Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lao Steampunk: Culinary arts in the retrofuture

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I found myself discussing the UNESCO Creative Cities Network that is designating various cities as model examples of different art forms, and also had a fun twitter conversation on what Southeast Asian Steampunk cuisine would look like.

Addressing the UNESCO Creative Cities network concept, what we saw were the usual forms you'd expect: Literature, film, music, crafts and folk art, design, media arts, and what I thought was particularly interesting, gastronomy.

Before we go too much further, I should note that I'm also a fan of cryptogastronomy: the consideration of hypothetical recipes for mythic, theoretical and extinct species of flora and fauna. How might you pair a good wine with a 18th century Triceratops filet in the Lost World, for example?

But back to our subject.

I can find people showing me what theoretical steampunk ray guns and artificial wings look like, no sweat. We can now also find several Steampunk musical bands such as Steam Powered Giraffe:

But what's the Steampunk response to cooking?

A UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy celebrates a city that finds a way to preserve local know-how, traditional culinary practices and methods of cooking that have survived industrial/technological advancement.

If you have a retrofuture, those guidelines become a very interesting question. But this is a subject that most novels and stories in a steampunk world give only passing consideration to before we rush off to battle air pirates and mad scientists.

It often feels we're in a rush to finish the meal, and the conversations are more important than what's being served, the where and the how, in a steampunk story. But these can matter. (Or anti-matter, depending on the science employed in the setting.)

When you've got so much heat being given off by steam engines and other technology, surely this creates both challenges and opportunity with cooking and dining practices.

There are a few exceptions to the artistic exploration of steampunk cooking, such as Fuel for the Boiler: A Steampunk Cookbook, and of course the steampunk cakes that suggest in the retrofuture, people would employ motifs that reflect what's surrounding them such as gears and cogs.

We see many dining scenes in classic steampunk films such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Steamboy, just to name a few, but little consideration for what's practical and possible in a steam-powered diet, and how that would affect characters' health, habits and societies.

Most of the dishes we've seen proposed in the genre have explored it from a distinctly European-American perspective, but I think there's a good deal to be learned from examining how Asian nations would embrace cooking in a steampunk world.

For Asian nations in a steampunk world, there's a wide range of dishes that they would enthusiastically adapt to take advantage of high-powered, high-temperature steam technology. Rice steaming, dumplings and other dim sum staples immediately come to mind. So do steamboats and hot pots.

Would certain cultures gain advantages in being able to produce large amounts of food for their crews and entourages quickly? How might they view something like a slow-cooked barbecue?

When you have the ability to steam something within seconds rather than hours or minutes, you've reduced cooking time and you might get more time to talk with your guests at the dinner table if you're the cook. But it might work the other way: You face conversations that are very rushed because you're not waiting long together for the food to finish cooking after you've placed your order.

Will ingredients be chosen for their ability to be steamed quickly, or those that take longer to steam well? Will those that don't lend themselves well to steaming gradually fall by the wayside? Which substances will be stored aboard ships for their versatility, or despised for being excessively soluble in water?

Might we see flash-banquets emerge as an art-form, where chefs are challenged to create the most intriguing repasts that can be prepared with a set of steamers? Steam Iron Chef, if you will...

But for an underclass, this could lead to shorter meal-times and longer workdays. "What do you need a half-hour for? It takes a minute to make your soup and sandwich. You get five minutes, then back to the machines."

Especially in the industrial dystopias of steampunk, where life is nasty, brutish, short and hot, meals and how we take them have a way of sending messages within a culture and across cultures. Hopefully, some authors will take those into deeper consideration during their world-building process.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Call for Submissions: Lao American Speculative Arts Anthology

Deadline: January 13, 2012 

 Approaching 40 years in the US, we know Lao Americans love science fiction, fantasy, horror, myths and legends. Now we're looking your stories and art for the first full-length anthology of Lao American speculative art and literature.

Whether it's a story of Lao astronauts in a distant future, nak or phi in ancient Lan Xang, the missing adventures of Sithong or Xieng Mieng, or wild weretigers and kinnali in Laotown, we want to hear about it! Tales of time-traveling silapin, Lao cyborgs and superheroes, or visitors to haunted villages are all encouraged and welcomed.

Send us your best original stories between 250 to 5,555 words in length. We also accept up to 10 poems, up to 255 words per poem. For longer or shorter works, please inquire. We are also looking for examples of visual art: painting, illustrations, textiles, mixed media, photography. Visual artists can submit between 5 to 10 pieces.

All genres and sub-genres such as steampunk are welcomed, but no "fan fiction" or use of characters and settings you do not have the rights to. No glittering vampires. Work should have a reasonably clear Lao connection.

This anthology is requesting one-time electronic and print rights, after which further publication rights revert to the creator. A physical contributor's copy and e-book copy are provided.

To Submit: 
We accept RTF files by e-mail only. Put the words: LAO ANTHOLOGY in the subject line with your name. Double spaced manuscript in Times New Roman. Use italics, not underlines when necessary. Use of Laoglish is fine and encouraged, but absolutely NO italicizing Lao words. Have your contact information of the first page of the manuscript including e-mail address. Good grammar and spelling appreciated. No simultaneous submissions.

 Visual art submissions should be able to be reproduced well in black and white and sent as a digital file at 600 dpi or higher. Portrait orientation preferred, but landscape orientation accepted.

Deadline: January 13, 2012
Send submissions or additional questions to:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lao American Steampunk: Wan Hu

So, the other day my attention was called to the legend of Wan Hu, whose tale seems a particularly fine jump off point for an alternate history story.

One account by Herbert Zim in 1945 claims that "Early in the sixteenth century, Wan decided to take advantage of China's advanced rocket and fireworks technology to launch himself into outer space. He supposedly had a chair built with forty-seven rockets attached. On the day of lift-off, Wan, splendidly attired, climbed into his rocket chair and forty seven servants lit the fuses and then hastily ran for cover. There was a huge explosion. When the smoke cleared, Wan and the chair were gone, and was said never to have been seen again."

Wan Hu was a minor official of the Ming Dynasty believed to have died around 1500 CE or what would have been the Lao year 2043. It would be interesting to examine how different history would have been if he had succeeded.

