Sunday, February 27, 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Haiku Movie Review: Sanctum

Deep below the sea
Vast caves, mysteries. But where
Is the heart we need?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

[The 500 Project] APIA Literature and the X-Files

A big thanks to Claire Light who reminded me of her list of great books to start with in your adventures with APIA Literature: Check it out.

The editors at the Kartika Review have also set a new goal for us to try and find those 500 folks by May. Now that's going to take some getting the word out, so thanks to all of you who've been responding. And tell your friends, please. There's still a few states who haven't checked in, but I'm not going to point fingers yet.

In the meantime, having a recent conversation with Barbara Jane Reyes about flying pigs and metaphors, the following scene from the classic show the X-Files in many ways also touches on an important reason why APIA literature needs an opportunity to find its audience, to grow and to flourish:

Or: The dangers of homogeneity in the literary and intellectual marketplace.

One of the big concerns, and justifiably so, has been that a limited number of channels for real distribution and presentation of work has permitted only a handful of types of stories to emerge that are predictable and creating a false impression of popularity and consumer demand. 

Good books like Ed Lin's Waylaid, which really speak from a hilarious point of view and without the usual wistful, cloying pathos of certain other APIA writers, rarely make it to readers within the historic mechanisms of 20th and 21st century publishing. 

Speaking of which, Ed Lin's recent Asian American mystery novel Snakes Can't Run has a new book trailer out. It's worth finding or special ordering a copy if you can. Ed consistently delivers with his work. Personally, I'd love to see what he'd do with post-apocalyptic science fiction or a good zombie story, but that's probably not going to happen.

One important thing to mention is that I'd hate to see a trend where APIA writers and readers have to turn into Indie Rock Petes who can't enjoy what others are putting out there. But at the same time, we need to do more to encourage a true plurality that can provide constructive feedback, support and when necessary, criticism in order to get us the stories that are truly classics for our time.

Stay tuned!

And as for Watson...

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal appears to be ahead of us:

Keep this page handy:

[Neologism] Pteroswinophobe! and, uh, Pteroswinophobia.

Just so it's out there, I'm coining the phrase Pteroswinophobe and its root term, Pteroswinophobia the fear of flying pigs in the same vein as TRAmbiguity. According to Google and Wikipedia, I am the first person to mention it. Which may not be legally binding, but I think it helps build a good case for it.

Which I find odd,  as well as the peculiar absence of the alternate aeroswinophobe and the much more rarefied aerosinoswinophobe or fear of flying Chinese pigs. Although in fairness, at least one person has announced the discovery of aeroswinophobia on the internet, just not the aeroswinophobes. That's semantics, though.

Clearly, we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

For as much as we talk about when pigs fly in this culture, no one has an irrational fear of them, or at least the day they actually do arrive? I find that hard to believe.

But mark my words, when that day comes, they'll be looking for this term, and they'll find me, staring right back at them. Oink! I say, Oink!

To some, this is the page of utter, unspeakable terror. Beware!:

Now, how does one overcome Pteroswinophobia? I would imagine cognitive behavior therapy would be among the leading approaches people try first. Never let it be said that we don't take responsibility for identifying both the problems and the cures over here! :)

Meanwhile the gauntlet is thrown down before Barbara Jane Reyes and Oscar Bermeo to discuss the prevalence of Pteropinoyswinophobia in transgressive poetics. After they're done rooting for that pre-Cylon Watson on Jeopardy, apparently.

P.S. A big happy birthday to Gina Kundan.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

[The 500 Project] Building better APIA bookstores

So, what we're looking at above is what I must uncharacteristically call bullshit. I'm not going to name the store but I AM going to say it's precisely the kind of display and setting that completely leaves Lao American writers undermotivated to create new work if it's going to end up on display like dead fish.

Seriously! Dead fish!
It's a good way to sell fish, but a terrible way to sell books.

I understand space is at a premium, but this sets up a dynamic where customers don't want to buy it thinking it's cheap, creating store owners who don't want to sell it because it doesn't move and just takes up space, while writers can't leverage cost-effective publication deals, or at least get into the hands of the people who will love their writing.
Now, as Catzie is demonstrating above, the Hmong ABC Bookstore in Minnesota bucked the trend for a long time since its founding in the mid-90s, creating a great independent bookstore based on Hmong and Southeast Asian (mostly Lao) offerings. 

Over time, Hmong Arts, Books and Crafts expanded to include traditional handmade crafts, videos, CDs, tape cassettes, statues, textiles, whatever would sell. Some were published by well-known publishers, some vanity or Print-on-Demand presses, others hand-made or micro-publishers. Many were rare books or hard-to-find work, including more than a few of the early Hmong Ph.D. dissertations and even an occasional declassified US document or two.
Since the Census 2010 shows there are approximately 230,000 Lao across the US, especially in California and Texas, I think our community could support a Lao American bookstore, but I haven't run into an establishment whose primary purpose is the sale and presentation of art and literature.

