Saturday, December 31, 2011

Challenges in teaching Lao arts

Dr. Lynette Henderson in her 2005 article "Teaching Cultural Traditions: Art of Laos" from the May issue of Art Education discussed a 2003 project of interest to our community.

The project involved Children's Art Workshop, the Program for Southeast Asian Studies and Hayden Library at Arizona State University and the Arizona Lao Association. They sought to teach Lao art traditions to 25 students from diverse communities in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

"Our problem became, then, how to give students necessary skills, maintain a sense of individual vision and remain true to the form and function of Lao art and design as we understood it." Henderson noted.

"Teachers should ask students to define and identify primary tenets of the tradition in their own work and then contrast those with familiar tenets as a learning tool, such as symmetry and symmetry, for example, which are common principles in Western art," she noted as a recommended practice.

In her concluding remarks we can find some interesting recommendations. I will be interested to see how many of these are applied and incorporated into existing efforts over the next twelve years in particular. She writes:

"Due to the differing nature of traditional Lao craftsmanship and the Western emphasis on self-expression, issues arose both during the planning stages and in the classroom on exactly what and how to teach Lao weaving and design. Context also played an important role regarding potential conflicts in terms of the flexible nature of a Saturday art program, regarded more as entertainment than education by some parents and students, and demographics of the student body. Teacher and staff awareness of those factors and possible ensuing issues, however, will help preparations of future classes for issues that need resolution, and to remain focused on both the material and conceptual aspects of art production. In addition, the notion of pushing into deeper content in student artworks is one that can be built up through a series of activities moving from simpler lessons to a more complicated mixture of form and function. Over time and with focused attention, the presentation of a multitude of art traditions will become more commonplace within art education, particularly within teacher preparation programs. The issues will seem less contentious as appropriate language and viable solutions become easier to access through repeated practice, leaving the way open for both techers and students to successfully navigate and enjoy the complex mysteries of art and culture."

But what are some approaches and challenges you see with teaching Lao art?

Kenneth Rexroth's Classics Revisited

Rummaging about this weekend, I found my old copy of Kenneth Rexroth's Classics Revisted, which I would always strongly advise both emerging and experienced writers. I encourage you to look at for an intriguing approach to viewing what Rexroth refers to as the "basic documents in history of the human imagination." He provides a series of short, typically 5-page essays on classic texts that provide an excellent starting point for an alternate but still interesting consideration.

Particularly as we look at the work of current writers who are in the process of creating mashups, alternate histories, authorized sequels for books by other people, etcetera, I found myself even more appreciative of Rexroth's quest. A great problem with many of these modern 'texts' is that they are not being written with the intention of providing a very deep and interesting experience for all of their transmutations and literary alchemy. Most are mere stunts, which are not necessarily bad things, but their transformative effect on readers can often be dubious.

I am not necessarily saying the solutions will be found strictly within the pages of Rexroth's work, but I think a great many of us, especially within speculative literature, would do well to refamiliarize ourselves fully with the classics and why they resonate across the centuries.

For Lao steampunk writers, even as we talk of the future that never was, are we also addressing the universal human issues in ways that allow us to see past, present and future in innovative ways with a deep literary core firmly fastened to it? What will it mean to do so?

Over recent centuries, Lao literature has become increasingly clipped and known for its brevity, compared to the epic forms of old that used to take several nights to recite. This brevity does not necessarily constitute a handicap, but it would if we do not maintain a firm sight on the aims of literature over chatter.

But take a look at Classics Revisited if you get the opportunity and let me know what you think, and what resonates with you.

Friday, December 30, 2011

5 years of On The Other Side Of The Eye in 2012

In an interesting turn of fate, my first full-length book of Laotian American speculative poetry will be turning 5 in 2012, the Year of the Dragon. So, needless to say, expect a number of fun things and events to celebrate the occasion, especially around August. 

Although it is currently out of print, I am happy that it has touched as many lives as it has up to this point, and I am thankful to all of my readers who've been there with me along the journey!

W. Somerset Maugham on Freedom.

"If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too."

-W. Somerset Maugham, "Strictly Personal," 1941

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Haiku Movie Review: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

There goes three hours.
Watch the original films.
Nothing to see here.

Lao Steampunk: States of Power

So, for the 300th post this year, I'm taking note of a quote that has lingered with me by Jean Luc-Godard, who said "It is the dream of the state to be one. It is the dream of the individual to be two." in Film Socialisme

Within Lao steampunk, there are several questions that must be addressed for would-be writers creating alternative history.