Depending on who you turn to in China, Wan Hu possibly managed to lift himself a foot using rockets. In most Chinese accounts though, he is considered just an unfortunate pioneer of space travel who burned to death or was blown to pieces because of the explosion caused by the rockets, and didn't really succeed in becoming the first astronaut in history.

Still, he gets credit for having the nerve to try.

From a Lao point of view, if 1500 is accurate, In Lan Xang, this is the transition period between Somphou, who reigned between 1495-1500 and Visunarath who reigned between 1500-1520.

Lan Xang is approximately 150 years old, and 141 years away from first contact with the Dutch.

A few years earlier, Wan Hu would have been alive as Laasaenthai, the sixth son of King Sai Tia Kaphut, ruled. Crowned in 1491, Laasaenthai enjoyed peaceful relations with his neighbours in Annam and cultivated good relations with Ayudhya, "spending much of his time contemplating religious and legal matters, furthering the spread of Buddhism and building monuments." Sompou, who succeeds Laasaenthai, is his only son, according to historic records.

I imagine they all would have been very interested in the inquiries of Wan Hu. Even today, Lao celebrate our rocket festivals with great enthusiasm. What support might they have given him, what ventures might they have taken up on their own? And to be fair to Wan Hu's own experience, what misadventures?

For reference sake, this was also the era of the Hongzhi Emperor, Zhu Youcheng, who reigned between 1470-1505, and just a few years after Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, while Henry VII rules England. Ramathibodhi II rules Autthaya and Sukhothai. In Cambodia, they are ruled by Thommareachea I in the Charktomok era.

It will be 21 years before Magellan reaches the Philippines and 11 years before Malacca is conquered by Portugal, ending almost 100 years of the Malacca sultanate, which at the time was led by the sultan Mahmud Shah. Mahmud Shah is connected with the Malay legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang, which is about his failed courtship of a fairy princess.

In the century before, movable type printing has also been developed in Asia. Under the rule of Yongle Emperor, the Ming Dynasty territory reaches its pinnacle, the Forbidden City is built and Zhenghe has been commanded to explore the world overseas. Tamerlane established a major empire in the Middle East and Central Asia, in order to revive the Mongolian Empire. Also, the Inca Empire has risen to prominence in South America.


Possible steampunk or alternate history directions could be: What if Wan Hu didn't make it to the moon, but made it to Lan Xang. (Or made it to the moon and found a way back to earth, landing in Lan Xang?) Or perhaps, what happens if Wan Hu's experiment is still a failure but news of it inspires others to try, and perhaps someone in Lan Xang figures it out. Or thinks of something more interesting to do than try to go to the moon.

As the old saying goes, "Aim for the moon, hit the cow."

4th Anniversary Issue of Cha

The fourth anniversary issues of CHA has arrived.

It's hard to believe it's been four years already, but a big congratulations to all of them in Hong Kong. This issue was guest edited by Robert E. Wood (poetry) and Royston Tester (prose).

 This issue, they have poetry from Christopher Barnes, Robert Masterson, John McKernan, Tristan Coleshaw, Chris Santiago, Sonia Saikaley, DeWitt Clinton, Kenneth Alewine, Dena Rash Guzman, Samuel Arizpe, Judith Toler, Rheea Mukherjee, David W. Landrum, W.F. Lantry, Mia Ayumi Malhotra, Anuradha Vijayakrishnan, Nicholas Y.B. Wong, Bernard Henrie, Mike Ladd, and Louis Marvin.

 In Fiction, they have pieces from Alzo David-West, Gun G. Ayurzana, Matthew Davis, John David Harding, Sharon Hashimoto, Shivani Sivagurunathan, and Genevieve Yim.

They are accepting submissions for Issue #16, which is scheduled for February 2012. Ankur Agarwal (poetry) and Mag Tan (prose) will act as guest editors and read the submissions with them. Deadline is set at 15 December.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lao Civet Coffee?

A few weeks ago we talked about the growing range of Lao coffees being offered to the market. Lao forests are facing significant reduction by a wide range of development projects and illegal lumber harvesting reducing the habitat for any number of creatures, including civets.

We often associate civet coffee with islands such as the Phillipines, or Sumatra and Vietnam where a pound can cost as much as $600. But these little guys are certainly plentiful in Laos, too, and maybe we should pay a little more attention to its choice in Lao coffee berries. 

Personally, I'm not in that much of a hurry to drink civet coffee, but there are certainly many others in the world who are, and this approach might be more ecologically sound than, say, making a massive hydroelectric dam without taking anyone else's opinion into consideration. But it's just a thought. 

Lao theater: Court Forms

In 1993, James R. Brandon's The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre discussed the different forms of Lao theater, noting that there were three key forms: proto-theatrical indigenous forms, court forms that emulated Khmer-Thai models, and modern popular genres from the 20th century combining folk forms and popular Thai theatre elements such as the likay. Lao American theater is taking some different directions and inspiration. It will be interesting to see what the next forms will be when these communities get an opportunity to connect for an extended period of time with adequate resources to create a meaningful exchange.

According to Brandon:

"Court forms of dance theatre were established as Lao kings copied customs of powerful neighboring monarchs. Tradition holds that Cambodian (Khmer) court dance, along with the Ramayana and Jataka repertoire were introduced to Laos by Prince Fa Nguan in 1353. During the 14th century the Lao kingdom of Lan Sang ('Million Elephants') was established and in this time the Khmer monarchs with their troupe of female wives-dancers were the epitome of potent kingship in the region. Keeping up with the Khmer meant establishing female court dance with movement and repertoire modeled on Khmer practice. The Lao kings were never as rich as the rulers of Angkor. Nor could the Lao compete later in the 15th century with Thai rulers who, first at Ayutthaya and later in Bangkok, emulated Khmer practice... Just as Lan Sang in the early period aped Angkor, the small courts established by partition in 1700- Luang Prabang, Wiangjun and Chapassak - imitated Thai models: Thai female court dance LAKON FAI NAI, male masked dance drama KHON and shadow play NANG yai were taught and performed at court. The Lao chose not to alter the forms: the Royal Lao Ballet of the 1960s in Luang Prabang included only female dancers, the best of whom had trained in Bangkok. Rather than staging full dance dramas like the Thai and Cambodians, this smaller court favoured solo and small group dances" (Brandon, 191)

This entry is obviously approaching 20 years old, but it's an interesting start to consider how we discuss the journey of Lao theater and where we might see it go in the years ahead.