I've seen a few smaller independent Thai, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese bookstores across the country, but most of these tend to stock imported books and videos from abroad rather than reflecting the literature of those in the US. There are exceptions, but that's a whole different post to get into.

At the moment, I don't know how well a Pan-Asian American bookstore can thrive in the contemporary market. There are some admirable examples such as the awesome Eastwind Books of Berkley. Amazingly, Eastwind is approaching 30 years next year. Wow. But that's extremely rare anywhere else in the country. 

What I'm really leading up to is that a sea change has arrived for bookstores. 

In an era of digital downloads, diminishing returns, competing media (film, video games, etc.) this does not have to be the death knell for the bookstore but a moment for us to reconsider what a bookstore can be.

For Lao Americans, most of us aren't used to walking into a store where it's easy for us to find materials related to our experiences and interests.  But what features can we add to a Lao American bookstore that's culturally appropriate, features that would reflect and encourage a renaissance?

I think, for a start, having ample space for author readings, storytellers, traditional dance and music presentations would be viable and necessary for the Lao American bookstore of this century. 
A counter where you can grab traditional snacks and beverages would also be a winner. 

But a place where you can pick up a case of BeerLao or rice whiskey? I'd say no. The point isn't to create a grocery store or karaoke bar that just happens to sell books. 
It should be able to accommodate unique needs and cultural inclinations of the community. 

If someone needs to do a tahk baht ceremony or skype Lao expatriates in Paris or Australia, it would be nice to walk in and know the store has you covered.
In this generation, the staff of such a store will find themselves becoming something close to de facto librarians, so they need to be comfortable trying to explain what they can of community history and other topics or being able to find it within the store's holdings for customers. 

I know it's not how other bookstores do it, I know, but anyone who's going to establish a Lao American bookstore is just going to have to deal with it. It comes with the territory. 

The staff would face a few challenges because they have to build audiences on so many fronts. They will have to build an interest in Lao and Laomerican culture and a love of reading and a love of books, all very separate things. They'll have to learn how to deal with consignments and many other situations particular to our community.

They'll also have to learn how to keep informed about the reading tastes and needs of the local Lao community, not just what they want NOW, but what they could be interested in. They will have to encourage emerging and established writers to write in ways to stay abreast of trends but to allow for new types of literature without looking like the grab-all fleas-for-all emporium of detritus.

The store owners need to be prepared for the fact that they will be building writers resilience and confidence, and de facto midwives in bringing stories and poems to the reading publics so a healthy and informed readership can emerge. A readership as passionate about the next books coming out from new and famous Lao authors as they might be about sports. Not in most bookstore owners' job descriptions but we're in a sea change.
I can imagine a Lao American bookstore would need to be able to occasionally function as a micropress with the capability of bring e-books to the market, or author apps. They may have to be able to offer classes and marketing support for emerging writers as well, if they want to have a healthy body of future authors to stock in the future. 

It would be nice to see Lao American readers capable of supporting several small niche stores in their communities. 

Perhaps one can be a children's book store, one a Laomerican comic and gaming store, others a Laomerican cooking store or even a Laomerican Business Reading Room that stocks culturally informed books for starting home businesses,mainstream or Laostream businesses in America or abroad. 

But what do you think would be community-friendly essentials for an Asian American bookstore?

Oh, and be sure to participate in the 500 Project!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lao Epics: Phra Lak Phra Lam

Among the literary projects for Lao Americans of the 21st century will be an approach of several of our classic epics such as Phra Lak Phra Lam. While in many ways it is a version of the Ramayana, within Lao culture it is also a Jataka, or a story of a previous incarnation of the Buddha. Most approaches to Phra Lak Phra Lam are also noted for their depiction of Lao daily life and values. 
I wonder what our writers will keep and what will be adjusted for the present age and future generations. I'm sure there will be purists, but I think there will and should be a body of writers who will approach it with great innovation. 
This will be controversial, but a culture cannot really own its own stories unless we continue to explore its meanings and potential, treating it as a dynamic, fluid part of our heritage. I've gotten the sense that one of the chief objections in some circles will be that as a Jataka or an iteration of the Ramayana, it is now too holy to touch or alter. At best, Phra Lak Phra Lam can be commented on, but should not be radically altered, at least in some people's eyes. 

But just as we can see many different visualizations and re-enactments of the Bible from Charlton Heston films to comic books, I think Lao can be open to broad aesthetic explorations of this epic, and I believe we'll emerge stronger and more interesting for it.

[The 500 Project] Asian American speculative literature

Continuing some possible recommendations in Asian American reading as on offshoot of the 500 Project, here are some places to start if you're into science fiction, horror and escapist fiction:

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Atomik Aztek by Sesshu Foster
Hopeful Monsters and The Kappa Child by Hiromi Goto
Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai
Slightly Behind and to the Left by Claire Light
The Poet's Journey by Amirthi Mohanraj
Dance Dance Revolution by Cathy Hong Park
Of Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh
Cecilia Tan has a wide range of science fiction, erotica and even baseball.
Hong on the Range by William F. Wu.