Lan Xang and the three kingdoms, prior to their consolidation as Laos, and a French protectorate, before gaining their full independence, was likely not Camelot, but neither was it necessarily a dystopian kleptocracy posing as a plutocracy. With the dearth of material available regarding much of the 1600s and 1700s, we can only guess at many elements.

Alternate history can certainly suggest what if it had been able to live up to its ideal, but that route of excessive romanticizing holds little interest for me. Perhaps other writers will prefer that approach, but I wouldn't consider it terribly sophisticated.

We might take a better cue from the old Japanese manga, Lone Wolf and Cub, which presented a gritty counterpoint to Don Quixote, a samurai who propped up the emperor as the chief executioner, who still lives by samurai ideals of bushido, even to his detriment, even after abandoning his station and becoming a ronin, in a world that has already abandoned most of those principles anyway.

But what does a Lao steampunk hero look like, if they're keeping true to the anarchic punk principles of independence and self-determination. These are already largely Lao values for a long time anyway, so the question might become: How far is too far, then? 

Good Lao steampunk is most likely going to have to go into a controversial position of supporting neither the state nor predatory colonial powers. So how does that play out, and how does one create an effective, interesting protagonist? One might look to the example of the traditional folk hero Xieng Mieng if this is the approach. One who is in the state, but not wholly of the state, but isn't going to throw the state under the bus to sell out to another power. 

Here, I would look at the words of James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man for what a Lao steampunk 'hero' might embody:  "I said that I had lost the faith, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?"

Or, as Joyce's protagonist continues: "I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use— Silence, exile and cunning."

Debora Kuan's 'Pastoral"

Asian American poet Debora Kuan has a poem, "Pastoral" featured at the Poetry Society of America. The Poetry Society of America has featured a number of Asian American writers in the past including Barbara Jane Reyes.  Helpfully, Kuan writes about her poem, and why she opted to use surrealism and ekphrasis within her work.

She writes: "They are not so much full-blown characters as they are gestures at ethnicity. I wanted the poem to be about exile and migration—my parents' and grandparents' stories, and consequently, mine—but without the attendant burdens of history or time, or the strict parameters of a specific nationality. This openness is very important to me. As a writer steeped in the Western canon, I know very little about Chinese poetry and literature, classical or otherwise, but I want to speak to this schism, as well as the loss and frustration I feel in the face of a tradition I have only the most superficial access to."

There are questions within here that could apply to the challenges for Lao American and other Southeast Asian American poets as well. Does this make it good poetry? Is it readable? Would we return to it? When we employ these techniques, what lingers?

Kuan is "the recipient of a Fulbright creative writing scholarship (Taiwan), University of Iowa Graduate Merit Fellowship, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholarship, Santa Fe Art Institute writer's residency, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. She has taught creative writing at The College of New Jersey and the University of Iowa, and has written about contemporary art for Artforum, Art in America, Modern Painters, Paper Monument, and other publications. She also writes fiction and was a fellow in the CUNY Writers' Institute's program last year."

"Has Asian American Studies Failed?"

Timothy Yu asks this interesting question, "Has Asian American Studies Failed?"  on his blog. It's an important question, and one that others are asking in many other sectors, such as Hyphen Magazine's provocative post on "Jean Quan and the Death of Asian America."

I addressed the Hyphen post over at Little Laos On the Prairie and what it could mean for many Lao, but many of the issues also apply to Asian American Studies. Failure and death are pretty final words to be using.

Optimistically, I would consider them only setbacks, rather than defeats and the death of certain dreams. But we cannot be complacent, either. Or take each other for granted. I think leadership at the Association for Asian American Studies and others do need to consider Tim's proposals, especially in regards to bringing the field truly back to the people. We need to connect it more concretely to our abilities to succeed and thrive not only within academia but beyond it. To survive, it cannot be a liability to our youth or their families. To survive, we must see not only what has been, but what can be.

A thought from Walt Whitman

"And I will show that there is no imperfection in the present, and can be none in the future, And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may be turn'd to beautiful results, And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death, And I will thread a thread through my poems that time and events are compact, And that all the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any." -Walt Whitman

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A thought from Bertrand Russell

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision" - Bertrand Russell.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mulling a critique of Bag of Bones

I found myself a little underwhelmed by the recent mini-series adaptation of Stephen King's Bag of Bones, but I did find one critique from Entertainment Weekly particularly interesting. It was a good warning of how not to write or film a horror story: 'Bag of Bones' attempts to say something about care-giving and leave-taking. But, much of the time ... it’s busy trying to scare the pants off you and failing in the attempt."

Now I'm left wondering how one might do such a story about care-giving and leave-taking well. And also scare the bejeezus out of you without resorting to dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream sequences and cheap thrills.