Lao American Steampunk: Decolonizing Space and Time

Silver Goggles recently posted a great commentary on the need to decolonize geography within Steampunk literature, and I would argue we should do so within both historical fiction and speculative literature as well.

As an applied example, when I wrote my Lovecraftian historical horror story "What Hides and What Returns," there were questions I had to address as a writer in order to bring a reader into Laos, minimizing confusion with a minimum of compromise.

To that end, I set the story just after 1893 when Vientiane and Champassak had been bundled together with Luang Prabang to create a state that was a French protectorate called Laos, and a Lao narrator who worked often enough with the falang that he might reasonably refer to it as Laos. For stories set earlier than 1893, we have to be even more aware of anachronisms that take us out of a story, that suspension of disbelief.

In fiction, when we write place names, do we employ French or US/English romanization to keep it authentic?  It's not always cut and dry. For a historical example, many Americans secretly stationed in Laos during the civil war in the 1960s commonly referred to the Plain of Jars as the PDJ, an abbreviation of Plaines des Jarres.

When we're using an ethnic Lao narrator, one might argue, it may not matter and you could even use a non-standard romanization instead of Long Tieng (Long Cheng), or Luang Prabang (Luang Phrabang).

Radically, there could be great power in this: Lao names and geography written by Lao the way Lao themselves feel it should be spelled, and not just the way some falang missionary or policy wonk decided we should write the names of our cities and landmarks.  That would be significant step towards decolonization.

But we also need to decolonize time. Not everyone uses the solar calendar, after all.

For Lao, the year 2011 is mostly 2554, at least since April (Deuane Si or Mesa), depending on the system we're using. These days, we're following a system that figures 543 BC as Year 1.

The Lao calendar has elements of Sino-Vietnamese and Thai-Khmer calendars, and are based on a solar-lunar mix.

Lao years are reckoned by solar phases, but our months are determined by lunar phases. This is different from European and American calendars where the months are also determined by the sun. There is also reportedly an earlier Lao system in which year one would correspond with the year 638 BC, just to complicate things.

It's not just a case of calibrating a time machine by simply setting a dial + or - 534 years.

As a further example of the complicated nature of Time, especially in a decolonized Steampunk setting, bear in mind the traditional Chinese time-keeping system. Here we see the hours associated with different creatures of the zodiac. Chinese hours are actually about two Western hours:

23:00 – 01:00: 子 Rat
01:00 – 03:00: 丑 Ox
03:00 – 05:00: 寅 Tiger
05:00 – 07:00: 卯 Rabbit
07:00 – 09:00: 辰 Dragon
09:00 – 11:00: 巳 Snake
11:00 – 13:00: 午 Horse
13:00 – 15:00: 未 Goat
15:00 – 17:00: 申 Monkey
17:00 – 19:00: 酉 Rooster
19:00 – 21:00: 戌 Dog
21:00 – 23:00: 亥 Pig

Talking about time in a truly multicultural Steampunk world should take this into account. Time travel a la H.G. Wells' classic 'The Time Machine' now becomes interestingly complicated when we consider whose sense of time applies. The visitor, or the visited?

But let's look at an additional challenge for the role of time in Lao fiction: In Laos, we can run into big headaches because time is not homogeneous among the 100+ cultures who live within its frequently shifting borders.

To elaborate on the importance of this question, consider that in the mountains and jungles of Laos, highlanders such as the Hmong used time as the measure of distance. "It's two days of walking to the next village." Miles, kilometers, etc. are very abstract concepts to them in the old days, let alone 20,000 leagues under a sea to people born in a landlocked nation.

This is, of course, just the tip of the temporal iceberg, but I think it opens up some very intriguing questions for better Steampunk set among Southeast Asian cultures. And I hope it raises the bar for anyone who decides to use a English protagonist using a modified Mayan time travel device to visit ancient Mayao in the highlands of Annam to discover the secret to immortality or some other fantastic scenario.

Phi of the Day: Phi Kra-hang or Kra-Hung

Today we're taking a quick look at the phi known as the phi kra-hang, which is a nocturnal spirit.

According to most accounts, the phi kra-hang has the appearance of a flying man with two rice trays for wings with a pestle for tail. Some less common accounts say it is a feathered flying man with a bird-like tail who should NOT be confused with the kinnali or kinnon.

Some believe it to be someone who has become skilled in the use of magic and can now grow wings and fly.  Others think it is someone who wronged a teacher, especially by breaking a promise to one. Another possible method is from eating certain gourds or walking under a bridge, but this isn't considered a very common way to become a phi kra-hang.

Upon finishing his transformation, according to the more common accounts, he now uses two circular, normally used for sifting rice, as his wings, and a small pestle as his tail held between his legs. You can see one depicted in the classic Thai light bulb commercial:

The preferred diet of the phi kra-hang is filth, but other than that, little is know of its ecology and habits. Some say it's touchy about people touching his behind, for fear of his true nature being discovered if you see his stump of a tail. There are some accounts that connect him to the krasue, but this may be a stretch. A few claim these beings are restricted to central Thailand for the most part.

There is some dispute as to whether he hurts people, or is merely ambivalent towards them. Most consider it a phi to avoid in any case. There are accounts that at night, he gives off a glowing aura. But of course, it might be a different phi in the shape of a phi kra-hang. You never can be too certain with this sort of thing.

What stories do you know about the phi kra-hang?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Phi of the Day: Phi Kee

On a lighter note, today we look at the Phi Kee of Southeast Asia, especially Laos and Thailand.

 This one is arguably one of the more helpful of the spirits, or at least ambivalent towards humans. It is encountered when you go to the toilet, following a nightmare.

Folklore suggests you should politely ask your excrement to go peacefully before flushing so that the Phi Kee will also take away any bad luck with it on its way out. No one seems to have any accounts of the consequences if you're rude or demanding about it, although given its domain, it seems something you really shouldn't push.

