Thursday, April 30, 2009

Two quotes for the moment.

The first from Picasso:
"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after growing up."

The second, from physicist Paul Dirac:
"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."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Recognized by the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans

I've just been informed I will receive an award for leadership from the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. Yay! From the official press release:
The Annual Dinner to commemorate May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month will be held on Friday, May 15, 2009 from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm at the Hmong American Center, home of the non-profit organization, Hmong American Partnership. It is located at 1075 Arcade Street in St. Paul.

The cost of the dinner is $25.00 per person and sponsorships of the dinner is welcomed and still available. The dinner is a unique, special event which brings many differing ethnic groups and organizations together in celebration.

The dinner program will consist of a keynote address by
Jon Campbell, Wells Fargo Bank’s Head of Social Responsibilities Group; the presentation of the annual Asian Pacific Leadership Awards; and a cultural performance by Julie Troung of the Chinese American Association of Minnesota’s Dance Theater.

The Council is pleased to announce this year’s slate of awardees for the “Asian Pacific Leadership Awards”: 
Mr. Tanweer A. Janjua for outstanding contribution and demonstrating vision and leadership in civil engagement through his educational efforts and outreach to get out and increase the Asian American and Pacific Islander vote; 
Mr. K. Dennis Kim, Ph.D., P.E. of EVS, Inc. for outstanding contribution to his field and showing leadership and vision in the business sector; and 
Mr. Bryan Douglas Thao Worra, National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellow, poet and activist for outstanding contribution to the Asian Pacific Islander arts and literature movement in Minnesota. 
Additionally, the Board has chosen to recognize Mr. Vy V. Pham with the “Distinguished Service” Award for his many years of commitment to and efforts on behalf of the community and public service.

This year’s theme will be “Across the Waves: In Pursuit of a Good Life.”
Congratulations to the other recipients of Asian Pacific Leadership Awards as well!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Photostudy: Lao Cooking

Here is a photostudy of Lao food in California. As you can see, there is an extraordinary amount of diversity and flavors to be found within Lao cooking. Enjoy!

In the textbooks!

Two of my poems, "Burning Eden One Branch At A Time" and "A Crime In Xieng Khouang," were featured in Arne Kislenko's new introductory college textbook, Culture and Customs of Laos (Greenwood Press, 2009, pp. 79-81). The entire book is a great overview of the community and culture, and I look forward to reading the rest of it. 

This sells for about $49 to $70, as most college textbooks do and is about 220 pages.

Scenes from the Sacramento Phi Mai Lao 2552

This year I had a chance to go the Phi Mai Lao celebration in Sacramento at the Wat Lao on Gerber Road. It was a day trip, but it was a very nice festival in a surprisingly residential area. The compound was spacious, with a quaint creek and friendly faces throughout. The festival didn't really pick up until later in the afternoon, which is a little different from many festivals where the majority of action seems to take place during the day. There isn't space for many vendors and booths, but enough to make it comfortable and a variety of cultural and culinary offerings.

Friday, April 24, 2009

June 10th: Kulture Trust!: An Evening of Mixed Arts to Benefit Kulture Klub

Twelve recent Minnesota State Arts Board Grantees present an evening of visual art, writing, and music, to benefit Kulture Klub, an independent nonprofit arts organization that brings together homeless teens and artists.

Each artist will showcase recent work in a five-minute presentation: there’s two poets (Todd Boss and Bryan Thao Worra); two photographers (Chelsea Hammer and George Byron Griffiths); two fiction writers (Laura Owen and Marcia Peck); a film maker (Kevin McKeever); a visual artist (Nathan Freeman); three non-fiction writers (Kara Garbe, Dhana-Marie Branton, and Jacqueline White); and a musician (Julie Johnson). Not your usual placid reading, this event will be varied and fast-paced, with something to please all kinds of artistic tastes.

The event will take place on Wednesday, June 10th, at the Loft Literary Center, located in Suite 200, Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, 55415. Open Book is located on Washington Avenue near the University of Minnesota's West Bank campus. For further information:

Presentation begins at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a reception with food and drinks. Admission will be by donation (suggested donation: $10-15).

About Kulture Klub. Kulture Klub Collaborative brings together artists and homeless teens at YouthLink/Project OffStreets, a drop-in center located in downtown Minneapolis. Kulture Klub describes their mission thusly: “Kulture Klub brings dignity and respect to homeless youth and to artists, catalyzing new relationships between art and community. Kulture Klub is a bridge for at-risk youth to move from isolation to expression, towards finding a voice of participation in their communities.” You can find out more information at

Thanks to the wonderful students of the University of Wisconsin-Stout, I'll be returning to the University to read my poems as a presentation on the war for Laos and its relevance and lessons for today in "Secret Wars, Deeper Truths." I'll be appearing at: 

Memorial Student Center

University of Wisconsin-Stout
302 10th Avenue East Menomonie, WI 54751
Phone: 715/232-2000

I will present in the Cedar/Oakwood Room! It's free and I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lao Culture: The Khene

Previously, we'd discussed the khene on this blog, so I thought I'd share this video from my family with you.

You can also see an example by master Bounseung Synanonh who is warming up at the 2009 International Lao New Year Festival:

You can learn more about Bounseung Synanonh's work at the Lao Heritage Foundation website!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A nice bit of recognition. Khop jai lai lai

While I was attending the International Lao New Year's Festival, the organizers arranged for a very nice certificate of recognition from the Mayor and county of San Francisco. I'm deeply touched and honored by the recognition, and wish to extend my appreciation to everyone involved.