But for those of you who've read Bag of Bones, where do you think it went right, and what might have been done better?

Lao Steampunk: Sounds of SEAsian Steampunk?

Over the weekend, one of the topics that came up was what the sounds of Southeast Asian steampunk would sound like. Thanks to Silver Goggles and the others for raising these thought-provoking questions.

So, now I'm left considering what would happen if we give the traditional instruments a steam-powered or electric enhancement.

Bear in mind that a traditional Lao orchestra has at least 13 players: One ranat thum, a metallophone with steel keys. 1 ranat ek, a wooden xylophone and a ranat thum lek, complement the ranat thum. Two kim hammer dulcimers are considered ideal. Among wind instruments, at least one gla jub pe, known as a long-neck flute. The key stringed instruments include 1 saw sam sai, or 3-string fiddle and 1 saw ou, or 2-string fiddle, as well as 1 saw duang, which is a high-pitched 2-string fiddle. Finally, you also need a larng gong, an 18 piece gong, and glong tuk, a drum, a ta phon mon, which is a royal drum, 1 cymbal set and 1 bell set. Obviously, people have worked with more or less depending on the occasion.

Among contemporary Lao musicians you can frequently hear good examples of what Lao steampunk music might sound like in the music of Ketsana. She frequently incorporates the traditional with new technology and modern musical aesthetics and a love of science fiction to explore what is possible:

In other occasions, a khaen would be a key instrument in a steampunk environment. An electric khaen would most likely be like other instruments where electricity is used to amplify and manipulate the sound using a filter. We might turn to the work with electric flutes to get a sense of what pioneers of the electric khaen would be attempting during this time.

I imagine if we were to keep it steam-centered, the steam-enhanced khaen would instead be closer to a pipe organ, a regal, or a portative, rather than played the traditional way. Might we see something of a John Henry scenario where musicians try to demonstrate that more interesting work can be performed using a non-enhanced instrument?

But the other question is what would the bands then be playing and what would be the aim of concerts using such technology? Would these instruments be luxury items only in the hands of state-approved orchestras housed in the capital and major cities, or found among traveling musicians who reinforce the ideals of the state? Or would some be found in the hands of others who wanted to show other possibilities?

How might such instruments transform a presentation of a Lao epic like Phra Lak Phra Lam? Would there be greater or lesser theater to these presentations. Would such marvelous instruments overshadow the presentation on stage that the performers insist on even more elaborate stylization in order to attract the audience attention back to the stage?

Perhaps some would go to great lengths to create instruments particular to their aesthetics. In this scenario, there might be great pride in individually-crafted instruments, something similar to Charles Mingus who invented instruments to produce particular sounds for particular songs. What an interesting proposition it would be, to see a society less focused on creating individual, personal weapons imbued with the crafter's energy and self, but on objects for the creation of art.

Just some thoughts to consider. There are many more possibilities to explore.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

A quote on science and poetry by Paul Dirac

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite"-Paul Dirac.

The precision and truth within this statement is amazingly insightful and a poet can spend a lifetime exploring this. Amusingly, this statement is sometimes attributed to Kafka, and it would certainly be appropriate of him.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Imagining the Imaginary Audience...

In a 2003 review of Yi by Yang Lian for Rain Taxi, Lucas Klein opened with this interesting paragraph that has since lingered with me as a poet:

"Over a decade ago Harvard Sinologist Stephen Owen took on contemporary Chinese literature with his article "The Anxiety of Global Influence-What is World Poetry?," wherein he succeeded, through astonishingly sensible and even-tempered writing, in laying out a pretty bullet-headed point. Now required reading for Chinese poetry courses in English-speaking universities, the article faults Bei Dao and his fellow Misty Poets-poets who were raised on clandestine translations of experimentalist writing from outside China-for not being Chinese enough. The main point of Owen's review is simple: "Poems are made only for audiences," and the audience Misty Poetry is written for is international, not Chinese. He asks, "is this Chinese literature, or literature that began in the Chinese language? For what imaginary audience has this poetry been written?"

It's an interesting question as I imagine what might happen if we applied it within Lao American poetics: Is it Lao literature, or literature that began in the Lao language, or a Lao consciousness? Who are our imaginary audiences for whom we have been writing?

At the moment, the good majority of Lao poets abroad are writing in languages other than Lao, although many engage in Laoglish. This becomes increasingly interesting as Lao adapt and adjust to our new transnational mandala.  Wrestling with the question of what it means to be a people. Do we truly hearken back to Lan Xang, or should we embrace Lao as a new identity entirely, one only recently come into being in the early 20th century? Of course, Tai Dam, Khmu, Hmong, Mien, Lisu, Lahu and others who lived within Lao borders must also ask similar questions.