 But what are some of the stories and advice you've heard regarding this spirit?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lao American Steampunk: Geopolitics of 1764

A big thanks to Silver Goggles for pointing out a new example of Filipino Steampunk, High Society, and its write-up at Tinamats.

So, their framing setup is a big what-if regarding the Spanish being repelled from the walled city of Manila in 1764. It's not a bad proposal, and I find myself wondering what a Lao experience and perspective would be in 1764. Would it be an interesting year to start from?

For the Lao, historically, this is the year 2307. (But for simplicity sake, we'll use the Western calendar for the rest of this post.) What is the world like for them?

It has been 123 years since the Dutch first came to visit Laos in 1641, but they have never really had much contact with Europe since. It is approaching 60 years since Lan Xang splintered into three kingdoms. Ong Long is nearing the end of his reign in Vientiane, which is a vassal state to Burma, and will be succeeded by Ong Bun. In Champassak, Sayakumane is in the middle of his reign (1737-1791). In Luang Prabang, Sotika-Kuomane is the ruler, and also approaching the end of his 19-year reign (1749-1768) but by 1765 they will also be a vassal state to Burma.

Because of this, we should make note of Hsinbyushin, the Burmese monarch, who has just started his reign in 1763. He will go on to be recognized as the most militaristic king of his dynasty, and will successfully repel 4 Chinese invasions and end the Ayutthaya Dynasty, at the time led by Somdet Phra Chao Ekkathat, who would die in 1767.

With the end of the Ayutthaya Dynasty, their kingdom descends into chaos as provinces proclaimed independence under generals, rogue monks, and various members of the royal family. King Taksin would eventually rise from this to try and reunite the kingdom.

Cambodia is in the middle of its Dark Ages, while the Nguyen Lords are in charge of what we would today consider South Vietnam, notably Nguyen Phuc Koat, who is approaching the last year of his reign, and will be succeeded by Nguyen Phuc Thuan VERY briefly. Trinh Doanh of the Trinh Lords is nearing the end of his reign (1767).

Malacca, or what we know as Malaysia, is under Dutch control, with a recent transition in power from David Boelen to Thomas Schippers. The Dutch have ruled for 123 years now, after ousting the Portuguese in 1641.

To the north, in China, we see the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, Hongli, who ruled between 1735–1796, during the height of the Qing Dynasty's power as they ruled over 13 million square kilometers of territory. In 1755, or nine years earlier, the tallest wodden Bodhisattva statue in the world has been erected at the Puning Temple in Chengde.

Historically, in 1764, the new Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III has just risen to power. Over the course of his reign he would not be considered very good at selecting his councilors and commanders. History regarded him as a headstrong and hasty man, which further compounded the effects of his poor decisions. However, historians consider him very industrious and talented, and that he was dedicated to promoting the interests of the Ottoman Empire. Recognizing he was not very good at war, he did what he could to avoid it.

Catherine the II of Russia has been on the throne just 2 years, and will eventually annex the Crimea from the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly, in 1765, she will also authorize a new way to prepare vodka. Notably, in 1766, Ivan Polzunov will invent a two-cylinder engine. Might an earlier version emerge elsewhere in Asia?

In Japan, the 117th emperor is the Empress Go-Sakuramachi. She is two years into her reign as regent after her brother, the Emperor Momozono abdicated in 1762 and died later that year at the age of 21. 

Korea is known at the time as Joseon and, the ruler of this era is Jeongjo of Joseon who will become widely regarded as one of the most visionary of the rulers of Joseon.

Meanwhile in 1764, historically, we see the Battle of Buxar, where the British East India Company defeats the combined armies of Mir Kasim, the Nawab of Bengal, the Nawab of Awadh, and Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. King George the III rules Britain and is dealing with some rascal colonists abroad talking about liberty and other notions. Among European nations, muzzle-loaded flintlock muskets are the primary firearms used in conflicts at this time (and will be until approximately 1840.) 

Louis XV is the king of France and currently paving the road to the French Revolution with awful financial policies, unpopular wars and disgraceful debauchery.

Clement XIII has been the pope for 6 years at the Vatican, notably getting embroiled in issues with the Jesuits.

I would also take into account that the Spanish, under the rule of Charles III, have just ended the 7 Years War that resulted in them losing significant territory. 

If steampunk technologies and social philosophies were prominent in this era, what would be the technologies people want, and what about the lives of the regular people living within each of these nations? Some very interesting questions indeed, and I can see why one might opt for 1764 as an interesting start off point for an alternate history story.

Phi of the Day: Phi Hai or Phi Tay Hong

So, in our ongoing research and expansion of our understanding of the supernatural traditions in Southeast Asia, for a few weeks we'll look at different phi and other creatures connected or likely to be connected to the region.

In Thailand, one of the many Phi is the Phi Hai, also known as a Phi Tay Hong. The same term is used in Laos.

This type of spirit inhabits places or areas where someone has died an unanutural or violent death. You'll be able to identify them because they're easily offended and like to possess a victim for any reason, if they're given the excuse and opportunity. They are usually hungry and amoral according to the more common accounts.

Most folklore suggests they can be tempted to give up the host they're possessing in exchange for an offering of some sort. If the Phi Hai is being stubborn, an exorcism with incantations and lustral water can be used, and in more extreme cases, whipping apparently is enough to set things back to normal.

Although you had best be prepared to explain to everyone why you were whipping someone if it goes that far.

What are stories you've heard or remember about phi hai?

Burning with a Vision: Speculative Poetry Anthology

In the 1984, Burning With A Vision was released, edited by Robert Frazier. It's a little hard to find today but it's a definite classic of speculative poetry.

Some of the pieces, to me, push the limit of what we should rightfully consider speculative poetry, while in other cases, it's very exciting to see the poetry from writers we might otherwise connect with novels and short story forms, such as Gene Wolfe, Roger Zelazny and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Diane Ackerman has some of her early work featured here, and Minnesota is well represented with the work of Terry A. Garey and Ruth Berman.