There's an anthology of Asian American superheroes called Secret Identities: The Asian American Super Hero anthology by editors Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow and Jerry Ma.

There's also the award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Yang that I would say absolutely deserves a spot on everyone's shelves as an examination of what's possible when telling our stories. Any of the work of Adrian Tomine also really deserves a peek.

To me it's important, yet hard for many to appreciate, that the recent decades are such an amazing change from the even the 1980s when it was next to impossible to find the voice of Asian Americans anywhere. 

The voices we did hear were often very prepackaged and we were only allowed to express particular iterations of our narratives, usually along the tonal lines of Trong Van Din's "USA A-OK!" essay:

We've come a long way, but there's still much more to go!

[500 Project] More beginning readings in APIA Literature.

The ever-readable Barbara Jane Reyes has added her list of recommendations for beginning readings in Asian /Pacific Islander American literature at: as we continue our efforts on the 500 Project to find people passionate about APIA literature.

I should point out that I think her work, as hard to find as it tends to be, also comes with my recommendations.

It also occurs to me that one of the great things that always keeps me interested in APIA literature is that it's NOT a simple subject and it's enjoyably debatable on many fronts, the same way people root and cheer and argue over sports.

While APIA literature is one way of organizing our sense of many writers, there's many questions that don't necessarily have definitive answers.

For example, even though there are at least 60 different nations and cultures one or one's family may come from, should APIA literature consider Russian American writers APIA writers. Most people I've spoken to consider Hapa writers APIA writers, but I'm sure there's probably someone who disagrees.

Do we exclude APIA writers who don't identify as APIA writers, such as a certain Chicago-based poet I know, or APIA-opportunists who, if they're getting paid or selling books let people promote them as APIA writers but otherwise have no investment or history in the progress and growth of their community?

We've seen the debates regarding the adopted 'non-Asian' children of APIA parents.

In a case of semantics, should APIA literature consider the work of refugees who have not naturalized or are in the process of naturalizing as American citizens? Or does it only matter that the majority of their writing takes place in the US? If so, then does a piece written abroad count? Will their work count if they ultimately resettle in another country or return back to their former homeland?

Is it APIA literature if it's not written in English, for example? Or, in terms of content, if they never write a story or a poem with a single Asian or Asian American or Pacific Islander character? Does it count if it's not written down, but preserved in a strictly oral or audio/video recorded format?

There are many ways to find oneself in an intriguing tug of war, and I hope people see that many of the assumptions we take for granted are not clear cut.

Of course, in the end, "good literature is good literature" but I think part of the joy is the many civil debates we can have on the matter.

Keep reading, keep writing!

SHS Class of '91 Reunion: July 22-24

From the department of my high school classmates trying to make me feel ooooooooold: Keep your schedules open July 22-24th this year for our 20th Anniversary Class Reunion. More details to follow. :)

Now, if only I can find some way to get the films Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion and Gross Pointe Blanke out of my head.

[The Loft] The Writers' Block

At the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, they've been maintaining a blog of some very talented writers on a wide variety of subjects called the Writers' Block since June, 2010. Some recent entries they discussed last week include:

On Talent
by Swati Avasthi There is an old adage about a Russian ballerina. She is young and has met with moderate success, but she is getting to an age when she and her husband want to have children...

Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz
In collaboration with Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Loft presents a performance and discussion with composer Gabriela Lena Frank and poet and playwright Nilo Cruz, the first Latino recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama...

To My Welbelovyd Voluntyne
Although Valentine’s Day follows a familiar trajectory as a counterfeit pagan tradition re-formed by early Christian popes, it’s a holiday with a unique literary flair that’s been developing in the social and commercial world for more than 1500 years...

Two events that are also coming up of interest may be: McKnighty-Nights, Part II on
February 17, 2011 (7:00 pm) and the Telling True Stories Panel on February 23, 2011 (7:00 pm).

Throughout the year, Minnesotans are able to enjoy that the Loft offers hundreds of classes in standard genres like poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, as well as offerings in creative process, children’s literature, young adult literature, playwriting, screenwriting, the business side of writing (finding agents seeking publication), graphic storytelling, blogging and travel writing.

In other words, just about the whole kit and kaboodle.

Whether you write novels or sestinas, memoir or 'zines, movies or blogs you’ll find it at the Loft.

But what many people might not know is the Loft offers a sliding scale for those classes. They want everyone to be able to take Loft classes, so they use sliding registration fees that are based upon your household income. Fees are based on the total number of hours the class meets.

If you're low-income (making less than $25,000 a year) a 12-hour class costs $130.20 or just a little over $10 an hour. Considering that you'll have the opportunity to learn from award-winning writers and the latest techniques and current trends in the publishing industry and ways to tap into your creativity, it's a worthwhile investment. Plus you'll often have a chance to really discover others who share your passion for the arts and make some great, inspiring lifelong connections.

As an Asian American writer, I admit, I'm fond of the Loft as a space because of the role I've seen it play as a resource and a friend to many of the refugee communities here. It was essential to the growth of Lao writers, Hmong writers and the emerging Somali writing community.