Over time, I usually find it's best not to let one's self get to tripped up over questions like this. Create first, sort later. Strive for readability, although as I told one student of mine: "As a poet, if I'm doing it right, and if as a reader, you're doing it right, we won't read a poem right in the very first try."

To Read: Alternative Alamat

One of the interesting books I'm looking forward to reading over the next few months is Alternative Alamat.

As the editors describe it:
"Philippine mythology is full of images that ignite the imagination: gods of calamity and baldness, of cosmic time and lost things; the many-layered Skyworld, and weapons that fight their own battles; a ship that is pulled to paradise by a chain, and a giant crab that controls the tides… Yet too few of these tales are known and read today. “Alternative Alamat” gathers stories, by contemporary authors of Philippine fantasy, which make innovative use of elements of Philippine mythology. None of these stories are straight re-tellings of the old tales: they build on those stories, or question underlying assumptions; use ancient names as catalysts, or play within the spaces where the myths are silent. What you will find in common in these eleven stories is a love for the myths, epics, and legends which reflect us, contain us, call to us–and it is our hope that, in reading our stories, you may catch a glimpse of, and develop a hunger for, those venerable tales."

 “Alternative Alamat” also features a cover and interior illustrations by Mervin Malonzo, a short list of notable Philippine deities, tips for online and offline research, and in-depth interviews with two people who have devoted much of their careers to the study of Philippine folklore and anthropology, Professors Herminia Meñez Coben ("Explorations in Philippine Folklore" and "Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Society, and History") and Fernando N. Zialcita ("The Soul Book" and “Authentic but Not Exotic”).

This looks like it will be an exceptional addition to Southeast Asian speculative literature. A big congratulations to all of those who were involved in bringing this collection forward!

Lao Buddhist Temple Fire in Colorado

This year, on December 5th, the Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado caught fire and burned to the ground. Wat Lao Sida Ounnaram has played a vital role to the Lao community resettled in Colorado for almost three decades.

The Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado was established in 1988 and served over 200 Lao households in Colorado. Like many wat Lao across the US, they also offered many different services and educational programs that were available for everyone.

In addition, they served as the primary festival grounds for traditional Lao celebrations such as the Lao New Year, and also as a meditation space and a space for community forums and outreach.

The founders viewed Wat Lao Sida Onnaram as a public place for everyone to come and enjoy Lao culture and to grow as a community.

It is located at 10685 Dover Street in Broomfield, Colorado. The lead monk is the Venerable Ounkham Veunnasack Thammavaro, who has been with the wat for 23 years. Their website is currently undergoing maintenance, but they do offer ways to support and help the reconstruction efforts.

I was fortunate to have the chance to visit Wat Lao Sida Ounnaram in June this year while traveling and I was deeply impressed by the beauty there and the hospitality of the monks. For many reasons, much of the art at this wat Lao was very unique even among other wat Lao across the United States, and it is a significant and considerable loss.

I would strongly encourage anyone  to assist to donate to them as the community comes together to rebuild.

Lao Buddha of the Day: 15th Century

While I often hear people talking about preserving our culture and heritage, we see very few of those same people who can recognize and talk at length about what makes that culture distinctive. A notable and egregious example of this comes to the traditional Lao approach to Buddhist statues.

While over 60% of the Lao are nominally Buddhist, in the US many of the younger and even some of the older generation can correctly identify an example of a Lao Buddha compared to a Thai, Burmese or Khmer-style Buddha, although it is easier to distinguish them from Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan statues of the Buddha.

Above is an example from the 15th century (1400-1499). This is from the earliest days of Lan Xang, although there aren't too many details about this particular piece except that it was sold by a foreign antiques dealer to a private collector.

Lao Buddha statues are extremely rare and arguably extremely valuable because Lao sculptors tended to take a more individual approach to carving and casting each statue. 

There's a widespread opinion that Lao Buddhism tends to be more rigid and orthodox because of its adherence to Theravada principles, but if you really look at it closely, the Lao eschew uniformity and are more often than not drawn to the beauty of diversity of individual expression. This, of course, has its ups and downs, and as we've seen, can come into conflict with people who are used to living in a society focused on mass production and conformity rather than celebrating the hand-crafted and individual journeys of one another.

You might hear it said that Laos is a land of a thousand smiles, and that's because no two Lao smiles are exactly alike. This is reflected in many other aspects of our lives. There are some who might argue this can hold us back, but I'd always see it as a strength.