Alan Lightman, who wrote one of my favorite books, Einstein's Dreams, has a piece. Bruce Boston, who's won numerous Stoker Awards and Rhyslings for his poetry is of course also in this anthology.

I would definitely have liked to have seen more biographical notes on these writers, but fortunately we have the internet so it's not too difficult to track most of them down to see where they went in the last 27 years.

The backtext of Burning with a Vision goes as:

"poetry that launches you into the future, into the fantastic. Here you will find the current state of the art in speculative poetry. Robert Frazier has gathered together the best work by such reknown writers as Loren Eisley, John Ciardi, Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Thomas M. Disch, Phillip Jose Farmer, Brian Aldiss, and many more. Their poems range from metaphysical speculations to light verse, in fixed forms and free. Together they point out an entirely new direction for twentieth century poetry.

'We live in a scientific age, an age of discoveries. Daily, mankind's knowledge expands, as we touch upon new ideas and images: computers, robots, spacewalks, artificial hearts, probes to the planets. Only speculative writing can keep up, as things which used to be science fiction have become everyday realities; and we continue to peer into the strange and exciting future that awaits us. It is only natural that modern poetry responds to this stimulus, use these new images, metaphors, words, and concepts. If poetry is to be about life, about the poet's world, then a significant poetry of the twentieth century must be scientifically inspired, speculative and often fanastic.

'Let the poets in the anthology travel with you as guides into your imagination. Faster than light?...faster than time?...All you will know is that you too are Burning with a Vision."

It's a little ambitious and long-winded, I admit, and I can't read it without hearing the voice of the fellow who does those early 20th century newsreels. Still, I wonder how we'd write such an introduction today.

This particular anthology doesn't reflect the voices of Asian Americans who were writing during this time, as far as I can tell. So, one of these days I'll have to check back through my collection of Asian American poetry books and see how many from the 1970s and 80s have pieces that would have been interesting additions to Burning with a Vision.

If we were going to make such an anthology today that included Asian American voices, I'd definitely include work from Cathy Park Hong, for example, Mark Rich, Anthem Selgado, Barbara Jane Reyes, and Burlee Vang.

Burning with a Vision arguably suffers from occasionally presenting some of the poets' works in a very cramped format rather than allowing it to breath fully. But given the 1980s and the proposition of an entire anthology of speculative poetry, I can see how decisions might be made like this. In contrast, Time Frames really let the poets have enough space to show us a wider range of their work, although the result is a shorter list of poets represented. Perhaps every anthology is a compromise in some area.

As a starting point, Frazier's work definitely gives us something meaty to respond to and to draw inspiration from. I'd consider it an essential text to understanding how we got to where we are today in contemporary speculative poetry.

Fungi Horror Anthology coming

The Innsmouth Free Press has announced plans for a horror anthology centered on fungi!

Naturally, for a Lovecraftian anthology, there's all manner of potential angles you can approach with this one. William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night”, and its Japanese film adaptation, Matango have already been cited as inspirations, and naturally, "The Fungi from Yuggoth". But let's see some stories and works that really go beyond with this one.

I would add the advice that the editors really appreciate non-traditional perspectives and settings. Take them places we've never been as readers. They're also interested in steampunk entries involving fungi if you have them. Good luck! They want to release it by October 2012, so keep an eye out for more details!

Laos News of the Week

Laos is proceeding with the potentially environmentally disastrous Xayaburi Dam. Studies calculate it will "block fish migration on the Mekong, threaten between 23 and 200 fish species, have damaging effects on sediment flows and put unpredictable pressures on ecosystems around the river. More than 60 million people live in the river basin of the lower Mekong and about two-thirds of those depend on fishing for all or part of their livelihood." What's not to love?

Laos and the World Bank celebrated 50 years of "partnership". Said one official, "Today we can take pride in the achievements of our enduring partnership. Laos has seen remarkable success in lifting millions of people out of poverty and improving their lives. In less than a generation, the incidence of poverty in Laos has dropped from about 50 per cent to just a little over 25 per cent."

Laos faces challenges in creating productive jobs, said an expert from the International Labour Organization at a national workshop in Vientiane to discuss the Rural Employment Strategy for Poverty Reduction. With a population of 6.3 million, and 60 percent of the population is under 25 years old, Laos has opportunities but also challenges.

Meanwhile, Lao officials have been urged to actively lead local people in undertaking commercial ventures, so they can find their way out of poverty, saying "the growing of crops and livestock rearing should tie in with local needs."

Air America veteran Richard O'Hara of Northville, Michigan and his service in Laos were discussed in the Observer & Eccentric.

In West Virginia, the story of Master Sergeant  Edward Ziobron's bravery in Laos was discussed.

In the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Lee Hines shared his experiences in Laos in "Lessons we must learn again."

The mayor of Frisco, Bill Pelham shared his story as a Forward Air Controller near the Laotian border in the Summit Daily.

The Gilroy Patch has an article on Joe Kline, who served in Vietnam and a mission in Laos to fly South Vietnamese troops in to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Bill Flittie was profiled in the Shoreview Press. Flittie was in the navy and later joined International Volunteer Services, stationed in Savannakhet.

Newsweek has a story on "What Made the Spooks Disappear," covering CIA operatives like Tony Poe who served in Laos with the Hmong.

USAID has a press release on 80-year old Hal Freeman, who was an education Foreign Service Officer with service around the world including Laos with the Hmong.

Thailand and Laos have officially opened a new Friendship Bridge.

And, Justin Bieber is auctioning off his snake to help a charity that builds schools in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala. His baby boa constrictor, Johnson.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Future Lovecraft Arrives In December

This December, the Innsmouth Free Press is launching their new anthology, Future Lovecraft, which will feature my poem, "The Deep Ones", making it the first time it is anthologized in a Lovecraftian anthology, although it appeared previously in my first full-length collection, On the Other Side of the Eye.

When the original call went out, they were seeking Lovecraftian science fiction stories. ‘Lovecraftian’ could include Mythos elements, but they have a broader view of what Lovecraftian means. Stories could be set in the near future or distant future. They could be cyberpunk, biopunk, space opera, dystopic, post-apocalyptic, or any other flavour of science fiction.