Dances of the International Lao New Year Festival

Here are several of the dances from the International Lao New Year Festival in San Francisco on April 11th. Apologies for the noise/sound quality. However, if someone wants to buy me a camera with better video quality, I certainly won't object. ;)

A recent cab ride in San Francisco

Turns out he's MC Mars ( and he was our driver during the International Lao New Year Festival on April 11th, 2552. In the car with me is Alex San Dinero and DJ Fantazma. One of many interesting characters you run into in a city.

Scenes from the Modesto Lao New Year, 2552

Here are some scenes from this year's Phi Mai Lao celebration at Wat Lao Buddharangsy in Ceres, California for the Modesto community. We'll post a few more pictures and videos later on! :)

Scenes from the International Lao New Year Festival

Here are some scenes from the International Lao New Year Festival in San Francisco on April 11th, 2552. I'll try and post a more extensive report soon. But in the meantime, thanks to everyone who made it such a fun and exciting festival! :)

[San Francisco] The Changing Face of Laos Through its Music

The Changing Face of Laos Through its Music

Laos, a small land-locked communist country sandwiched between Thailand, Vietnam and China, is transforming into a consumer culture like its neighbors. Emerging artist, Todd Sanchioni, traveled throughout Laos searching for musicians, photographing them with a Mamiya 6x7 and a 35mm camera, and recording their sounds. Beautiful black and white photographs and the music that goes with them are the vehicles by which the visitor is introduced to an array of Lao musicians: From the traditional Isan sounds of Mr. Khamsuan, and the Hmong “qeej” player in the mountains, to the “Cells” (the most popular rock-and-roll band in Laos), and the hip-hip group known as L.O.G. (Laos Original Gangstas). Many of the changes taking place in Laos are represented by the changes in its music.

Portable CD players will be available for visitors to listen to the music of corresponding photographs as they walk around the gallery; Also, for those who want to listen on their own mp3 player, mp3’s are available for downloading at Todd’s website.

Closing Night Event: Tuesday, April 21st, 6-10pm
Exhibit length: March 23 - April 21.

ATA, Artists' Television Access
992 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Todd Sanchioni
(415) 994-5885

Friday, April 17, 2009

Updates from California! :)

Hey, everyone! 

It's been a few days since the last update. I'm on dialup for most of the time in Modesto, so, my ability to show you all of the great pictures and videos from the last few weeks is a little restricted, but they'll be up soon. In short, however, a big congratulations to everyone involved with the International Lao New Year Festival in San Francisco, which had over 10,000 people in attendance throughout the weekend. A big wish of good luck to all of the other cities celebrating the Phi Mai Lao this weekend, including Washington D.C., Modesto, California and Tennessee!

And as something of a surprise, but not really, announcement, at the end of the month, I'll be releasing some very special editions of my work as a Laotian American poet at the request of several community members from across the country. Stay tuned for more details. :)

And khop jai lai lai for all of your support!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Happy 2552!

Happy New Years 2552! And goodbye, 2551! 

This was definitely a wild year in so many ways, personally and professionally. I look back on it as an amazing year with great respect for the significant changes in my life and the world. There were some hard moments, but those too, were learning moments. :) 

And like the song goes, I'm still standing.
Where there's life, there's hope, and this was an important year to remember that. To all of you, I wish the very best in life in the year up ahead. You've all made a difference in my life, and for that, I'm grateful. Khop jai lai lai. 

May this time be filled with great prosperity for you and your loved ones. And to all of you who've found yourself on the down side of life, persevere. Success IS possible. The journey IS worth it. I bid you peace!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Lori Phanachone declared English proficient, NHS membership reinstated!

Great news from AALDEF:

 In a welcome but abrupt about face, Storm Lake School District has reclassified Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) client Lori Phanachone as English proficient and restored her National Honor Society membership.  After stripping the 3.98 GPA student’s National Honor Society membership for refusing an English Language Learner (ELL) test, the school district has met AALDEF’s demand to restore her membership.  The district has also met AALDEF’s demand to reclassify Ms. Phanachone as English proficient.

Khin Mai Aung, Ms. Phanachone’s attorney at AALDEF, said: “Storm Lake is finally moving in the right direction by reclassifying Lori as English proficient, and restoring her hard earned National Honors Society membership.  We are thrilled about this development, but continue to seek assurances from Storm Lake on other pending matters.” 

Ms. Phanachone was mislabeled an ELL for naming Lao as her home language, without an English proficiency assessment, when she moved to Storm Lake two years ago.  Ms. Phanachone has since been subjected to yearly ELL testing while excelling in advanced courses taught in English.  This year, she boycotted a yearly ELL test in protest, resulting in a 3- day suspension, exclusion from extracurriculars and loss of her National Honor Society membership. 

Lori Phanachone said: “We still need a lot of answers, but I feel really good that my academic honors have been restored, and I no longer have to worry about being classified as an ELL.”

Among other things, the following demands by AALDEF are still pending with Storm Lake School District:

  • Remove all references to Lori Phanachone’s suspension and other disciplinary action from her school records;  
  • Assure in writing that it will not impose further disciplinary action on her;
  • Clarify Storm Lake’s procedures for classifying students as ELL upon enrollment; and
  • Explain how and why Lori Phanachone was initially classified as an ELL under Storm Lake’s classification procedures.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Glimpse Of Futures Yet To Come

Peeking under the hood for a moment here, as I prepare for the release of my next book, BARROW, I am also working on several other texts for a number of different audiences.