The Loft is also the space for the acclaimed Equilibrium Spoken Word series for artists of color that brings together national talents in spoken word with local talents and has helped popularize the literary traditions with the current generation. Later this year, the Loft will be host to the APIA Poetry and Spoken Word Summit, and it's been the space of choice for the debut of many books and special live readings by Asian American writers, including Li Young Lee, Ha Jin, Lee Herrick, Barbara Jane Reyes, Thavisouk Phrasavath and more.

Sometimes, I think it's easy to forget how rare spaces like these are in a community. As I take on the 500 Project with Kartika Review I've had many conversations with people in cities where it's still a struggle to identify and build supportive spaces where people can meet, write, learn and share their experiences. Not every writer needs that. But I think I've seen more than enough people whose confidence and lifelong love for literature has been strengthened because these kinds of spaces ARE available.

Looking ahead, I am excited for the day we will see spaces like these flourish in Laos and Southeast Asia. These spaces would be essential to strengthening the intellectual capital and vision of the nation. This is essential for reconstruction and the inner health of any people. But that's a discussion for another time.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Korea: The Man of La Mancha

The Man of La Mancha is one of my favorite musicals of the 20th century, adapted from the Spanish classic Don Quixote. My old high school English teacher insisted Don Quixote is a classic of literature because it is a book that changes meaningfully over time when you read it at different stages in your life: As a young man, as an adult, as an elder. It transcends cultures to reflect on the human experience and leaves you connected to that journey in such a way you want to pass it on to others.

The Man of La Mancha has been adapted and performed across the US, but also in Japan, Israel, France, Peru, Norway, Poland, Czecheslovakia and as I've shown here, Korea:

Certainly, there are some who would question its authenticity if we don't have a real elderly Spaniard from La Mancha playing it, because it would surely be as horrible as non-Minnesotans in Purple Rain, particularly Minneapolitans. But I find the Korean approach to the material interesting. From a perspective as a Lao American writer, I would certainly be interested in seeing how Lao might adapt the story, and whether it would resonate the same way it has for many other cultures.

This is always an interesting question when we bring work back and forth between societies with different aesthetics in music, costume and staging.

Sometimes we get work such as this example of a Pan-Asian staging of Romeo and Juliet:

And of course other times we might get something like the 1987 film China Girl:

Go figure.

[The 500 Project] Beginning readings in Asian American literature?

Our quest continues with the 500 Project to help the Kartika Review find 10 people in each state who are excited and passionate about Asian American and Pacific Islander literature. I'm happy to say we've been getting some great and amazing responses so far. We're hoping to be done by May, now.

One recurring question I've gotten is what are some good books to start with.

For much of the last few decades we talked about Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club and Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior or Tripmaster Monkey, Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters. Occasionally you might run into mentions of Frank Chin's Donald Duk or Year of the Dragon, or Shawn Wong's American Knees and Homebase. Good stuff, certainly, but what else have we got?

I'm going to suggest some anthologies that will give newer readers a good variety to examine.

The oldest of the anthologies is Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, considered one of the first really classic anthologies of Asian American/Pacific Islander writers, as is its follow-up The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature edited by Shawn Wong, Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, and Lawson Fusao Inada. Naturally, the writing style reflects much of the literary tendencies of the 60s and 70s and there's good and bad to be said for that.

Jessica Hagedorn also edited a classic anthology, Charlie Chan Is Dead, and a second anthology, Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home in the World. Hagedorn offers a very diverse range of voices in her anthology including many more writing in a more modern and contemporary style.

If you're interested in Southeast Asian American writers, I would look at Tilting the Continent: Southeast Asian American Writing, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Cheng Lok Chua. My largest critique would be the absence of Lao American writers, and it organizes the writers by some very standard themes. It's hard to find, these days.

Vickie Nam edited a spunky anthology, Yell-Oh Girls: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American. Working with such young writers, the quality can be up and down between pieces, but I like the energy.

Victoria Chang's Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation brings readers nicely up to speed with some of the current bright lights among Asian American poets, but I should point out it's not the definitive who's who among Asian American poets either.

Over the years, I find myself still recommending the late Amy Ling's controversial Yellow Light: The Flowering of Asian American Arts because it features 38 interviews and examples of Asian American writers who responded to a questionnaire she'd sent out, and the best of these give some great insights into each of these writers journeys and their thinking at the time, and I think the structure makes it easy for people to quickly find new writers to examine.

If you have additional recommendations, let me know!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Creative Nonfiction Writing Conference at the Loft!

Friday-Sunday, March 11-13, 2011

If you're in Minneapolis, you can join us the Loft Literary Center and spend the weekend learning the art of creative nonfiction and routes to publication with some of the nation's most acclaimed writers and editors! The conference keynote will be delivered by Toi Derricotte. You can learn more about the conference here:

Also be sure to keep in mind in April we have the CHILDREN’S & YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE CONFERENCE on April 30–May 1, 2011.