They wanted to be surprised by the contributors' visions of the future. They wanted work that thought beyond the borders of the usual settings (The United States seemed to be the only place where spaceships land). Future Hong Kong. Post-apocalyptic Africa. The drowned coastlines of Australia in a warmer world. A city beneath the waves near Easter Island. India five thousand years from now. The distant spaceport of New Port-au-Prince. The Martian and Lunar colonies.

They wanted protagonists with diverse and interesting backgrounds. They were interested in women who can battle Nyarlathotep’s deadly soldiers with wit and bravado, not sacrificial space-maidens, or the story of the little folk that are often forgotten, like the cook aboard the space vessel who discovers a terrible secret.

We'll see in a few weeks what everyone came up with! Some of the standout stories I'm watching for include "Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep", "A Comet Called Ithaqua", and "Concerning the Last Days of the Colony at New Roanoke". Look forward to this one!

Salon: If Tolkien were Black

This week at Salon, the work of prose writers of color in speculative literature has gotten some attention. It's worth checking out, but I would also give a shout out to the Carl Brandon Society and a nod to recent World Fantasy Award winner, Dr. Nnedi Okorafor who are all doing significant work to contribute meaningfully to this discussion.

I appreciated the section where "Jemisin finds deeper problems in “certain expectations of the genre that are rooted in Western cultural assumptions that are not necessarily true. For example: the whole good-versus-evil focus, the binary. You see that in so much of epic fantasy. The Dark Lord is really bad, we know this. Because he’s dark. Well, did you do something to him? Doesn’t matter, he’s dark. That’s why he’s bad and that’s why you’ve got to go kill him. That kind of thinking I inherently do not trust.”

Hopefully, through the course of NaNoWriMo this month, we'll see the creation of work that will really keep the momentum going on tackling the monotony that's always lurked at the worst edges of the field.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Iliad in the New Yorker and Lao Epics

The New Yorker has new piece by Daniel Mendelsohn contemplating a slimmer, faster Iliad, based on Stephen Mitchell's new translation, which, among other things, completely cuts out Chapter 10, or the Doloneia. The abstract is extremely truncated, but the actual article is filled with some very interesting observations that would also apply for Lao American writers as we wrestle with our own literary traditions, for epics such as that of Sinxay.

We can spend so much time focused on the preservation and historicity of the classical Lao texts that we forget to make them living, breathing texts for ourselves. But that's for a larger discussion in the years ahead, I suppose.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

"Indochina's Vicious Swamp Demons"

Author Brad Steiger, in his 1999 work, The Werewolf Book, notes a curious 1940 account in Ed Bodin's Scare Me! A Symposium on Ghosts and Black Magic. 

In Steiger's entry "Indochina's Vicious Swamp Demons," he retells Bodin's story of a Colonel Marchand supposedly sent in 1923 to a French military colony. It isn't clear which part of Indochina, but he brought his daughter Yvonne Marchand with him.

A native thief,  faced between the choice of turning himself in to the authorities or crossing a haunted swamp, chose to surrender to the French.

Colonel Marchand, amused by the superstition, ordered the thief cast into the middle of the swamp. The thief begged for lenience and threw himself at the feet of Yvonne Marchand, but to no avail. He was marched into the swamp at bayonet point.

However, later that evening, he came back to the French camp and carried off the colonel's daughter to the swamp.

A search party was organized and they found the thief bleeding to death, covered in severe bites and scratches, his jugular torn open. With his dying breath, the thief claimed Yvonne did this horrible thing to him.

Pressing further into the swamp, the men found Yvonne, "naked except for a strip of cloth about her thighs. The searchlights caught the streaks of blood on her body, but her father was more horrified by the fiendish grin that parted her lips. Yvonne stood there before them, her teeth flashing as if she were some wild thing waiting for prey to fall within reach of her claws and fangs. To the astonishment of the entire search party, the girl rushed the nearest soldier, ready to gouge and bite."

They subdue her, but when Yvonne comes to her senses, she describes her capture. When they stopped in the swamp, hideous, fanged demonic faces bobbed all around the pair.

She described the strange sensations that came over her that drove her to kill the thief, remarking "I gloried in tearing away his flesh, in hearing him scream, in seeing him drop to the ground and crawl away. Then the faces summoned me on into the swamp. I tore off my clothes and began to bite myself. The faces laughed at me, and I laughed too."

Bodin's account is difficult to corroborate.

I haven't found any resources highlighting the service of a Colonel Marchand being stationed in Indochina around this time, but that does not wholly rule out the possibility. Proper, serious research of Southeast Asian metaphysics and the supernatural was not extensive among Europeans at the time, so we can only speculate what exactly they had encountered.

The floating fanged faces could have been any number of phi, including krasue, but there may be other possibilities. What do you think?

Little Laos on the Prairie: 1 Year Anniversary of the First Meeting of State Parties

Little Laos on the Prairie has an article reflecting on the first anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions' first Meeting of State Parties in Laos. It's worth checking out.

Lao American Adoptees: "Oddjob"

In Christopher Robbins' 1987 book, The Ravens, there is a brief passage in Chapter 10:

"Oddjob-the original Raven orphan, was long gone-officially adopted by an Air Force mechanic and taken back to the States..."

If anyone happens to know what happened to him, I'd be very interested in finding out.

Valentine's Day, 1971 in Laos

40 years ago in 1971, the secret airbase of Long Tieng in Laos was attacked on Valentine's Day. Christopher Robbins' wrote about the incident in his 1987 book The Ravens, Chapter 10, "Valentine". Here is an excerpt that illustrates many of the lingering issues we've been discussing over the years:

"The F-4 went in, but instead of returning to make multiple passes the pilot took the lazy course and pickled off his entire load of six CBU [Cluster Bomb Unit] canisters at once. Shep, his leg hastily bandaged, was outside with Burr Smith and a platoon of Meo [sic] guerrillas when the plane screamed over. Shep looked up and saw the CBU pods come off the aircraft and then watched in horrified fascination as the clamshells flew apart and the bomblets were spewed out. He yelled to his companions and hit the gorund. When he raised his head, after the CBU had passed beyond him, Burr Smith, himself, and a single Meo survived.