As a speculative poet, one of my next projects I hope to complete includes Launching Life, which will be a book of speculative poetry about the Laotian space program in the distant future, just hours before the launch of the first manned flight into space. This will be a shorter work, but I'm very excited about the initial pieces that belong to it.  I still need to work out a passa Lao name for the book, but we'll see.

Next year, I'll also be releasing a book of speculative haikus or scifaikus, which also serve as a commentary on the great science fiction films of the 20th and 21st century from a Laotian American perspective. 

I'll also be continuing work on When Dreams Loved Memory, a more conventional text that may or may not dovetail into my larger series, Tales From The Lao Ocean.  

And I promise, soon, my short story collection of Southeast Asian American horror stories, The Lingering Bone, will also start looking for a publisher.

Khop jai lai lai to everyone who's been so supportive in the meantime! :)

George Orwell and < I >

George Orwell is most commonly known for 1984 and Animal Farm.

I've mentioned before the most important concept of Orwell's that has retained deep relevance is not the emergence of Big Brother, but Newspeak, that euphemistic language that has crept into the real world in the form of terms such as collateral damage or contractors as a stand-in for 'mercenaries.' 

But a little more tongue in cheek, Orwell also famously said a poetry reading is a 'grisly thing.' and I've seen firsthand what he means by this. There are any number of poets who've helped avert this phenomenon, but also as many poetasters (poetic disasters) who've reinforced that odious pronouncement. 

For me, I hold a personal set of ethics that believes we should never create new enemies of art and literature, but do our utmost to leave our audiences with as great a love of the arts, writing and expression as our great predecessors instilled in us through their performance and bodies of work.

Ah, but the how of the matter is where the rub is. One can spend a lifetime trying to master this.

Lingering Thoughts: Star Wars

From an old movie magazine about Star Wars, this line isn't canon, but it remains one of the great quotes that should be, attributed to Obi Wan Kenobi in the Mos Eisley cantina: 

"I'm not interested in what a person looks like,
but how they think."

Words to live by.

Key Comic Book Series That Taught Me The Most

There's an old saying, "There is no knowledge that is not power."

As much as I learned from the classics, I also had an excellent exposure to the ideas of the world through a number of comic book series of the 1980s and 1990s, and I think it's only fair to acknowledge them, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I want my younger audiences to feel comfortable drawing on the ideas they find in all of the works around them, and not always, merely, the serious, heavy, onerous tomes of yore.

The Question, handled by Dennis O'Neil. During the 1990s, Dennis O'Neil was really in his element as he took the character of The Question and made him an amoral (but not necessarily immoral) reporter who was driven not by a quest for justice, but merely answers and the truth.

Considering each issue also included a great recommended reading list that cited far more serious works ranging from Sun Tzu's The Art of War to Fritjof Capra's The Dancing Wu Li Masters or so many others, it's been a long time since we've seen a character as interesting as this. 

Alas, a recent return by O'Neil to The Question in the 2000s showed even he couldn't recapture the imaginative storyline and thoughtfulness that suffused this marvelous series. And that, too, serves as a sobering reminder to me as a writer.

G.I. Joe, when written by Larry Hama. Reinventing the G.I. Joe franchise for the 1980s was daunting enough, but Hama hit it out of the ballpark with an inventive and innovative way of embedding philosophy, history, vocabulary and a grunt's perspective to the popular toy line. It jumped the shark towards the final issues of the Marvel comics run, but what a ride it was until then!

The Demon, by Matt Wagner. I've talked about this series before, but I'll say it again. In four issues, Matt Wagner took one of Jack Kirby's cheesier characters and turned it into a fascinating exploration that resonated deeply with me as a transcultural adoptee and an Asian American. It was a tale of two people trying to be free of each other, exhausted and driven not so much by a quest for justice or revenge, even, but merely freedom.

The fact that Etrigan the Demon now rhymed was merely icing on the cake for my poet's sensibilities. ;)

The Prisoner, by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith was a highly underrated 'sequel' to the Prisoner tv series of Patrick McGoohan. And you may start to see a pattern here in my choices, as we see a the protagonists each grappling with the idea of freedom in an age of surveillance and secrecy. 

And for me, this was one of the great essays on the importance of individuality at all costs. Of course, some may say this also had its costs for me, but I have no regrets. From a TV/Media perspective, I think a pairing of The Prisoner with Papillon would make for a great night.

The Shadow, by Andrew Helfer. Following the Howard Chaykin update on the pulp fiction hero known as the Shadow, Andrew Helfer created a modern, noir and darkly comedic figure that has been, in my opinion, unjustly maligned by die-hard fans. 

Helfer's take on the Shadow left a great influence on me on the integration of humor and deep chracterization and imagination, and the freedom of occasional absurdity.

Why I Hate Saturn, by Kyle Baker. To this day, it remains the quintessential graphic novel to me as a writer. 

Yes, heretical as it sounds, I do love this far more than The Watchmen, although in all fairness, The Watchmen left me with a great sense of what comics could do, as did Batman: Arkham Asylum, A Serious House on Serious Earth, The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke.

SKREEMER by Peter Milligan. Almost 20 years later, this still remains one of the peculiar documents I still contemplate for the way it taught me about: James Joyce, Giambattista Vico and his Scienza Nuova, Finnegan's Wake and predestination. All  of this wrapped up in a stylish retro-future noir gangster epic. 

I've never seen anything since that comes even close. Alas, the collected edition is deeply disappointing, printed on an inferior grade of paper compared to the single issues. Go figure.

