage (which was a table and a stool, because podium and mic were never delivered). The audience asked great questions (they must have had good teachers somewhere along the line) and Bryan gave lucid, anecdotal, in-depth responses that were as factual as they were inspiring. All in all, a fantastic night overlooking the moonlit Japanese Garden at Normandale Community College.

MN Transracial Film Festival: Saturday!

MNTRFF is only two days away at the Oak Street Cinema!!!

Doors will open at 1:30pm and tickets will be sold until 5pm.
There is a parking ramp adjacent to the theater, as well as street parking.
Student IDs are required to obtain student rate.

Whether you are able to join us for the entire event or just part of the day the organizers hope you come out and support the transracial adoptive community!!!  This is the very first time this festival has been brought to Minnesota and there is an exceptional range of films being shown in addition to readings, musical performances and other festival activities! 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

[Upcoming Reading] A.S.I.A. Social Justice Week, 11/18

I'm reading at the Atwood Little Theatre at the Atwood Memorial Center on St. Cloud State University on November 18th to celebrate Asian Students in Action's great Social Justice Week. This year's theme is "Open Your Eyes, Here I Stand: Asian American," and it all starts at 5pm, but I'll be around to talk with many of you before and after, as well.

The discussion will center on how Asian Americans have been invisible in American society and Institutions-politics, entertainment, education, etc-and the effects of this on our community. I'll examine some of the personal issues its had on me as I grew up in the Midwest, and what I've done over the years to overcome those obstacles and gain visibility for myself and our community.

I'm looking forward to seeing many of you there!

[Retroview] The Year in Books 1995

So, obviously I'm having a lot of fun looking back over yesteryear with this 1995 Nov./Dec. issue of A. Magazine. June Unjoo Yang had taken on the year in books and cited "Five Books I Would Have Read Even If Weren't A Books Editor."  Can you guess what they were?

The Winged Seed: A Remembrance. The memoir by poet Li-Young Lee.

Reef by Romesh Gunesekera, shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Discrepant Histories: Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures by Vicente L. Rafael

China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture by Jianying Zha

Muae: A Journal of Transcultural Production, edited by Walter Lew, which technically wasn't a book but apparently still interesting to look at.

She also gave a snarky nod to The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan, Home Was the Land of Morning Calm: A Saga of a Korean-American Family, by K. Connie Kang, and got a nice jab at Andrea Louie's convoluted opening line to Moon Cakes: "I want to tell you a love story. It has no beginning, no end. So I simply must start somewhere in the middle, which is now."

Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism earned her 'Howler of the Year' for his line: "As a self-described conservative, I also acknowledge that the political right has a mixed-to-poor record in supporting civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s."

Again, this is all 15 years ago,but I find it deeply interesting to see where we've been, what held up, and who's still writing. Interestingly, back then she cited the Best and Worst Book Trend of 1995: The Memoir. Which leads in to the interesting question, what's the Best and Worst Book Trend of 2009?

[Retroview] Asian American Primetime 1995

Back in 1995, the now-defunct A. Magazine was looking at the best and worst of 1995, including a sub-article by Emil Guillermo about what was happening in TV.

Guillermo pointed out: Connie Chung was a CBS anchor, Russell Wong was on 'Vanishing Son' and Margaret Cho had her show 'All-American Girl'. And this was all pretty exciting, although it was also all over in a flash within months for each of these projects.

Back then, highlights were limited roles for Asian Americans as 'The Other Woman' with Lauren Tom's arrival as Julie, a girlfriend for Ross on 'Friends' while Amy Hill got to be in 'Seinfeld' as a Korean nail salon owner or 'The Rookie' pointing out the Star Trek series 'Voyager' with Garrett Wang as Ensign Kim and Joel de La Fuentes in 'Space: Above and Beyond.'

Guillermo also pointed out roles as 'The Gunga Din' or 'The Victim,' including an episode of 'Picket Fences' that had a storyline concerning Hmong bridal kidnapping and killing chickens.

Guillermo's closing question back then was: 'Is Asian as anything but normal better than Asian as nothing at all?'

Interestingly, in that same issue, A. Magazine was on a bit of a roll, giving the 'I'm Every Asian' Plastic Casting Cast for Ethnic Flexibility award to Jason Scott Lee citing his string of as roles as Chinese, Eskimo, South Asian, Polynesian and the Buddha in films such as Dragon, Map of the Human Heart, Rapa Nui, The Jungle Book and Buddha Siddhartha.