The exploding CBU tore through the village like a hurricane. Huts, trees, and telephone poles disintegrated before the Ravens' eyes. "You're dropping on the friendlies! Swedberg yelled into his radio. "You're dropping on the friendlies!"

A wall of destructive flame raced toward the Raven hootch. "You sorry-assed son of a bitch," Duehring shouted, and dived for the floor.

It was even worse than Swedberg feared. The pilot had misunderstood his instructions regarding the tracer and exactly reversed them-he had not dropped the deadly load where the tracers were ricocheting, but on the friendly machine gun itself.

Those in the hootch had hit the floor and were squirming on their bellies to get under the bed or behind some sort of cover. The CBU broke over building, peeling back the roof. It set the operations shack on fire, along with the Company sleeping quarters, the Air America hostel, and the Raven dining room, blasting the pool table into fragments. The CIA bar took a direct hit and burned to the ground. But the wily bears survived the holocaust by pressing themselves against the rock wall at the rear of their cage, which was built out from a cave.

It was obvious that the F-4 had dropped CBU, and from a great enough height for it to have a large pattern, (Clamshell CBU explodes in a doughnut patter, creating a circle of fire around a hollow. What looked to the Ravens like a solid wall of fire approaching them was actually a circle surrounding them-and the .50 caliber machine gun was directly in the center of it.)

With the building burning down around their ears, the Americans prepared to move back to the bunker, where a series of sporadic explosions made them think they were under renewed attack. It then dawned on them that the continuing explosions were their own ordnance. "Christ," somebody groaned, "some of that shit is time delayed."

"Confirm CBU-24," Swedberg radioed Cricket. 

"CBU-24 confirmed," Cricket responded. There was a pause. "Also CBU-49 mixed in there."

CBU-49 was a canister of time-delayed, baseball-sized bomblets that, according to the book, went off randomly over a thirty minute period, each one blasting out 250 white-hot ball bearings. In reality, they often continued to explode for as long as two hours, and now they were littered throughout the compound."

Magic Kingdoms and Lang Xang: The Dumbo Connection

From The Night They Burned The Mountain, by Dr. Thomas A. Dooley (1960) in the village of Muong Sing in Northwest Laos:

"Frequently at night we show a movie on the wall of our house. Some 1,000 people sit on the grass and watch in wonder. Little Guntar loves the movies. I think movies have just as much therapeutic value as antibiotics. Walt Disney gave me a 16 mm. version of Dumbo. Dumbo has enchanted North Laos, and the children watch for him every time we show this movie. They never seem to tire of it. "What a wonderful land America must be," they say. "They have huge elephants and the elephants are pink and green and blue and purple. And some of these elephants have ears so big that they can fly through the air." Dumbo is winning friends in the ten-year-old bracket for sure." 

Monday, November 07, 2011

Journal of the Day: Poetry Midwest

On November 7th we have the anniversary of the 1967 formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by Lyndon B. Johnson, and the day Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were reportedly killed in 1908.

And in the year 2000, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration discovers one of the country's largest LSD labs inside a converted military missile silo in Wamego, Kansas.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to today's journal of the day, the Kansas-based Poetry Midwest, which announced on October 27th that it was taking a hiatus to regroup and figure out what they really wanted to do as a journal. Which is understandable. Sometimes we need to take stock and assess what it takes to really do better and live up to our potential.

Merlin Mann wrote an essay to that effect encouraging all of us to figure out not only to create, but to create better work and to really push ourselves. It was interesting food for thought.

My poem "The Daughters of Barabbas" appeared in Poetry Midwest in September, 2006 in issue #16 on page 21. It was a short speculative poem taking on the final fate of a Biblical figure, the rebel Barabbas.

Poetry Midwest was established in 1995 and was to be published 3 times a year, although in actual practice it was a little off and on, such as a gap between 1997 and 2001. But it came back. 

A little backstory for "The Daughters of Barabbas" is that certain schools of thought note that for a time, Jesus of Nazareth's life is unaccounted for until he returns in his thirties. Some speculate he may have traveled towards the East and spent some time learning about the world there. 

Written in the summer of 2006, this poem was an abstract speculation on what might have happened to Barabbas. He disappears from canonical records after he is released. if he ever existed at all, according to some scholars. My poem takes a radically different direction than Par Lagerkvist's 1950 Nobel Prize winning novel, but does explore what kind of faith this man might have found for himself in the end for all of his travels. "The Daughters of Barabbas" has not appeared in any other collections of mine so far.

Here's hoping that Poetry Midwest has a successful transfer between servers and makes a comeback when the time is right. 

Toys Are Us and Wight in Apex

A few months back I supported Zac Shavrick's kickstarter project, the awesome Toys Are Us: a Crowd Driven Art Project. The results were great and to me really exemplify the best of what kinds of projects Kickstarter can support:

And it arrived just in time following my recent admission to the Horror Writers Association and the publication of my poem  'Wight' in Apex Magazine thanks to their new editor Lynne M. Thomas. It's rare that such moments of greater poetry occur in life, I think.

He's not accepting commissions until after mid-December, but I'd definitely recommend him and give my thanks to Kickstarter for connecting us as artists. Here's to his continued success. And here's a video of his traveling exhibition visiting the kickstarter founders. Watch closely, and you might see someone holding a familiar sculpture: 

Toys Are Us- Pickup Truck Exhibition from Kickstarter on Vimeo.

Laos News of the Week

Laos gets its first airbus after Libya cancels their order. They have had a bit of a windfall after Libya's order fell through. These 142-seat planes will be used for the Vientiane, Bangkok, Hanoi and Kunming routes, just in time for 2012: Visit Laos Year (and Year of the Nak!)

5NPlus is taking over the last remaining shares of Lao Industrial Resources in Vientiane. The plant specialized in tellurium refining. Tellurium is used in solar panels, semiconductors, coloring ceramics, cds, Blu-Ray discs, and phase change chips, among other purposes.