Journal of the Day: Kartika Review

Due to the holidays I let this feature of the blog get behind, but let's get back on track. Today's journal we're focusing on is: Kartika Review.

Now on its tenth issue since 2007, the Kartika Review is still going strong, especially as an avenue for Asian American writers. It's one of the few left in the US that has remained committed to providing an interesting voice for Asian American literary work. You'd be surprised how many have folded in recent years or never really got past the starting gate.

The Kartika Review is still actively taking submissions in short story, poetry, as well as interviews, or frankly, anything interesting.

Formally, Kartika Review is "a national Asian/Pacific Islander American literary arts journal. Kartika publishes fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, author interviews, and art/photography. The journal launched in 2007 and as of 2011, is fiscally sponsored as a 501(c)(3) non-profit by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC) in San Francisco."

Their mission is to serve the Asian American community and "those involved with Diasporic Asian-inspired literature. We scout for compelling Asian American creative writing and artwork to present to the public at large. Our editors actively solicit contributions from established virtuosos in our community in hopes their works here will inspire the next generation of virtuosos. We also want to promote emerging writers and artists we foresee to be the future powerhouses of their craft. Ultimately, Kartika strives to create a literary forum that caters to and celebrates the wordsmiths of the Asian Diaspora."

I had a pair of poems appear in the Spring 2010 issue addressing themes of "Home," a topic that can be surprisingly nebulous for Asian Americans if there ever was one. In that issue I presented: "Home Is To Box As To Leave Is To Free" and "Projections Through A Glass Eye", which have not yet appeared in any of my other collections.

The Kartika Review draws its name from the Buddhist kartika, "a crescent-shaped knife, symbolizes the cutting away of ignorance and superficiality, with the hopes that it will lead to enlightenment. The kartika is kept close during deep meditation or prayer. It serves mainly as a metaphorical reminder of our self-determined life missions and never is it actually wielded in the offensive against others."  It's a good metaphor for what good literature does.

Be sure to check them out, and even better, submit some work to them! 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lao Steampunk: Getting around on the Iron Buffalo, aka the Tak-Tak

There a lot of ways to get around Laos that are very much in line with steampunk's do it yourself aesthetics, and among these is the tak-tak (not to be confused with the tuk-tuk), a two-wheel tractor often modified and retrofitted for a wide variety of purposes in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia.

One common configuration is a long-handled version for easier turning in wet rice fields. Early editions of the tak-tak ran on kerosene but newer versions now employ diesel. The Kubota company is a popular manufacturer but there are several in Southeast Asia. China, India, Vietnam and Thailand each manufacture tak-taks to varying degrees of popularity in Laos.

In Thailand, the tak-tak were first constructed at numerous local workshops - with everyone copying from each other, and thus competing for sales to the point that a tractor without the engine was very cheap- one third to one half the cost of the engine.  In Laos, parts shortages and individual needs often leads to extensive customization. As you might expect, occasional racing and recreational purposes are enjoyed. 

While not always elegant in their design, attachments range from trailed rotary puddlers and disc plows to flatbed trailers. With the use of v-belts, engines are sometimes detached and used for water pumps, mills, or other purposes.

Transport on tak-taks can be hazardous. Almost 5% of accidents on the roads in Laos can be attributed to a tak-tak, especially when traveling at night and relying on its single headlight. Health of the operators is often a concern among NGO workers, because the tak-taks generate some extreme vibrations.

The tak-taks really came into use towards the later 20th century, although the technology has been available in Asia since the end of World War I when a number of Swiss garden tractors were being demonstrated, especially in Japan, although they were not considered suitable for the soil conditions there until the engines received substantial modification. 

This is really more of a dieselpunk technology than steampunk, but it leads to some interesting questions of what could have been developed if the technology had been more widely available.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Lao Buddha of the Day: 18th Century Lao/Lanna

This interesting example was found in a market in Bangkok.

For many Lao, even those living within Laos, there has often been little discussion regarding the historic art traditions of our community and what has made examples of Lao buddha statues unique and distinctive.

In the last century, many key examples of buddhas from the 15th to 19th century were trafficked to foreign private collectors abroad. Many more were damaged or melted down, and we are left only with hints of which buddhas might still be out there, let alone the actual stories behind who they originally belonged to and the histories and memories connected to them, from their construction to their final fate.