Matt Wagner created a character known as Grendel back in the day, and since then, a lot of writers have handled him, but in my mind, the finest was Devils and Deaths, by Darko Macan and Edvin Biukovic, who used the universe as an excellent stand-in for examining the late wars of 20th Century Europe and its effects on both sides. 

If I ever took on a fictionalized series about the war for Laos, without a doubt, Devils and Deaths would be an influence on my approach. 

Although it comes quite later in the game, I'm also going to give a nod to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, despite the horrible, horrible movie that it inspired. This remains to date, in my mind, Moore's masterpiece.  

Mike Mignola's Hellboy and B.P.R.D. series also remain great personal favorites of mine, mixing folklore, H.P. Lovecraft and an amazing art style that never fail to entertain.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but the above series definitely come with my highest recommendations for any generation. 

Two Chairs Telling with Carla Vogel, May 19th.

On Tuesday, May 19th, I'm presenting with Carla Vogel as part of the Two Chairs Telling series at the Open Eye Theater in Minneapolis. Looks like our topic will be Urban Legends and Folk Superstitions.  

I've always had a soft spot for both. Even in the face of absurdity, they gave my friends and I many a laugh over the years as each attempted to find some story so utterly absurd yet so possibly true. 

One of my very favorite collections include The Big Book of Urban Legends  which brought together the artistic talents of some of the top names in mainstream and independent comics with some of the most well-known stories of the day.

But I'm also a bit of a purist and I believe that an urban legend, like a folk tale, is best told aloud, with all the individual nuances and special touches a human being brings to the telling.

A few years ago, there was a news item about the last public letter writer in Vietnam who wrote and read letters for the local villagers.  What sticks with me from the article was:
"He hates computers and mobile phones, too. “Words that come from a machine have no soul,” he says, adding that people who use such machines have lost all politeness and sense of proper style."
I can empathize. It's often been a point for me to always hand-address the envelopes and to take care with the inscriptions in my books that people order directly from me. A well-written note and that personalization feels more like what I always hope the whole encounter with my book will be: Not merely ink before eyes, but the soul talking to another soul. 

And maybe I'm too romantic about the matter, but I'd like to think that that sort of exchange sets in motion something marvelous.  As the physicist Paul Dirac liked to say: "Pick a flower on earth, you move the farthest star..."

Secret Wars, Deeper Truths

It's still being finalized, but I'm excited to be presenting on the subject of Secret Wars, Deeper Truths at the end of April in Wisconsin.  This is one of those topics that's always been close to my heart, focusing on not only the history but the long-range significance of the war for Laos (1954-1975) for Lao, Hmong and Americans and their societies, and for the world.

Of course, the war for Laos allows us to examine a distinctive era in history, one of the first known instances of the CIA using a proxy army while the US State Department works with the Royal Lao Government to advance US policy. During this war, we saw widespread use of paramilitary advisers and mercenaries and we can demonstrate the lessons and implications this had on US approaches to future issues of foreign policy around the world, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Africa. 

By the same stroke, as awful and terrible as armed conflict is, I would also assert there were moments and lessons learned that brought out the better parts of our humanity as well, and saw new communities step into the larger theater of world affairs. I'll try and share more thoughts on this over time as we get closer to the presentation.

"Hearts and Minds" and visual language.

An interesting discussion on technique regarding Peter Davis' Vietnam war documentary, Hearts and Minds which won a 1975 Oscar appeared in April 6th Newsweek. Here, he's discussing the thinking behind the juxtaposition of images:
"Let's take the most explosive cut in the film: the one where we go from General Westmoreland saying, 'The Oriental doesn't put the value on human life that we do in the West," to the little Vietnamese boy weeping at his father's funeral. If you put Westmoreland next to a shot of American soldiers in Vietnam, it gives the impression that all of them believe what Westmoreland says, which isn't true. If you put it next to stock footage of the French in Indochina, you give the impression the whole thing has been a racist campaign, which also isn't entirely true. I thought Westmoreland's quote should be juxtaposed with a scene of what the wages of war actually are. It's always, first, about death when you go to war. And the people who the most dying in Vietnam were the Vietnamese."

Northography Going On Hiatus

Britt Fleming of Northography.Com recently announced that the innovative website for Minnesota poets will be shut down at the end of the month. We'll still be able to access work in the archives, but the interactive element: the stimulus/response and comments will all be deactivated. This could be for about a year, possibly longer.

That's unfortunate, but given the explanation Fleming provides, understandable under his circumstances. www.Northography.Com has been a positive part of the Minnesota literary community for several years now. In fact, many early versions of my poems that appear in my book BARROW and On the Other Side of the Eye got their start here, although, I must confess it's also been a few months since I last updated it.  

Northography is a quirky site, but has been a great resource, especially for many friends who first met via the popular Whistling Shade literary journal, also based in Minnesota. Good luck, Britt, and I look forward to the next time that we can add new work to the growing body of language and spirit within those e-pages.

[Wisconsin] Asian American Voices: “Reclaiming Our Past: The Untold Stories of Asian America” 4/30-5/2

From the Asian American Student Union (AASU), University of Wisconsin Madison

WHAT: Asian American Voices: “Reclaiming Our Past: The Untold Stories of Asian America” with special emphasis on the life of James Wakasa

Collaboratively, Asian American Student Union (AASU), Asian American Studies Program, Association of Asian American Graduate Students (AAAGS), and Asian Pacific American Law Student Association/ South Asian Law Student Association (APALSA/SALSA) brings to the UW Campus a three day event to honor and remember James Hatsuaki Wakasa, a Japanese American with a connection to UW Madison. 