Lao farmers need an alternative to opium according to Irin News. Antinarcotics efforts slashed opium production from 26,800 hectares to 1,500 hectares between 1998 and 2006. Since 2007 opium farming has doubled to 3,000 hectares and the upward trend is still continuing, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Sychan Vakongxiong, a Hmong opium farmer is interviewed, as is Edna Legaspi and Khamen Phomally, deputy district governor of Xay District in Oudomxay and chairman of the local committee on drug control.

Over 3,500 mail order brides were rescued from China, including women from Laos who were victims of human trafficking.

Bombs to Bracelets: Jewelry that Aids Vietnam War Stricken Laos looks at the work of Article 22, a company that has been making efforts to raise awareness of unexploded ordnance left over from the war for Laos.

In a stranger turn, Lao are apparently involved in smuggling exotic animal parts. Members of an international syndicate allegedly use Thai prostitutes to 'hunt' and export South African rhino horn and also lion bones to supply the "Vichai Company" which it turns out is actually Xaysavang Trading Export/Import and its owner in Laos is said to be a man known as Vixay Keosavang. It's stuff like this that seriously makes me want to start rumors that other things besides animal parts are effective "natural viagra."


Lydia Laube's Lost in Laos just got panned in New Zealand as a crappy travelogue. It's an encouraging sign that people now are expecting a lot more out of stories by falang trampling all over Muang Lao.

And finally, back in September, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an interesting article on the notion of the anarchy-prone Zomia, which is essentially most of Laos and Southeast Asia. While there are many points of contention, it's definitely an important read to consider.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Poet to Poet: An Interview with John Rezmerski

Usually when we see interviews of poets it's done in a conventional journalism format. Question and response. And rarely do we see journalists ask questions that reflect a real familiarity with poetry and poets. Or else, they're so academic, they're unreadable.

Ezra Pound is famous for his quip, "poetry is news that stays news." When poets interview poets, I've begun to question why we aren't interviewing each other truly as poets.

So, for the last few months, I've been interviewing Minnesota poets through the format of poetry to see what would happen. John C. Rezmerski, an amazing Minnesota poet, particularly in the field of speculative poetry, graciously agreed to be interviewed using this method, and the result is now up at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. 


Lao Steampunk Sundays: Muzeo Exhibit

This season in Anaheim, California, they're conducting a exceptional exhibit on Steampunk and Victorian era art and cultural objects at the new Muzeo museum. It's well worth attending for $13.

Muzeo frames the exhibit by stating that "Steampunk" is considered by many to be a growing modern reaction to man’s conquering of scientific boundaries. As technology and science took us beneath the sea, to the Earth’s interior and even to the moon, humanity began to wonder if its reach had, indeed, exceeded his grasp. Writers, artists and craftsmen began to entertain the notion of what life would have been like had circumstances pushed these innovations just a little bit further. We might have had computers before gas combustion engines, the Internet before the microchip, or warships in the air before the Wright Brothers ever flew. This spawned a whole new sub-genre of science fiction - Steampunk. With this new sub-genre came a whole fresh aesthetic...a Neo-Victorian examination of clothing, gadgets, art, music and literature."

Most of the items on display from the steampunk exhibit are domestic but there's a good range including a number of original art pieces from Phil Foglio, the mind behind Girl Genius, easily one of my favorite steampunk comic strips. 

They also displayed concept art for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and extensive overviews of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A discussion of Charles Babbage and his difference engine was of course included with the proposal that had he been successful we might have had home computers before the Wright Brothers perfected flight.

H.G. Wells' Time Machine was supposed to be on exhibit but apparently got lost in time on the way.

There was a strong presence of the influence of steampunk on Disney and Disney's role in inspiring the steampunk aesthetic. Atlantis: The Lost Empire and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are featured, for example, as well as Disney's Mechanical Kingdom:


The strangest element of the exhibit was the notable absence of discussion regarding the Japanese influence on Steampunk aesthetics, or really, other cultural responses from around the globe, such as South America or Russia.

Steampunk has a habit of mixing with many other pop culture concepts, and this exhibit demonstrated this with several examples, notably Steampunk Batgirl who's running around with a real bat.

One of the pieces I'd been looking forward to as a Lao artist was the steampunk elephant, which was an impressive brass puppet. I would have loved to have seen in action but even behind glass, it is more than enough to stir the imagination of what is possible. 

I was impressed by the aesthetics and humor behind the steampunk vampire hunting kit. I wondered what an equivalent would look like for use in Southeast Asia against phi and nyak:

By far, my favorite was the practical accessory, the Bibliophile Hat. It would allow you to store a book and or writing kit in it, and included a bookstand with a page holder in the lid that was perfect for taking tea with. If I was stuck in the retrofuture, this would be my hat of choice.

What really makes this exhibit outstanding, however, is the historical Victorian exhibit in the other gallery of the Muzeo. When you see the history that happened so closely juxtaposed to the history 'that could have happened' it's really quite amazing. 

The exhibit doesn't flinch from opening with a note on the social conditions of the time that concerned people living in the empire, such as child labor. They also drew attention to a near constant state of war. They exhibit points out there was a military clash every year somewhere in the Empire throughout the entirety of Queen Victoria's reign, notably the Crimean War. 

We see the British Empire's art and literature flourished tremendously during this century, along with technological advances. As artists and human beings we must ask: Does great conflict produce great advances? It's the Harry Lime question from the Third Man, I suppose.

There was an amazing range of walking canes on display that showed a dizzying array of personalization in materials, decor and utility. Professional canes stored anything from scalpels for a surgeon to easels, brushes and paints for an artist, or bottles of perfume and fans for ladies. They also demonstrated the wide variety of match safes, cheroot cases and coin purses that demonstrated status and uncommon personality.

I can see to a degree why many would be nostalgic for this era compared to today's mass production. The variety of ways for self-expression, if one had the means, was extraordinary. 

The exhibit explored the rise of Orientalism and the demand for goods and objects from the East that were considered exotic, and how Indian artists, among others, worked to create art about different cultures to build even greater demand for such objects. The notable example to me being an intricate Indian sculpture of exotic Chinese mythological figures for export to England.

There's a lot I've walked away with from this. Some interesting possibilities for alternate history, but also many concerns that writers ought to engage with, especially those of us from post-colonial communities. But that's a topic for another post. See this exhibit if you can.