So, that's close to 15 years ago. Has a lot changed? And arguably, have we been a part of that change?

Monday, November 09, 2009

[SEATTLE] Lao Heritage Foundation 3rd Annual Benefit Dinner

The Lao Heritage Foundation Pacific Northwest Chapter is hosting their Third Annual Benefit Dinner on Saturday, November 14th, 2552! Join them in celebrating, promoting, preserving, and transmitting Lao culture through the arts!

There will be a formal dinner of Lao cuisine, traditional music and dance programs, all for a great cause! The famous Lao morlum singer NumOy GoyJai will also be performing that evening. Of course, there will also be silent auctions, raffles, Washington wines, gourmet coffee/dessert bar, and much more!

The event is from 6:00 PM - 12:00 AM. Admisssion: $50 at the Renton Community Center. 211 Burnett Ave N. Renton, WA 98057.

[Introduction To Lao Writers] Mali Phonpadith

Mali Phonpadith is a Lao American writer who's consistently done excellent work over the years, and worked hard to develop her own creative lifestyle and an approach that reflects both modern and traditional tastes.

She's one of the key Lao American writers located near the Washington D.C. area and has been involved with many of the major artistic and literary projects of the community over the years in a variety of capacities, including the Lao Heritage Foundation and SatJaDham: The Lao Literary Project.

She's been published internationally and has established a well-deserved reputation as a thoughtful, charismatic and energized community leader who works hard to support causes she believes in. One of her interesting projects is Reflections Within which has explored photography combined with poetics. Voice of America's Vannasone Keodara did an interview with her on her Reflections Within showcase.

12th Annual Asian American Literary Awards Announced

The Asian American Writer's Workshop announced its winners this year for the 12th Annual Asian American Literary Awards. No surprises in the decisions, really, but some very good work to choose from. For the categories I'm most interested in:

The Asian American Literary Award in Poetry
The winner of the Twelfth Annual Asian American Literary Award in Poetry is Sesshu Foster for his collection World Ball Notebook. The two finalists are Monica Ferrell for Beasts for the Chase and Jeffrey Yang for An Aquarium. I haven't had a chance to read the other two, but I deeply enjoyed Jeffrey Yang's work.

The Asian American Literary Award in Nonfiction
The winner of the Twelfth Annual Asian American Literary Award in Nonfiction is Leslie T. Chang for her book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. The two finalists are Kao Kalia Yang for The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and Kavitha Rajagopalan for Muslims of The Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West. Big congratulations, of course to Kao Kalia Yang, who continues to blaze trails for Hmong writers!


Here's an interesting reality check.

If you offered it right now, I bet more people would take classes about the Juggalos than Lao or Hmong literature.

When I look at how many thousands of people happily come, of their own free will, dressed in the defiant regalia of the Juggalo, and have whole songs memorized, compared to the work of Lao writers and musicians, it makes me pause.

REALLY pause.

To its credit, on paper, if in somewhat dubious practice, Juggalos, have a very progressive membership in many ways. Juggalos are typically fans of the band Insane Clown Posse or the other hip hop bands attached to Psychopathic Records. You can find a number of quotes online that state there's no one definition of a Juggalo. In a press release, the band has declared: "there are no requirements to being a Juggalo. We don't care if you spend a dime on merch, or if you know the words to every song. If this music touches you, and you get some positive experience from it, we would be honored to have you consider yourself a Juggalo."

One 2005 interview has a band member explaining: "you could be a Juggalo and not even listen to ICP. A Juggalo is a frame of mind and what not." and "Juggalos are Juggalos." Which oddly reminds me of the great Wole Soyinka quote: "Un tigre ne proclâme pas sa tigritude, il saute sur sa proie" or, "A tiger doesn't talk about its tigerness, it pounces on its prey!"

Overall, the openness with which people can enter, to their own particular level of contentment, within Juggalo culture, may be something other societies should consider. Especially those that are emerging as post-geographic, post-national cultures, where more members exist outside of any one nation than within it. Just an idle thought for the day.

[Puppoetics] Doglion, Magic, and more.

Doglion is one of the great full-sized, classic Muppet characters from Jim Hensons, seen here in an amazing performance with Doug Henning. Personally, I think it would be great to see a Lao American Yuk or similar character design.