According to those who've described it, this Buddha has a face that is typically Laotian in its style for the era. This one has a particularly fascinating finial that is rare to see. He stands 10 1.2 inches high, with a smooth brown patina. There is a casting flaw to the left hand, but otherwise in excellent condition. He was sold to a private collector for an undisclosed sum.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

3 French science fiction films of note

Thinking a little bit more of Fritz Lang's work this week in light of his 120th birthday, brought me to thinking of my other favorite dystopian films in black and white. 3 particularly distinctive films from the French that film students and foreign film enthusiasts should always see at least once:

The 28-minute "La Jetee" by Chris Marker from 1962,  which was remade into the nearly 2-hour 12 Monkeys in 1995. 12 Monkeys was a big jump from the source material. La Jetee was told almost entirely in still photos and narrative, without expensive sets or excessive special effects, but it is a distinctively haunting work. Here's a sample:

In 1983, Le Dernier Combat was a stark, post-apocalyptic film played out between two apartment buildings between the last remnants of humanity. It is notable for it's long use of silence. It has virtually no dialog. Again, special effects are minimal but the black and white cinematography is very effective in its modern usage.

And finally: Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution is one that is frequently watched and cited as an influence on Blade Runner. I would say that this is probably the hardest of the three to really get into. These days I would strongly recommend reading a plot summary of it before tackling it. However, it's something when you have an artificial intelligence wrestling with the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, and I would say give it a chance, especially if you want to build an understanding of what early 20th century dystopias were expected to look like.

For an added bonus, I'd throw in Orson Welle's take on the Kafka story, The Trial. It's not French, but it fits in nicely with a weekend of stark black and white dystopias:

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Phi of the Day: Phi Pret, Phi Phret or Phi Braed

The Phi Pret in Southeast Asia is frequently considered a giant ghost which can be either male or female, and is said to have a very small mouth, like a sucker. It is generally considered the same as the pretas of Buddhist cosmology.

It is feared because in Southeast Asia, they kill or harm parents. It is generally believed that if someone hurts and swears at their father and mother, when the ungrateful person dies, they will become a Phi Pret. Another way to become a Phi Pret is to kill an animal without any guilt.

The Phi Pret reaches the same heights as coconut tree, but are thin with tiny mouths that barely a grain of rice can fit into, because they used to swear at their parents. They also have large hands the size of palm leaves symbolic of the way they used to hurt their parents with those hands. These hands are still capable of snapping a person's neck, given sufficient cause.

Phi Pret will often appear because they want to ask the living to do an offering for them.

In other countries, the Phi Pret is constantly hungry and have huge bellies to fill, but small mouths to eat with.

Outside of Southeast Asia, the Phi Pret are described as being "human-like, but with sunken, mummified skin, narrow limbs, enormously distended bellies and long, thin necks". This appearance is a metaphor for their mental situation of having been jealous or greedy people in a prior incarnations. As a consequence of their karmic offenses they are typically afflicted with an insatiable hunger, especially a craving for something very specific. The traditional stories of Phi Pret maintain that it is something repugnant or humiliating. A human corpse or feces, for example. In recent years, the legends have changed to a hunger for just about anything, but typically something strange and hard to come by.

There are stories of Phi Pret who prevent others from satisfying their own desires, using magic, illusions, or disguises to accomplish this. In these stories, the Phi Pret have the ability to turn invisible, and change their faces to instill fear.

Outside of Southeast Asia, Phi Pret are generally seen as little more than nuisances to mortals unless the Phi Pret has a craving for something like blood.

It should be noted that most people simply pity the Phi Pret.  In a few Buddhist wat, monks will provide offerings of food, money, or flowers to them before meals.  Sometimes you can find images of the Phi Pret licking up spilled water in temples or shown as balls of smoke or fire.

A Phi Pret's additional punishments and conditions may actually vary on who they were and what they did in a prior life. For example, some are said to have no problems finding the food they eat, but it will burst into flames while they swallow it, or it will dry up and wither before they can bring it to their mouths. Sunlight freezes them and moonlight burns them, or else they might be accompanied by additional demons who torture them for specific grievances, among other metaphysical inconveniences.

But what are the stories you've encountered regarding this spirit?

Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts

For both established and emerging writers working with Laos, the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts is an exceptional resource. Over the course of ten years, manuscript holdings of over 800 monasteries were surveyed, and approximately 86,000 texts (368,000 fascicles) preserved and a central data pool created. Microfilms taken of about 12,000 selected texts are now incorporated in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts Collection.

In their gallery they have fascinating photographic documentation of their journey, such as this image of a classic ho tai, or manuscript repository:

Considering how many palm leaf manuscripts were deliberately destroyed and permanently lost over the centuries, these texts are an essential and important body of work to preserve.  Over time, they will be critical towards reconstruction efforts and understanding our journey as a people.

Be sure to check it out.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Phi of the Day: Phi Lok

Today we're taking a look at the Phi Lok, which is considered a wandering spirit who haunts different locations.