Born in Japan in 1884, Wakasa came to the United States and made his home in various places in the Midwest. He attended Hyde Park High School in Chicago and eventually completed a two year post graduate course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1916. Working as a cook, he lived in Iowa and became an U.S. Army cooking instructor during the First World War. He eventually moved to San Francisco and in 1942, he along with other Americans of Japanese descent were rounded up, forcibly removed from their homes and sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center and then to Topaz, the War Relocation Authority camp in Utah. On the evening of April 11, 1943, he was shot to death by a Military Police sentry. 

At the time of his death, he had been in the United States for forty years, many of those spent in the American heartland. His killing became one of the more controversial incidents during the Japanese American internment. 

To remember the life of James Wakasa, commemorate his death, learn the lessons that the Internment can teach us about contemporary issues such as the deprivation of civil liberties during war, Guantanamo Bay and its constitutional implications, as well as the fraught situation of immigrants and their lives today, and the core matter of what it means to be American, we have come together for a three day event to "Reclaim Our Past" and ask the audience to ponder the many consequences of being asked "Where are from?" and "What does home mean to you?"


  • Thursday April 30, 7:30pm at Tripp Commons Go Back to Where you Came From, The Show”
    Through the visual and performing arts, the show will first highlight James Wakasa and then address the issues of internment, civil liberties, identity as well as the concepts of home and belonging as it relates to Asian Americans and other minority groups today. The show will be both entertaining and interactive, and we encourage people of all backgrounds to participate; this show aims to include all walks of life. If you want to see art pieces from students and local artists as well as thought provoking music and spoken word, this is the place to be. 

  • Friday May 1, 4:00pm-8:30pm at the Law School The Body of Evidence: Recovering the New/Forgotten”
    Come and listen to a panel discussion featuring Victor Jew, Kent Ono, Leslie Bow and Elena Tajima Creef. Topics of discussion include James Wakasa, Asian American Stories and Issues, the Japanese Internment and how it relates to the politics of today’s society among others. Following the panel discussion there will be a buffet dinner leading to the keynote talk by Sumi Cho on “The Internment Legacy for Civil Liberty Issues Today.”

  • Saturday May 2nd, 3:00pm in the Humanities Courtyard Wisconsin Reclaiming its Forgotten Asian American Heritage: Remembering James Wakasa”
    The three day event ends with a memorial service for James Wakasa. The ceremony will honor and commemorate his life as well as the lives of other Asian Americans who have made their mark in Wisconsin’s Asian American heritage.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Lori Phanachone Takes A Stand, Loses NHS Membership in Iowa

According to a new release by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Storm Lake School District in Iowa just revoked Laotian American senior Lori Phanachone's National Honor Society membership as part of the repurcussions for her refusal to take a demeaning and racist English proficiency exam. 

The AALDEF is calling for the immediate reinstatement of her membership, and I wholeheartedly concur and stand behind Lori Phanachone on this matter. The Storm Lake School District's oppressive treatment of Lori Phanachone is unconscionable and reprehensible. 

As a former National Honor Society Key Member and a recipient of the Deborah Kolander Memorial Scholarship for Service (Saline, Michigan chapter) this revocation strikes me to the core and offends me at the highest level, and I intend to protest to the national office of the National Honor Society on this matter. 

Lori Phanachone is engaged in a credible and meaningful act of conscience. It had been my sincere hope that the Storm Lake School District would do all that is possible to bring this protest to a peaceful and satisfactory resolution that can meet the needs of the entire community. This unfortunately appears to be less likely with each passing day.

Lori Phanachone had been an exemplary student with a 3.98 GPA, a model of original thinking and outstanding character. As the daughter of refugees, she has time and time again been asked to adapt to new situations and excel. She has fulfilled these requirements well above and beyond what is expected of her and she has my deep admiration for achieving this. 

As a Laotian American, Lori Phanachone comes from a community that survived a devastating civil war for our homeland, a war that killed, maimed and displaced over a million of our people. Today, over 400,000 Laotians are attempting to rebuild our lives in the US. 5,000 of them live in Iowa.  

This transition has not always been easy. Many of us live below the poverty line. But we recognize the importance of education and the role school plays in our lifelong success. An old Laotian aphorism says a head full of knowledge is worth more than a tray full of money. Lori Phanachone has clearly taken this lesson to heart.

According to the Census 2000, less than 7% of the Laotian community had graduated from college at the time. Less than 1 out of 10. I hope you can see why our community is so deeply interested in her case and why we hope for the best for Lori Phanachone.

Lori Phanachone represents a new generation of bright, intelligent youth of good character with unlimited potential to make a positive difference in our community and the world.

Laotians fought and died for freedom and the highest principles along with our allies. Given many conditions of our world today, now, more than ever, we, who have lost so much in that fight, cannot turn our backs blindly. To do so would dishonor the memory of every veteran and our families who wanted a better society for us, who sought a world where we would be free to express our heritage and to work with one another to make something far greater than the sum of our losses.

It is my hope that Lori Phanachone's case will be resolved humanely and that her protest will be taken in its proper spirit, as an exercise of democratic principle and idealism. I hope the residents of Storm Lake can recognize the greater importance, not in the mere lockstep exercise of policy, but the exercise of compassion and reason, removing references to Lori's suspension and disciplinary action from her records and refraining from further punitive action.

I hope Storm Lake can recognize the unique and positive treasure Lori truly represents and support her in her efforts to continue to achieve and excel, not only for the good of her people but for all people. I have no doubt she will ultimately succeed in life, and it would be a much greater story to say that she succeeded because of, not in spite of, the educators and families of Storm Lake.