Here, we also see the classic character of Sweetums. I rather like the chair Sweetums is sitting on. I think there's some very interesting work that could be done, over time, if one were to actively pursue it.

[Puppoetics] When in doubt, make your own.

One of the long-term projects I'd been thinking of developing over the years had been exploring the zone of puppoetics. Can a meaningful art form emerge that embraces puppetry, poetry and the literary arts, especially for a Southeast Asian American perspective.

The idea first emerged for me while observing the Joe Louis Puppet theater in Thailand where the puppets were used to retell tales from the Ramayana and other Thai epics.

Lao puppet shows are either traditional tales or incorporate public service announcements like "Don't touch the leftover bombs." Personally, I'd like to see more contemporary and meaningful works emerge within a contemporary context.

Lao American and Hmong American puppet traditions in the US have not really taken off to date.

I find this odd, considering the presence of Heart of the Beast Theater and other related arts organizations in Minnesota, where a significant number of Hmong and Lao artists reside.

To be fair, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent has one set of giant puppets which are used, but considering there's over 80,000 Lao, Hmong and other Southeast Asian Americans in Minnesota, there could be so much more and such a vibrant and interesting scene.

But again, this also goes back to the ongoing problem that there isn't enough infrastructure in place right now to allow deep artistic risk for most of our would be artists.

A special nod and thanks, then, to Gordon Smuder, of Minnesota's hilarious Transylvania TV for pointing out which provides a starting point for people interested in making great and innovative fabric and foam puppet characters. Some great examples of the versatility of these patterns can be spotted here. Hopefully, it won't be too long before we see some more Hmong and Lao American puppet work!

In the meantime, enjoy some of Transylvania TV:

Building Lao and Hmong literary cultures

The growth of Lao and Hmong literary traditions is important for a number of personal, professional and cultural reasons. They are a great mountain ahead, and we've not even begun to reach the summit. I always bear in mind the words of Winston Churchill, who says "This is not the end. It's not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps, the end of a beginning."

For Hmong, there's an amazing tract before them. Every page is history, even those pages that are, for lack of a better term, 'failed' works. For the first time in 4,000 years, Hmong have an opportunity to tell their story from their own perspective in their own way. Free of censorship, political 'expedience,' the social 'ass-kissing,' if you will, that has often been required for survival within other societies.

Scholars may debate, but ultimately, until the last 50 years, there was no writing system, no works of literary art, no poems, no novels, not even a short story that was written down. This is not to say that there weren't oral works. Far from it, there's an amazing wealth of music, much of which has unfortunately been lost. You'll find no books, no manuscripts or scrolls from ages past.

So, what's written down today should be of extreme interest. Some choose to preserve the folktales and old proverbs, some want to create memoirs of the last 50 years and the war for Laos and resettling in America. Only a few are choosing to venture well beyond 'expected' territory. And we should value all of these.

This doesn't mean we check our critiques out the door. There are those whose work sells out. Whose work is mediocre or derivative. Whose work regurgitates but does not recast the story in particularly interesting ways. But, this is every writer's growth process and journey, and I think over time we've been rewarded with some very vibrant material, and with encouragement we will see even more unique work from Hmong writers. I wish there were more programs and resources to meaningfully encourage these developments and let writers consider paths as professionals.

But, like the hard stone of the old Lao mountains that can be made to flourish, perhaps what's meaningful is what emerges in spite of the excessively harsh literary conditions Hmong and Lao writers face.

For Lao writers, I see the role as essential to the continuing growth and definition of Lao culture. There was a time when literature and poetry were considered more valuable to the Lao than even academia. Not everyone could go to school, but the arts helped level the playing field and united the country. There's a fine tradition to uphold, with work that caters to some distinctively Lao sensibilities and preferences.

People can be governed by laws, but under the healthiest of conditions they -choose- to be a people because of the arts and what the arts create: The conversations, the expressions of shared and personal dreams and hopes. We may not know the implications of Section II, Paragraph 6, Line 2 of a particular legal code, but we can appreciate the story of Sithong and Manola or Nerakhoon at whatever level works for us.

Nearly 35 years since the end of the war in 1975, Lao literature is in its most curious state. Desired but difficult to come by. Experimenting and transforming. Full of potential, but clearly in a zone of crisis if we cannot begin a meaningful resurgence, interest and commitment to literary excellence AND literary risk.

At the very least, bad writing produces bad entertainment. But bad writing also creates stagnant cultures and we don't have to have that.