Most accounts consider it to be a spirit whose primary intention is to instill fear and mislead its victims. This is a spirit that is not only seen but can be felt. It is considered to be one of the more common spirits of Southeast Asia, especially in Laos and Thailand. Among behaviors attributed to it are the slamming of doors, objects falling seemingly of their own accord, light bulbs breaking or other out of the ordinary things. It sounds similar to a poltergeist in some ways.

 But what are some of your memories or stories you've heard about the Phi Lok?

Lao Steampunk: Decolonizing Time II

We were talking about the importance of decolonizing time a few weeks ago in steampunk, and that not everyone uses the same time system.

At the present moment, Lao astrological animals correspond with those of the Chinese Zodiac, so if you're writing a story set between 1900-1999 this list may be helpful for you:

You can also of extrapolate even further with a good spreadsheet program to identify years and dates all the way back to the years before the formation of Lan Xang, and their corresponding animals.

But I'd take note of this with some degree of caution. It is not thoroughly documented that all of the cities or kingdoms recognized the same year or observed the new years on the same dates (although it is highly likely). In another post I will address some research that suggests some older Lao also have a secondary set of animals, referred to as star animals, integrated into their cosmology. (However, I'm looking to find more corroboration of this.)

But back to the New Years, which can be useful milestones in a story using decolonized time. Remember that Lao New Years were mostly celebrated in the 4th month, approximately around the 15th, but this is NOT exact.

It should also be apparent, but for emerging writers, don't have characters go running around saying things like "It's May 24th, The Year of the Metal Rat." There several problems with this, but suffice it to say that its biggest problem would be disruption to the suspension of disbelief. Try to be more organic with references that ground the story in a specific time.

I would argue that for alternative history stories, you have a little more leeway with the dates between 1700-1800 on the Western calendar because there's so little documentation that survived in that era, so you could take some creative license.

If you really wanted to be a little more exacting in your stories, you'll want to check a list of the full moons: for example, gives you a sense of which days the full moons took place in the 20th century. Also handy,  I imagine, for those doing lycanthrope stories.

This does not specifically guarantee that a particular city in Laos or Lao America celebrated their Pi Mai Lao festival on that week. As we've seen in recent years in the US, some communities wait for different weekends in order not to conflict with another city's celebration, or because they couldn't reserve certain spaces to hold a celebration. In the US, student groups and other community groups have often held celebrations at different dates in order to avoid conflict with spring break, finals, Easter, and the official celebrations at their local wat lao.

To complicate matters, the first month of the Lao New Year is actually considered to be in December but festivities are delayed until April when days are longer than nights.  Also, during April, it is more enjoyable for the Lao to douse each other in water during the Pi Mai Lao celebration because the temperatures are higher. It also makes more sense to invite the rain during this time. Lao will douse statues of the Buddha standing in the 'calling for rain' position for good luck.

These celebrations last for three days typically. There are many beauty pageants in Laos, during this time, but many paid attention to the observances in  Luang Prabang - which was widely known for its Nangsoukhane or Nang Songkran pageant. In each city's pageant, there are seven contestants, each one symbolizing one of King Kabinlaphom's seven daughters.

When you're using decolonized times for stories set in Laos, remember that as of 2011, the year is 2554, and it's the same year in Thailand. But Cambodia recognizes the year 2555. In China, if you're going old school, it's 4708 or 4648, but apparently few people use that calculation today. In Burma, it's the year 1373.

Interestingly, in Thailand, it is believed that for good fortune, at least once in your lifetime you should make a pilgrimage to the specific wat associated the astrological sign of your birth year.

This doesn't even begin to take into account the calendars of many of the 82+ other cultures of Southeast Asia, particularly the Hmong, Mien, Khmu, Lahu, Tai Dam and others. Some follow the majority calendar system of the region they're in, others do not, so it is not advised to make assumptions.

As a side note: if you find yourself working with Vietnamese characters in story, you may want to consider that in the Vietnamese zodiac, the cat replaces the "rabbit" of the Chinese zodiac.  So, for example, a child born in the Chinese year of the rabbit is considered to be born in the Vietnamese year of the cat (mèo/mão). Almost every other animal in the Vietnamese zodiac corresponds to the same animals as the Chinese zodiac for the remaining 11 years. It should be noted that the "ox" of the Chinese zodiac is usually considered to be a water buffalo (sửu/trâu) in the Vietnamese zodiac.

Future Lovecraft officially released!

The Innsmouth Free Press announced the official release of Future Lovecraft. The publishers write:

 "It has landed. Future Lovecraft is officially on sale today! Purchase the paperback or go for the e-book.