[Literature] Mother's Beloved: Frangiapani

In the late Outhine Bounyavong's collection of short stories, Phaeng Mae, Mother's Beloved, we find the short story, Frangiapani, about the dok champa, or the national flower of Laos. 

This is a relatively brief story, taking up four pages in the 1999 University of Washington Press edition. It's hard to believe this edition of Phaeng Mae is celebrating it's 10th year already. How time flies! 

The story opens with the narrator reflecting on the tamarind tree in his front yard. He observes the effect that the presence of the tamarind has people passing by the tree, and soon begins to recall his memories as a child when he saw a tamarind tree. 

Bounyavong's narrator uses the tamarind tree as an allegorical device for sharing:
"...this tamarind tree was near a road, so it belonged to everybody. We should all share it, not destroy it. It enriched our lives and our happiness. Wherever there was a tree, there was happiness."
At one point the tamarind tree is cut down by contractors in the name of progress to install power lines, much to the narrator's distress.  Contractors come off as indifferent thugs within Bounyavong's story. As could be expected in a story like this, the Municipality Bureau official could save the day. In this case, he suggests that smaller trees didn't need to be cut down because they won't interfere with the power lines.

The narrator then discusses the silence in his neighborhood with the absence of the tamarind tree and a sense of emptiness. The narrator considers planting a new tree, dismissing many candidates including star fruit, mango and longan trees because while they would provide wonderful food for the neighbors, they would eventually be cut down again when they grew too tall and possibly interfered with the power lines. His final choice is the dok champa or frangiapani plant.

The dok champa is chosen for its beautiful fragrance all throughout the morning, day and night. It was also, in the narrator's estimation, easy to plant, and he shares cutlings with his neighbors so they too can plant their own dok champa. Finally years later, after much nurturing, the dok champa in his neighborhood provides thick foliage and shade. 

The dok champa also can be read as an obvious allegory for Laos itself as he describes the plant:
"Champa grows to medium height. It blooms all year round. It blooms in the rain. It blooms when the wind blows and blooms when the sun shines..." 
Overall, there are a number of messages within Bounyavong's story, which like many of the ones included in this collection might easily be dismissed more as anecdotes. 

But within the context of many of Bounyavong's anticipated readers in Laos, his stories are also easy to tell and read within everyday settings. 'Frangiapani' is an interesting meditation on the significance of the dok champa as a national symbol for Laotians and as a practical plant within the community.

On the surface, 'Frangiapani' is a simpler work by Outhine Bounyavong. But I think a lot can be read between the lines, which is typical of many Laotian writers.

The romanticism is thick within this story. It idealizes and streamlines issues of the environment and progress, but is reasonably textured given the constraints of the format Bounyavong was using to reach his audience. 

There are many allegorical symbols embedded into the story. For its time, the story 'Frangiapani' asks some interesting questions about what is best and useful for a village, and by extension the nation. 

By pointing out how even a simple tamarind tree can mean so much to a neighborhood, but that a neighborhood also comes to accept the necessity of power lines and modernization, we see a certain expression of Laotian values and process. We also see Laotian perspectives on sharing and selflessness, values that ultimately contribute to the greater community good after many years.

There aren't many characters or even much action within this story. It can be summarized quite easily in probably less than a dozen words. But the route Bounyavong takes to get us there is charming enough. The characterization isn't as rich as his tale 'A Seat in The Grandstand,' but it suffices to get his point across.

And makes me want to get my own dok champa to plant around my house and neighborhood.

[MN] Vietnamese Women’s Spoken Word & Hip Hop Show April 10th

Vietnamese Women’s Spoken Word & Hip Hop Show: April 10th

Weisman Art Museum

$5/3 for students & Loft members

 Equilibrium Spoken Word and Hip Hop Showcase: Jennii Le,Sahra Nguyen, and Magnetic North (Derek Kan and Theresa Vu) with emcee Linda Nguyen. The Weisman hosts nationally renowned performing artists in this special rendition of the Loft Literary Center’s “Equilibrium” series at the museum. The program begins with performances by two of the nation’s most talented spoken word artists, Jennii Le and Sahra Nguyen. Brooklyn hip-hop duo Magnetic North, featuring Theresa Vu and Derek Kan, headlines the show.

Cosponsored by the Weisman and the Loft Literary Center. Equilibrium is the Loft’s groundbreaking series engaging communities of color with spoken word performances by the brightest local and national talents.

Galleries open at 7:00 p.m. Tickets at the door. In collaboration with the Weisman Art Museum'sChanging Identity: Recent Works by Women Artists from

The Middle of Everywhere

While traveling to Lincoln this month, a friend gave me a copy of Nebraskan Mary Pipher's 2002 book, The Middle of Everywhere, a book examining her experiences working with refugee communities adapting to America. 

The back text is a little florid, and threatens to set up a rather saccharine 'plucky refugees seeking the American Dream' narrative.  However, this is more the work of the marketing department than Dr. Pipher's own writing within.

Most people may know Dr. Pipher from her book Reviving Ophelia. Pipher reveals a wide range of experiences across age, gender and culture as she works with different refugee communities. 

The documentarian in me can't help but wonder what wound up on the cutting room floor from this book. It's an interesting approach. One can see comparisons to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, but without the parachute journalism. 