This will featuring keynote speaker Arthur A. Levine. Arthur Levine launched Arthur A. Levine Books in 1997, publishing Norma Fox Mazer’s novel When She Was Good. He's now working with authors like Roddy Doyle, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Susan Shreve, Richard Egielski, David Small, P.J. Lynch, and Mary GrandPr√©.

Join Arthur and local children’s and young adult authors for an exciting writing weekend.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Judging SEA literary submissions

I'm frequently called upon to judge entries for journals, grants and short story and poetry competitions. I'm flattered and I enjoy the opportunity to look through many of the submissions.

Occasionally, I get a few raised eyebrows about my editorial approach and what flies with me. I've been open about these but to review some of my personal subjective standards from over the years:

Good and innovative use of language: I'm not an absolute grammar Nazi but you still can't write like Stephanie Meyer, whose best-selling works were STILL riddled with misspellings, bad tenses and sentence structure by the time they hit print. Incorrect use of words will almost always get your submission discarded. Think of it like Confucius' classic maxim, "Wisdom begins when you call things by their proper names."

Dialect: Writing in dialect is fine, but write it consistently, unless there's a very deliberate reason for breaking from that consistency. Writing in street Laoglish or Khmerglish is fine, but characters talking like Papillon Soo Soo's 'Me Love You Long Time' caricature in Full Metal Jacket is going to raise red flags with me unless you're doing it VERY well with a clear purpose.

Anachronism: For pieces set in the past, I better not see something like a 13th century character in Luang Prabang debating Marxism, for example. Or, as seen in several narratives from the flight from Laos, Asian characters who say something close to 'Uff Da!' running through the jungles.

Italics: I never allow terms and phrases to be italicized. If we don't italicize sushi, ninja or rendezvous, caucus or gesundheit, I'm not going to accept italicization for sabaidee, wat, mae, pho or dok champa.

Footnotes  In an age of Google, it has to be a very rare turn of phrase or historical incident to employ them. Unless you're going the David Foster Wallace route, where the footnotes are interesting to read, leave them out. A big exception to this is the artful use of footnotes. To me, Nanh Trinh's use of a footnote in Pursue was masterful and memorable. Nanh Trinh used only one: VK: Viet Kieu, an ethnic Vietnamese who is a permanent resident or citizen or another country.

Glossaries: A slippery issue. What's a common term to some is not to others, what's obscure to others is not to many of those who live it and I think writers should give their readers intelligence some credit. When possible, use innovatively instead, not merely as a sterile 'objective' document of definition.

Jingoism and Sycophants: There's an classic episode of the Simpsons that features an essay competition where Lisa Simpson goes up against Trong Van Din and his essay "U-S-A, A-OK."  In narrative pieces and poems, fawning, undue simplistic nationalism never cuts it with me. I prefer nuanced, reflective work and loathe cardboard rehashes of the refugee narrative. So, please, pretty please no "In the Garden of 10,000 Autumn Leaves of Journey to My New Begin All Over Again."  Let me be clear that I enjoy the stories of refugees but they need to be honest and reflective of the complexity of their journeys at a personal level.

To be clear, no single one of these is an absolute deal-breaker with me, and good writing is good writing. As we often say, rule number one in writing is there are no rules and in the right place and in the right way, many of our expectations can be broken and violated for the sake of art.

But I hope this helps give you a sense of what I'm usually NOT looking for. I'd love to hear what some of your preferences and considerations are when you're reading work by Southeast Asian American writers.

Role-playing games set in Laos: Mythic Laos

Returning to the topic of role-playing games set in Southeast Asia, and particularly Laos, I admit one of the first challenges will be handling historic settings and topics involving the noble families of the time. At many points the narratives and scholarship regarding the region can come into conflict. One person's visionary hero who throws off the yoke of an empire is another's rebellious, upstart slave.

And in a way for younger and even older players, this is an excellent and complicated subject that teaches them to look critically at history and to consider the stories we tell about our communities an cultures from multiple viewpoints. It will also encourage many others to look through the textbooks and to talk to our elders for their perspectives.

For the time being, the designers of a role-playing game set in Laos would most likely want to set it during the golden age of Lan Xang, or even more interestingly, the time of 'the kingdom before the kingdom.'  There's much to consider during that bumpy era when the societies are just starting to decide what ways to do the things that make each of them distinctive. With over 160 ethnicities and minorities in the region  that's a lot to take in, and from a role-playing perspective intriguing.

A key challenge I've been informed is how one handles issues involving the nobles respectfully, because for many it is a very sensitive and potentially politically-charged issue. But I'm inclined to say that the creators of the game can take a neutral position and let individual players determine how they would like to approach the subject.

I would think a Lao role-playing game might work best set in age similar to Camelot or Charlemagne's France, a mythic era that never was, but should have been.

Players would have the opportunity to take on any number of roles in such a setting. Certainly, there are the expected ones, such as a hunter or warrior, perhaps a traveling monk, mystic or mor phi, healers and astrologers. Perhaps players would want to take on the role of a trickster like the folk hero Xieng Mieng, or a kind-hearted bandit, a traveling silapin or a farmer with a special destiny.  Some might want to play a prince looking for his lost love or an orphan trying to solve a riddle of the gods. Lao folklore is filled with many possibilities for great adventures.