Decades, centuries and even thousands of years in the future: The horrors inspired by Lovecraft do not know the limits of time … or space.

Journey through this anthology of science fiction stories and poems inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Listen to the stars that whisper and drive a crew mad. Worship the Tloque Nahuaque as he overtakes Mexico City. Slip into the court of the King in Yellow. Walk through the streets of a very altered Venice. Stop to admire the beauty of the flesh-dolls in the window. Fly through space in the shape of a hungry, malicious comet.

Swim in the drug-induced haze of a jellyfish. Struggle to survive in a Martian gulag whose landscape isn’t quite dead. But, most of all, fear the future.

Featured authors include: Nick Mamatas, Ann K. Schwader, Don Webb, Paul Jessup, E. Catherine Tobler, A.C. Wise, and many more."

In this anthology, you'll find my poem 'The Deep Ones' included in here, in addition to many other great stories. I've had a chance to look at the e-book version, and it's really got some fun stories in there. The editors have made a big effort to gather work from non-traditional perspectives as well, and I appreciate that.

Of course, I also have to recommend picking up a copy of Historical Lovecraft, which features a short story of mine, as well as stories by many others set in the distant and recent past of the Lovecraftian mythos. And of course, stop by the Innsmouth Free Press at for daily articles, reviews, interviews and fiction regarding the latest happenings in Lovecraftian horror.

Happy reading!

Happy birthday, Fritz Lang

Today marks the 121st birthday of master film-maker Fritz Lang, who was born in Vienna.

Among the best known of his works today is the silent film Metropolis, which enjoys a resurgence of late for its imagery that appeals to steampunk and dystopian science fiction, and given its message on industrialization, speaks volumes to the issues of today.

I personally enjoy his film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, but really, there are many fine works within his oeuvre worth viewing in your lifetime. He demonstrated how much you could tell with silent images in black and white.

I often wonder how Lao artists might have responded to his work had they seen it in the early 20th century. The possibility of such massive industrialization must have seemed so distant, yet would we see it as an aim in a quest for modernity, or a warning, as Lang thought?

I would definitely recommend taking a look at the British Film Institute's pages dedicated to him on his life's work.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Lokapâla: génies, totems et sorciers du Nord Laos

This is a book with a bit of an unusual history to it. Published around 1954, by Henri Deydier, it has been described as "An important and entertaining work on the beliefs and superstitions of North Laos, the record of Deydier's trip by foot and horse through the jungles; Deydier died in a plane crash in Laos (at age 32) shortly after publication of this book. Lokapala was published in French in 1954 and in German in 1957; no edition in English has been published." It is believed to be approximately 126 pages if you find a copy.

Lao Steampunk: A cue from Khmer rail?


Laos doesn't have a rail infrastructure the way Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam do, although new ventures are in the works recently to construct a rail system between China, Laos, and Thailand, with talks of connecting to Vietnam as well. The map above is from Radio Free Asia, who discuss the impacts of the modern plan on Lao citizens and the wariness of who exactly will benefit from such a railway.

According to the public version of the agreements from 2010, the railroad is to initially stretch from Xishuangbanna in China’s southern Yunnan province to the Thai border with Laos, connecting the Lao cities of Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane.

There will ultimately be a rail link between Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and Singapore. Later, links will connect Vientiane to Vietnam through Khammouane province.

From an alternate history perspective, how might things have developed if Laos had a rail infrastructure in the 1800s or early 1900s? How might it have been financed, and who would have been the lead builders? And, as with any construction and development project, who would be the losers, or displaced, and which families would see their fortunes rise or fall because of it? What would have been done to address crime and corruption, especially given the Golden Triangle issues of old.

If history then went on its conventional course, and Laos still became the most heavily bombed nation of the 20th century, we would see UXO covering over 30% of the countryside, and in an alternate history, likely more, in efforts to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the course of the conflict and especially the bombing, the Lao rail system would likely be in shambles and in the aftermath likely very much resemble the situation in Cambodia.

In January, 2011, the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article, Catching the Bamboo Train describing the experience on the norries, makeshift vehicles for using the abandoned train tracks of Cambodia.

They're described as: "basically a breadbox-size motor on top of a bed-size bamboo platform on top of two independent sets of metal wheels—all held together by gravity. It’s built from bamboo, old tank parts and motors ripped from broken motorbikes, rice harvesters and tractors. To accelerate, the driver slides the motor backward, using a stick as a lever, to create enough tension in the rubber belt to rotate the rear axle. Though no two norries are identical, a failing part can be swapped with a replacement in a few seconds. Norries are technically illegal but nonetheless vital and, if you know where to look, ubiquitous."