Much of Pipher's book is written as an accessible guide to the world of the culture broker, allowing readers new to the issues of refugees in America a humanizing glimpse of the faces and stories involved, and how people are working to help them adapt to life here. It's not a book of policy or immigration. She leaves that for others to debate. The book keeps the jargon to a minimum and descriptions of the various cultures are vivid but not execessively sentimental or exoticized. This is to be admired. We see both the cultures and the individuals within those cultures at once, in most cases.

Many of her anecdotes and stories from her experience resonate deeply with my own encounters over the years in my work with Southeast Asian refugee resettlement and with other refugee communities. For those of us working in non-profits, the appendices are perhaps among the most practical and a solid overview of good practices. 

So, seven years later, does the book still have relevance? As we approach the Census 2010, we're going to see some new numbers for the Southeast Asian and African refugee communities, as well as those from war-torn Europe and elsewhere. 

As I look around me in Minnesota and see the emerging Karen and Bhutanese refugee communities, and the Montagnards resettling in North Carolina and elsewhere, I know there's still a need for community advocates and cultural brokers. 

Stepping out on a limb here, I would even suggest that even though many would consider Hmong, Lao, Tai Dam, Khmer and Vietnamese refugees as still "settling in," our communities, too, should be reaching out to assist those just recently arriving. 

Because we've been there, and being as close to the tipping points as we have, we know how much difference individuals can make in each other's lives.

Dr. Pipher's work is ultimately hope-driven, and she sees an enormous range of positive outcomes that emerge from making a space for new communities within the American tapestry. 

Make no mistake, The Middle of Everywhere needs to be read with other books. It's a good introduction, but definitely not an end point. But I would recommend it as a book should be read by anyone beginning to work with refugees.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

[MN] Urban Griots Spoken Word Awards Announced!

Minnesota Microphone has released the results from the recent Urban Griot Spoken Word Awards in Minnesota with a very impressive and accomplished list of performers being recognized.

Congratulations to all of them!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

[Poetry] Animated poetry of Billy Collins

Two great examples of the potential of animated poetry by Billy Collins

[Poetry] Union Bank of Switzerland Ads

Union Bank of Switzerland once ran a wonderful series of advertisements, "Thoughts That Transcend Time," featuring a number of well-known actors performing some wonderful classics of poetry. Here are a few of my favorites that have recently surfaced on Youtube:

Saving the Big 3 In Detroit

Having spent my formative years in Michigan, I always try to keep abreast of what's happening, especially in the Motor City. Of all the things I hope Detroit does NOT choose to do is sink research and development into the next generation of this "Hummer-Killer":

Lol. :) Oddly, the American distributor for the Hagglunds seems to have gone out of business. I can't imagine why...

[Folklore] Three interesting animation projects

All of this talk about tradition and heritage this week brings to mind several distinctive efforts to preserve traditional folktales around the world.

A take on the tale of the Russian witch Baba Yaga. Made in 2007, it has many interesting visual motifs. I think of
Coraline and A Nightmare Before Christmas a little as I watch this.

Not so much a folktale as an interpretation of the classic William Blake poem "The Tyger," it's well worth a look. Guilherme Marcondes of Brazil created this work, blending puppetry, illustration, photography and CGI.

What I applaud for this take is that it is not a mere regurgitation of text, juxtaposed with image, but an interpretation. One that evokes the poem within its many dimensions, adding greatly, without overwhelming to the point of parody. One does not need to be familiar with "The Tyger" to appreciate this example, but a familiarity deepens our engagement with it. I would not say Marcondes poem is inherently 'superior' to the text- and in this restraint, I would praise it as a fine corollary to Blake's poem.

Nye Noona recently made a wonderful effort with Mr. Akkasith to preserve some of the traditional Lao folktales like those of Xieng Miang: was another effort to preserve the stories of Xieng Mieng. I'm looking forward to seeing further development on these projects.

Around 2006, there were indications that an animated Hmong folktale about the Frog and the Tiger had progressed significantly, under the direction of Cheng Xeng Vue of Morganton, North Carolina. Unfortunately, the web domain for the studio he created, Split Horn Studios has expired.

If anyone has any new information about it, I'd love to know.

[Arts] Made In China

There was an interesting article in the New Criterion a few months back that's been lingering with me, James Panero's Made In China.

Panero examines the success of multimillionaire artist Zhang Huan and the current trends within the Chinese art scene that has become notorious for creating art predominantly for export to the West.

Panero writes: "Zhang has struck it rich through cunning and compromise and contamination. He embodies all that it means to be a contemporary artist “made in China.”

And I would argue it's a fair assessment.

Panero's article is heavily informed by Richard Vine's book New China New Art, and provides an interesting conclusion:
Instead of the production, it is the Western consumption of Chinese art that deserves our scrutiny. By turning Chinese art into the latest trend, we have extended the global transformation of serious art into a speculative commodity, supported the soft power strategy of an oppressive state, and reveled in the negative force of an avant-garde linked to an authoritarian regime not seen since the Futurism of Fascist Italy. We have shipped our vanguard dreams abroad, and we have brought back home an imitation art, cheaper, more compelling than the real thing, but containing the fatal taint of melamine.

Friday, April 03, 2009

[Arts] Interesting Exhibits in Nebraska

There were many interesting exhibits I found throughout Lincoln this week, but the two standouts were the Sheldon Museum of Art's Evolving Eden exhibit that will be open till May 31st, and Lentz Center for Asian Culture's exhibit showcasing Hong Lei: Conversing With The Ancients. Unfortunately I couldn't really get good pictures for you due to policies regarding photography at the Sheldon Museum of Art. 

These exhibits should be seen if you're in Lincoln in the near future.