Adventures could take place within the narratives of Phra Lak Phra Plam, or the saga of the hero Sinxay as he tries to defeat the giant Nyaks. The tragic love triangle in the epic Phadeng Nang Ai features the revenge of the magic, serpentine Nak whose prince is killed, ghost armies and any number of fantastic elements that could provide players a great evening or afternoon of entertainment.

I would hope the games don't turn into simple hack-and-slash "kill the Nyaks and take their stuff" but a good role-playing game allows for many different styles of play, and for Lao Americans would give them a chance to explore Lao traditions and cultural values.

Players could revisit the stories that brought our society to where we are today and the possibilities of roads not taken: What might have happened if ancient Lao had to deal with vengeful zombies, a Phi Kongkoi or hopping vampires? If they received a visit from a shapeshifting magician or a mysterious society of ape-men?
What if there had been a Lao captain like Sinbad the sailor or Zhang He? There are so many journeys to take in the lands of the kinnary and the nak, as well as opportunities to explore the legends of other people living nearby that haven't even begun to be explored.

We'll see where it all takes us!

The Minnesota Center for Book Arts Prize: Deadline April 8th!

The MCBA Prize is the first honor in the United States to recognize book art from across the field and around the world. The MCBA Prize celebrates the diversity of book art and encourages discussion rather than limiting recognition to one aspect of this vital field.

The MCBA Prize recognizes and promotes excellence in new work from across the expressive spectrum of book art. This biennial award is meant to represent the diversity of book art and encourage discussion rather than limit recognition to one aspect of this vital field.

A jury of three distinguished leaders in the field of book arts will review all submissions, and narrow the field to five finalists. These five works will appear on display at Minnesota Center for Book Arts during Book Art Biennial 2011. From these five works, the jury will select the recipient of this year's MCBA Prize.

Please review the MCBA Prize 2011 entry guidelines before submitting your work through their online submission form.

Good luck!

February 14th: Thao Worra Day 2011!

And continuing our annual tradition since 2007: We're rapidly approaching February 14th, and some of you don't like the Romantic Candy-Card Industrial Complex. So, preparing for this, I once again present the annual reminders of your options for alternate February 14th occasions to observe.

You can always celebrate these anniversaries:
1929: The St Valentines Day Massacre in Chicago.
1950: USSR and China sign peace treaty.
1963: First successful kidney transplant.

February 14th is also the birthday of:
1766: Thomas Malthus, the misanthropic British philosopher.
1817: Frederick Douglass, African-American abolitionist.
1819: Christopher Sholes, American inventor of the typewriter. Where would we be without it?

If none of these strike your fancy, I hereby endorse the celebration of Thao Worra Day. Much as in the spirit of Festivus, the festival for the rest of us, you too may engage in the following activities to mark Thao Worra Day in good spirits and much amusement:
  • Send a nice note to someone you have just met or haven't talked to in a while.
  • Declare yourself Emperor of the World (or Empress) and see if anyone notices. But you have to give back everyone's stuff by the end of the day. Or before the cops come.
  • Treat yourself to a nice meal with someone you genuinely like, but in a completely non-romantic way. I totally approve.
  • Make sure all your electronic equipment is fully recharged, that it may go well for you.
  • Read a short poem out loud, even if no one is looking. No, it doesn't have to be one of mine.
  • Leave a chair for me at your desk or table. For I may come by. But don't hold it against me if I don't. I do have a busy schedule, you know. Actually, this year, make it two. I might bring a guest. :)
Though Thao Worra Day is not for everyone, it is free for all to choose and participate in. If you do so choose to mark it, let me know how it goes.

Literary Love Fest in Minnesota!

Don't forget! The Loft Literary Center's Literary Love Fest at is at Kieran‘s on Wednesday, February 9, 2011 (5:30 to 7:30 p.m.).

The Literary Love Fest has become quite a local tradition. This year writers sharing the love include Amelia Boulware, Jill Breckenridge, Kimberly J. Brown, Carol Connolly, Pat Dennis, David Grant, Phebe Hanson, Danny Klecko, Lorna Landvik, Tim Nolan, Jim Northrup, Shannon Olson, Sarah Stonich, Faith Sullivan, Katrina Vandenberg, and Natalie Vestin.

Don’t miss it!

Incorporated in 1975 in a space above a Minneapolis bookstore, The Loft Literary Center has grown to become the nation’s largest and most comprehensive literary center. It is located in the award-winning Open Book literary arts building in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the heart of one of the most literate and book-friendly regions in the country.

The Loft Literary Center is a nonprofit arts organization offering services for readers and writers at every level. From novels to children’s literature, from playwriting to poetry, from spoken word to memoir, there’s something for everyone at the Loft.

Kundiman: Asian American Poetry Retreat

It's that time of year again:

Kundiman: Asian American Poetry Retreat

This year it's at Fordham University, Rose Hill · New York City · June 15 - 19, 2011
Submissions must be postmarked between January 15 and March 1, 2011

This project is made possible by lead funding from Fordham University and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

To help mentor the next generation of Asian American poets, Kundiman is sponsoring an annual Poetry Retreat in parternship with Fordham University. During the Retreat, nationally renowned Asian American poets will conduct workshops with fellows. Readings, writing circles and informal social gatherings will also be scheduled. Through this Retreat, Kundiman hopes to provide a safe and instructive environment that identifies and addresses the unique challenges faced by emerging Asian American poets. This 5-day Retreat will take place from Wednesday to Sunday. Workshops will not exceed eight students.

The 2011 Faculty includes Kimiko Hahn, Karen An-hwei Lee, and Jon Pineda who are all award-winning poets.

Tuition fee is $350. Room and Board is free to accepted Fellows. There's a 5-7 poem work sample required and some additional information in order to apply. More information is available at their website. Submissions must be postmarked between January 15 and March 1, 2011.

Lao American poet Phayvanh Luekhamhan has attended the program previously as has Hmong poet Andre Yang. Be sure to let your friends know about it!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Role-Playing Games and Laos

Could a Lao role-playing game succeed?

With 230,000+ Lao in the United States, and as millions of role-playing gamers around the world, I think a well-written, FUN game can, and would be worthwhile to try for many reasons, cultural and recreational.

Roleplaying games historically trace their roots back to 1971 and the game Chainmail by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. These rules were originally focused on wargames using tiny, 40mm miniatures of medieval knights, but eventually set the groundwork for the extraordinarily popular Dungeons and Dragons. Over time other games emerged, set in the distant future or in contemporary urban noir horror environments, even cyberpunk and steampunk, the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkein and Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft and many others.

Most of the early settings took place in worlds that resembled Medieval Europe, and drew from the legends of King Arthur and Charlamagne, The Grimm Brother's folk tales and Greek, Roman and Norse mythology. But over time, Dungeons and Dragons introduced a complete set of rules for playing the game based on a primarily Japanese/Chinese setting called Oriental Adventures.

In hindsight, it was really terrible, filled with a lot of cultural inaccuracies, stereotypes and exoticization of Asian societies, even for a fantasy game, but as a young person, it was really groundbreaking.

Today, we see many others written with greater depth and an expanded knowledge of Asian history, philosophy, mythology and culture. Some interesting works are set in history such as Qin: The Warring States:

or The Celestial Empire, which also transports you to life in ancient China:

Others are set in a near-historic, mythic realm such as Legend of the Five Rings, which focuses on a samurai fantasy realm besieged by any number of threats such as the undead horrors of the Shadowland or the uncertain allegiances of the serpentine naga and flesh-eating fiends.

For people who like vampires and horror storytelling games, White Wolf Games for a while had a line called Kindred of the East, which I felt was horribly uneven but filled with potential:

There's even a few movements to play games set in a steampunk world, occasionally termed Victoriental. Which is terribly politically incorrect, but I'm just pointing out that it's out there.

It goes without saying that many of these games are still written with something of a fetish and a tendency to exoticize both individuals and the Asiatic cultures being presented, but I would fault that with the individual writers and companies, and not an inherent flaw in the games in themselves.

Far too many supplements and adventures for these games go for cheesecake shots of submissive geishas with ridiculously improbable, gravity defying outfits and are written like pieces of cardboard furniture. But I would say that at least leaves the field wide open for a Lao American roleplaying game to be written on our own terms.

In upcoming posts, I'll discuss some of the possibilities and challenges that would make both mythic, historic and futuristic Laos an interesting setting for players.

As an addendum to prove my point, here's a Thai MMORPG that demonstrates there's much rich culture and fantasy that could be drawn upon to make a Lao setting of interest:

[The 500 Project] Asian American communities

I had a friend ask me recently why I always say there's over 60 different cultures who make up Asian America. In Minnesota, for example, we can find significant or emerging populations from many of the following nations and societies, each who trace their traditions back over centuries. 

As the Kartika Review and I take on the 500 project, looking for at least 10 readers of Asian America in each state, I can't also help but hope that over time, among each of these communities, we'll one day find at least one of their writers in each state, too, who might chronicle their daily lives or preserve the stories and traditions of old, or who might express the dreams of their people as they walk into the future. But here, then, for your consideration: 

  1. Afghanistan 
  2. Bangladesh 
  3. Bhanar
  4. Bhutan 
  5. Brunei
  6. Burma (Myanmar)
  7. Cambodia
  8. China
  9. Cook Islands
  10. Federated States of Micronesia
  11. Federated States of Midway Islands
  12. Fiji 
  13. French Polynesia
  14. Fujianese
  15. Guam
  16. Hakka
  17. Hawaii's
  18. Hmong
  19. Hong Kong
  20. India
  21. Indonesia
  22. Iran
  23. Japan
  24. Jarai
  25. Karen
  26. Kazakhstan
  27. Khmu
  28. Kiribati
  29. Koho
  30. Kyrgyzstan
  31. Lao
  32. Macau
  33. Malaysia
  34. Maldives
  35. Marshall Islands
  36. Mien
  37. Mnong
  38. Mongolia
  39. Nauru
  40. Nepal
  41. New Caledonia
  42. New Zealand
  43. North Korea
  44. Northern Mariana Islands
  45. Pakistan
  46. Palau
  47. Papua New Guinea
  48. Philippines
  49. Pitcairn Islands
  50. Rhade 
  51. Samoa
  52. Singapore
  53. Solomon Islands
  54. South Korea
  55. Sri Lanka
  56. Tahiti
  57. Taiwan
  58. Tajikistan
  59. Thailand
  60. Tibet
  61. Tonga
  62. Turkmenistan
  63. Tuvalu
  64. Uzbekistan
  65. Vanuatu
  66. Vietnam
This is by NO means encyclopedic, but it's a start. We know they're here in the US and US territories for the scope of this search, and we hope to find and discover many new friends along the way! 

The 500 Project for Asian American Literature

Does Asian American literature and creative writing matter?

The 500 Project seeks to profile 10 Asian American individuals from each State who answer YES to the above question.

In part of a new initiative of the Kartika Review, I and others are spending the next year looking for at least 10 individuals from each state who enjoy writing and reading the work of other Asian Americans.

In Minnesota, there are over 60 ethnic communities tracing their heritage to Asia or the Pacific Islands. These communities thrive across the United States, coast to coast.

And in each one of these communities, all of these writers must ask: Can't we find, among all of those thousands, even just 10 people who are passionate about Asian American literature, writer activists who will express without equivocation that Asian American literature matters?

For each of the 50 states, there must be at least 10 Asian Americans in each who would answer yes. So, joined by Kartika Review, I and my colleagues are seeking out those 500 writer activists.

Why should it be so hard to identify them and build a vibrant, amazing network of readers and writers? How can a canon of contemporary Asian American literature be built if we cannot even find these 500?

Are there more than 500? I believe yes, absolutely.

But let's start somewhere.

You can check out our progress over the year at:

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Cool Jerk and Lao beef jerky @ Chowgirls Parlor February 6th

Cool Jerk will be at Chowgirls Parlor (1224 second street NE in Minneapolis) this Sunday February 6, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a"Valentine Market."

Stop by to pick up Lao beef jerky for your valentine or just say "Hi." Developed by Lao American visual artist Mali Kouanchao and her family, you can also visit their website at

You owe it to yourself to see what all the rave reviews are about!

Creative Time and creating viable arts communities.

New York-based public-arts org Creative Time was recently tasked to evaluate the state of the arts in Dallas -- "to identify strengths and potential areas for growth." That report was released today as an 11-page report. Their findings were interesting, but already people are finding among the most applicable items for discussion not just in Dallas but other cities are their sense of 13 key factors for an art community to thrive.

Looking them over, I think they are worth consideration not just for cities, but cultures.

They "believe there are certain key elements that are necessary for any art community to thrive." Paraphrasing them in no particular order:

1. A sustainable artist community and opportunities for live/ work space

2. Cultural institutions with international reach, innovative programs, and historically relevant collections

3. Great patrons who support the creation, presentation, and acquisition of art

4. Mid-sized and small art spaces that support the creation of new and experimental work by local and international artists

5. Skilled and visionary arts leaders in institutions big and small

6. Excellent contemporary art galleries with international reach

7. Residency programs for national and international artists to create in their city

8. Master of Fine Arts programs to train and attract artists

9. Arts education in public schools

10. Public art to engage broad audiences and activate public spaces

11. Engaged audiences

12. Experienced art writers featured daily in primary news media

13. Civic championing of the arts through policies and urban planning

Over the next few weeks, I'll try and post some more specific thoughts on each of these, particularly in consideration of Southeast Asian American refugee arts and the current state of things.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat)

For those of us in Minnesota, be sure to catch this film when it comes to town February 18th:

Five years after celebrating Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul with a Regis Dialogue and Retrospective, the Walker premieres his new film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which was awarded Cannes’ Palm d’Or for Best Feature last spring.

Since then, critical praise for the film has been both ample and exuberant.

In this “gently comic and wholly transporting tale of death and rebirth” (New York Film Festival), the title character contemplates the reasons for his terminal illness and leaves his farm to spend his final days surrounded by loved ones in the countryside.

Encountering ghosts and other surprises, Boonmee treks through the jungle to a mysterious hilltop cave—the birthplace of his first life. Uncle Boonmee “takes a series of ravishing, dreamlike detours, [and] daringly combines joyful quietude, melancholia, deadpan humour and political awareness in its mesmerizing reunion of the living with the dead, the natural with the supernatural, history with the present” (Toronto Film Festival). 2010, 35mm, in Thai with English subtitles, 114 minutes.

February 18-19, 7:30 pm. Walker Cinema
1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN.
$8 ($6 Walker members and students with valid ID).