The premise behind the Evolving Eden exhibit is the question of the environment and our relationship with our surroundings. They selected three artists. The amazing Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Han Ejkelboom's fascinating Paris-New York-Shanghai and Edward Burtynsky's Quarry series, which examines consumerism and its toll on our natural resources. 

Of the three, I most appreciated Minkkinen's work and will have to make greater effort to keep abreast of his approach.

Born in 1945 in Helsinki, Minkkinen has been photographing himself since 1971 as a timeless landscape of the human figure amid the forces of nature. The element of water - upon which his feet race, below which his torso dives or above which his being floats - provides the common ground for his surrealistic vision. There is no manipulation, no darkroom trickery, nothing but the single instant of the shutter and the placement of the lens. 

You can spot his work at 

Hong Lei had an intriguing exhibit at the Lentz Center for Asian Culture in which he provided a modern conversation or reinterpretation of several classics of traditional Chinese art, an approach that reflected the influence of postmodern trends in contemporary Western art as part of an approach to apparently create "an independent field of art production, exhibition, and criticism in China and beyond," according to Wu Hung, an artist and art critic.

There were several striking works. I found his 2004 piece, I dreamed that I hung upside-down and with Mao Zedong listened to Emperor Huizong play the lute particularly stirring and evocative.

I'm still in the process of assessing an interview with Hong Lei, and will have additional comments on the matter later.

Update on the Lori Phanachone case in Iowa

New York, NY - The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), which is representing Iowa honors student Lori Phanachone, has called for the removal of all references to disciplinary action from her school record after she refused to take an English Language Learner (ELL) test. Ms. Phanachone was mislabeled an English Language Learner (ELL) after naming Lao as her home language.

Khin Mai Aung, the AALDEF staff attorney representing the student, said: "Lori Phanachone is an honor student who has excelled in mainstream classes throughout her life, and happens to speak Lao as her home language. Storm Lake has improperly conflated my client's knowledge of Lao with lack of fluency in English."

The Storm Lake School District, which did not assess Ms. Phanachone's English level when she enrolled two years ago, has since subjected her to a yearly test for ELLs. The 3.98 GPA senior did not receive English as a Second Language or other ELL services before moving to Storm Lake as a sophomore. Since matriculating in Storm Lake, Ms. Phanachone has excelled in advanced courses–all of which were taught in English. This year, she boycotted the yearly ELL test in protest. As a result, Ms. Phanachone was suspended for 3 days and threatened with the loss of National Honor Society membership, exclusion from school activities including the track team, prom and other extracurricular activities, as well as further disciplinary action.

Lori Phanachone said: "Storm Lake labeled me an English Language Learner when I enrolled without even bothering to test me. All I want is to continue my education without the school labeling me unfairly."

Among other things, AALDEF demands that the Storm Lake School District:

* Remove all references to Lori Phanachone's suspension and other disciplinary action from her school records;
* Assure in writing that it will not impose further disciplinary action on her;
* Clarify Storm Lake's procedures for classifying students as ELL upon enrollment;
* Explain how and why Lori Phanachone was classified as an ELL under Storm Lake's classification procedures; and
* Reclassify Lori Phanachone, and other affected students if appropriate under Iowa and federal law, as English proficient.

A great night at the Univeristy of Nebraska-Lincoln!

A very warm and special thanks to everyone who was a part of the Asian World Alliance's first Asian Heritage Night at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on April 2nd. We had a wonderful turnout and a great opportunity to share and exchange stories and traditions with one another, with a fine fashion show, taiko drumming, lion dancing, traditional folk tales and dancing, poetry, music and food. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Welcome to April

Welcome once again to April, which is, among many other things, National Poetry Month, National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month, and includes such wonderful days as Phi Mai Lao, Tax Day and April Fool's.

I'm starting the month by celebrating with my peers and colleagues in Lincoln, Nebraska. A very special thanks to the Asian World Alliance, OASIS, the UNL Libraries, the department of English and Ethnic Studies, the Asian Studies Program.

They've been exceptional hosts and I've had a chance to see some fine collections of materials and programs here at the University of Nebraska.

There are nearly 1,000 Laotians in Nebraska and over 7,000 Vietnamese. There are approximately 100 Hmong and 100 Khmer if Census figures are accurate.

Nebraska is an interesting state. It is illegal to go whale fishing here, but it also home to Elephant Hall, the largest collection of prehistoric and modern elephant skeletons in the world.

I've had a chance to examine the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden including Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's Torn Notebook and a 1927 Gaston Lachaise sculpture.

The reading at the University Bookstore went well. I read a wide selection of my work spanning 17 years including pieces from my upcoming book BARROW and from On The Other Side Of The Eye, The Tuk-Tuk Diaries and my current manuscript-in-progress some of you know as When Dreams Loved Memory.

We had a fine discussion on the relationship of writing to community activism, the muse and poets and how we find inspiration.

Tomorrow, I'll be giving the keynote lecture during the Asian Heritage Celebration in the Centennial Room of the Nebraska Union.

My topic will be Changing Cultures and Preserving Asian Traditions in the Midwest.

Among the things I'll be addressing include the Japanese American Internment during World War II, misperceptions of the Midwest as essentially 'flyover country' within many Asian American narratives, the murders of Han Pak and Vincent Chin, the birth of the Hmong literary tradition, and the Japanese American 522nd Field Artillery Battalion who were the first to liberate the survivors of the Nazi’s Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945.

It's going to be a wild ride through history and the future. For those of you who can't make it, I appreciate your support in spirit.

And of course, here are some fun shots from my recent travels: