Sunday, April 28, 2013

[Poem] A Familiar Dance

A Familiar Dance 

I take you to dance
In your dress of blue.
Santana's "Black Magic Woman" is playing tonight.

Swaying to the music, I wonder about your true home,
Your tangled story, your fine shelves of books.
I have an ocean of questions but a thimble of time.

Maybe The Art of War will be there.
Maybe a classic of the ancients, something curious and modern,
Written in ink dark, lustrous as your hair.

I want to turn pages tonight,
The secret histories rewritten
To remember us…

You walk away when the boun is done without a word.
I, watching like a period becoming an exclamation point,
Laugh, filled to the edge where the soul meets the body.

We, the momentary.

Voices from Laos tour on Radio Free Asia this weekend. One last event to go.

Radio Free Asia covered the Legacies of War Voices from Laos tour this weekend. Their last event is on the 30th at the Mott House in Washington D.C. Among the things RFA notes:
"Around 20,000 civilians are believed to have been killed or injured by explosives since the end of the war. Some 40 percent of the victims in the past 10 years have been children. 
International assistance for bomb clearance in Laos began in earnest only about 20 years ago and experts believe that it will take many more decades to ensure that affected areas are safe. 
Since 1997, the U.S. has provided U.S. $47 million in assistance, including U.S. $9 million in 2012."

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Rocket: Laos-set film wins at Tribeca

The Wall Street Journal and others have been announcing that The Rocket, a film set in Laos has won several top honors at the Tribeca Film Festival. According to the Wall Street Journal:
"The Rocket" earned the Best Narrative Feature prize, which, like other top film and director honors, comes with a $25,000 cash award. And the film's young star, Sitthiphon Disamoe, was named Best Actor for his performance as a 10-year-old boy whose impoverished life is transformed by amateur rocketry.
The Tribeca Film Festival is a film festival that was founded in 2002 by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff, reportedly in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the consequent loss of vitality in the TriBeCa neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Now in its 11th year, it has grown to international acclaim.

I absolutely loved Bomb Harvest, a documentary made by the same team, so I'm looking forward to this one. They have a great command of story and visuals. Also, I admit, I do appreciate the do-it-yourself steampunk aesthetic that pokes through here and there in this one.

You can see the trailer here:

I just hope Lao voices will continue to be heard in our words, from our authentic perspective. It's important that we ourselves value our own voices, whether or not we have the acclaim of others, and that we recognize the many different ways to be Lao, without compromising ourselves for marketability.

We need many types of stories from our community, not just those that rehash tired narratives that serve neocolonial interests and justify perpetuation of corruption and faceless plutocracy, so I hope that many of our other emerging and established film-makers will stand up, take notice, and see this as a door, not a dead-end. To treasure our journeys, and find a passion to tell engaging and amazing stories.

Emerging topics in science for Laos: Biochar, fracking, methane hydrate and more

In the news lately there have been a number of interesting topics that I think we could deeply benefit from if we kept abreast of them in Laos and other developing zone. With a landmass the size of Great Britain or Utah, Laos could implement many of the technologies and ideas reasonably quickly.

Among those that have my present interest are:

Biochar as a soil amendment. I'm not a big fan of slash and burn as that is a destructive and environmentally hazardous practice on the mountains of Laos, because the components are not integrated into the soil, they're just left to lie on top of the mountain and current practices are done with little oversight and support, so we threaten our biodiversity in Laos. But the biochar movement has good science behind it, and could have some great effects in creating a sustainable environment. I would hate to see the method used successfully to make crops that are only used to feed strangers, not the internal population.

One of the interesting projects is also how to incorporate the Local Exchange Trading System model to include barter and exchange of in-kind services, in addition to local currency to allow the proliferation of biochar kilns in developing countries and avoid a ridiculous cycle of inaccessibility. Day One Design demonstrates a project in Thailand here:

The Atlantic has posed some interesting ideas regarding the emergence of methane hydrate research, which could become just as big as fracking in the next two to three decades at the current rate of progress. While it could be great for many countries, where would Laos stand to be affected, since it is located inland.

I would also take into account The Diplomat's article on what oil fracking could mean for Southeast Asia. Laos isn't in the picture yet, nor would I necessarily want it to be. Overall, how can Laos design and develop a healthy level of food and energy security for itself, especially considering 30% of the countryside is contaminated with unexploded ordnance.

Can and should Laos take a position of creating food security for its people, particularly in terms of restricting genetically modified organisms? The rest of the world is becoming deeply concerned with the monocropping model that would create an intolerable reliance on corporations like Monsanto who are interested in profits rather than ecologically-sound sustainability.

I consider this even as I try to grow the Fantome du Laos tomatoes and Lao eggplants in my own back yard, developing an appreciation for heirloom seeds. I would be deeply concerned that there isn't an effective agricultural education infrastructure to teach Lao farmers how to appreciate what they have, even as they work to improve their crop yields. 

The Wall Street Journal recently covered the Thai rice shortage and I am curious how that is affecting Lao crops and who's really going to be affected the most from this situation.

I always disapprove of quack science, particularly a lot connected with traditional herbalists. Which places me in a bind because I also disapprove of many big pharma practices. I could probably go into a lengthy discussion on the topic but one thing that always kills me is news about Chinese and other Asian medicine markets driving tigers, elephants, bears and other creatures into extinction for their genitals, glands and other bits, and now trying to source ingredients from countries in Africa. It's just utterly unsound.

On a more positive note, the brain surgery on a bear in Laos was fascinating. “Rescued as a cub, Champa stood out from the start,” according to National Geographic.“She had a protruding forehead and had trouble socializing with the other bears at the sanctuary. Over time, her growth slowed, her behavior became more erratic, and her vision faded.” Euthanizing Champa was not considered an option in the largely Buddhist country, so a British veterinary surgeon, Romain Pizzi, who describes his specialty as “minimally invasive ‘keyhole’ surgery of wildlife,” operated on her, just as he has done on seals, reindeer and jaguars. Six weeks post-op, Champa looked perkier, her caretakers said; she had gained weight and grown chummier with other bears."

Asian American Press highlights Laos, Legacies of War: Voices from Laos tour

Minnesota's Asian American Press recently highlighted the Legacies of War: Voices from Laos tour. The article touches briefly on the main speakers, Manixia Thor and Thoummy Silamphan, and the connection between the Lao community of Minnesota, unexploded ordnance, and current policy trying to remove the remaining 98% of the 80 million cluster bombs and similar devices left behind from the conflict.

The last event of this tour will be on Monday, April 30th in Washington D.C. at the Mott House. Many members of congress will be in attendance as the organizers also recognize the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. A big congratulations to Legacies of War, and a thanks to everyone who attended and helped to spread the word.

Friday, April 26, 2013

An introduction to Lao animism

From the Library of Congress Country Studies: Laos (1994), retrieved from:  and considered in the public domain, the following information may be of use for writers curious about Lao and Hmong culture. It is possible some of the data does not apply to all situations, or that there has been a change in common perception of these traditions and more 'authentic' or 'deeper' understandings of the principles in force here.

Despite the importance of Buddhism to Lao Loum and some Lao Theung groups, animist beliefs are widespread among all segments of the Lao population. The belief in phi (spirits) colors the relationships of many Lao with nature and community and provides one explanation for illness and disease. Belief in phi is blended with Buddhism, particularly at the village level, and some monks are respected as having particular abilities to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick person or to keep them out of a house. Many wat have a small spirit hut built in one corner of the grounds that is associated with the phi khoun wat, the beneficent spirit of the monastery.

Phi are ubiquitous and diverse. Some are connected with the universal elements--earth, heaven, fire, and water. Many Lao Loum also believe that they are being protected by khwan (thirty-two spirits). Illness occurs when one or more of these spirits leaves the body; this condition may be reversed by the soukhwan--more commonly called the baci--a ceremony that calls all thirty-two khwan back to bestow health, prosperity, and well-being on the affected participants. Cotton strings are tied around the wrists of the participants to keep the spirits in place. The ceremony is often performed to welcome guests, before and after making long trips, and as a curing ritual or after recovery from an illness; it is also the central ritual in the Lao Loum wedding ceremony and naming ceremony for newborn children. 
Many Lao believe that the khwan of persons who die by accident, violence, or in childbirth are not reincarnated, becoming instead phi phetu (malevolent spirits). Animist believers also fear wild spirits of the forests. Other spirits associated with specific places such as the household, the river, or a grove of trees are neither inherently benevolent nor evil. However, occasional offerings ensure their favor and assistance in human affairs. In the past, it was common to perform similar rituals before the beginning of the farming season to ensure the favor of the spirit of the rice. These ceremonies, beginning in the late 1960s, were discouraged by the government as successive areas began to be liberated. This practice had apparently died out by the mid1980s , at least in the extended area around Vientiane. 
Ceremonies oriented to the phi commonly involve an offering of a chicken and rice liquor. Once the phi have taken the spiritual essence of the offering, people may consume the earthly remains. The head of a household or the individual who wants to gain the favor of the spirit usually performs the ritual. In many villages, a person, usually an older man believed to have special knowledge of the phi, may be asked to choose an auspicious day for weddings or other important events, or for household rites. Each lowland village believes itself protected by the phi ban, which requires an annual offering to ensure the continued prosperity of the village. The village spirit specialist presides over this major ritual, which in the past often involved the sacrifice of a water buffalo and is still an occasion for closing the village to any outsiders for a day. To liang phi ban (feed the village spirit) also serves an important social function by reaffirming the village boundaries and the shared interests of all villagers. 
Most Lao Theung and Lao Sung ethnic groups are animists, for whom a cult of the ancestors is also important, although each group has different practices and beliefs. The Kammu call spirits hrooy, and they are similar to the phi of the Lao Loum; the house spirit is particularly important, and spirits of wild places are to be avoided or barred from the village. Lamet have similar beliefs, and each village must have one spirit practitioner (xemia), who is responsible for making all the sacrifices to village spirits. He also supervises the men's communal house and officiates at the construction of any new houses. When a spirit practitioner dies, one of his sons is elected by the married men of the village to be his successor. If he has none, one of his brother's sons is chosen. Ancestor spirits (mbrong n'a) are very important to the Lamet because they look out for the well-being of the entire household. They live in the house, and no activity is undertaken without informing them of it. Ancestor spirits are fond of buffalos; thus buffalo skulls or horns from sacrifices are hung at the altar of the ancestors or under the gable of the house. Numerous taboos regarding behavior in the house are observed to avoid offending ancestral spirits. 
Hmong also believe in a variety of spirits (neeb), some associated with the house, some with nature, and some with ancestors. Every house has at least a small altar on one wall, which is the center of any ritual related to the household or its members. Annual ceremonies at Hmong New Year renew the general protection of the household and ancestral spirits. The spirit of the door is important to household well-being and is the object of another annual ceremony and sacrifice. As with other Lao groups, illness is frequently attributed to the action of spirits, and spirit practitioners are called to carry out curing rites. Two classes exist: ordinary practitioners and shamans. Ordinary priests or the household head conduct the household ceremonies and ordinary divinations. The shaman may be called on to engage in significant curing rituals.

According to Hmong belief, spirits reside in the sky, and the shaman can climb a ladder to the heavens on his magical horse and contact the spirits there. Sometimes illness is caused by one's soul climbing the steps to the sky, and the shaman must climb after it, locate it, and bring it back to the body in order to effect a cure. During the ritual, the shaman sits in front of the altar astride a wooden bench, which becomes his or her horse. A black cloth headpiece covers vision of the present world, and as the shaman chants and enters a trance, he or she begins to shake and may stand on the bench or move, mimicking the process of climbing to heaven. The chant evokes the shaman's search and the negotiations with the heavenly spirits for a cure or for information about the family's fortune. 
Hmong shamans are believed to be chosen by the spirits, usually after a serious or prolonged illness. The illness would be diagnosed by another shaman as an initiatory illness and confrontation with death, which was caused by the spirits. Both men and women can be summoned in this way by the spirits to be shamans. After recovery from the illness, the newly-called shaman begins a period of study with a master shaman, which may last two or three years, during which time he or she learns the chants, techniques, and procedures of shamanic rites, as well as the names and natures of all the spirits that can bring fortune or suffering to people. Because the tradition is passed orally, there is no uniform technique or ritual; rather, it varies within a general framework according to the practice of each master and apprentice.

[Poem] Padaek


Speak to me of padaek
And some poor pa ferments, pungent, chunky and spicy.
Alas, so unlikely to catch on like sriracha or sushi, at least in this century.
I look at your lips, appreciatively pondering
All that has passed beyond those lovely gates for your jai ngam lai,
Where even the last bit of fish is not forgotten or left behind.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

[Poem] Nerakhoon


I love our traditions but our ways must change, too,
If I want a tomorrow worth having.

We have rites and means of setting things right,
But it's tragic we need to have those already.

That we've wronged each other so often before
It's become routine.

I can forgive all of this, but

What a place this might be where the soul doesn't need a map,
A reason, an order to be kind.

For such a world,
I would happily release one last turtle to the sea,
A raven to the winds, whatever needs to be free

If only I could believe and trust
Words and hearts and destiny.

from Tanon Sai Jai, 2009

Thank you to the students of MSJC

A big thanks to all of my students at Mt. San Jacinto College who attended my lecture on creative writing today. It was a hot day, and some of you had to leave early, but I'm glad we could talk about the many joys and benefits of creative writing, with a discussion that ranged from the works of James Baldwin and J.K. Rowling to the Batman and the secret war for Laos. Please feel free to keep in contact or to ask me additional questions, and remember: Writing, at its most fundamental heart, is the soul talking to souls.

Interviewing CastIron Carousel at Innsmouth Free Press

The Innsmouth Free Press has my latest interview with the CastIron Carousel this month for my column Innsmouth Inktank, where we discuss Lovecraftian puppetry, cosmic horror and life in brrrrrr, Oregon. The horror, the horror. Check it out!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Matt Haig's 30 things to tell book snobs

Matt Haig has a great list of thirty things to tell book snobs, and I think emerging writers as well. Well worth considering.

I particularly like "You are one of 7,000,000,000 people in the world. You can never be above all of them. But you can be happy to belong." But see which ones resonate with you.

From a Lao American writer's perspective, I wonder how one of us might have written a similar list. But then again that falls under a big laundry list of topics I wonder about.

[Poem] Night


The roots of true evening

Are not a pale measure 
Of time, of distance between

Stellar bodies, bright flames,
Divine orbits of shadows. 

Night arrives a limb graceful 
As a gilded court dancer of Lane Xang,

Her hair unfurling
By onyx inches 

With a smile bright 
As the first dok champa
In bloom, 

Departs in the morning 
Like a dream,

A beauty in an orange dress. 

One Week Left for the Voices from Laos Fundraiser

The Voices from Laos tour has been an amazing success bringing communities together from across the country to address the issue of UXO lingering in Laos after 40 years. The Women for Peace & Hope in Laos are also winding down the last 7 days of their fundraiser to help support the efforts of these men and women. Please consider donating, and help them reach their target of $3,000 to support UXO clearance. 

Legacies of War is the only U.S. non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of Vietnam war-era bombing of Laos. They launched a nationwide tour featuring speakers from Laos in April 2013. One of the speakers on the tour is a mother and UXO deminer named Manixia Thor. The majority of deminers are women working in dangerous environments to remove bombs, which impacts the livelihoods of children and families on a daily basis.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Weretiger spotting

It's not everyday you spot a weretiger at a Wat Lao:

[Poem] Snakehead


When the water is wrong
You just pick up your things
Suck in a last breath for the old times
And walk all the way to a new pond
So clean you can smell it.

When everything is all right
You gobble your neighbors up
One at a time like a thresher in frenzy
With a gorged wide-mouth grin
Blimping up until you’re as long
As a line of five dollar bills.

When we get around to it
Your passports will be revoked:

Pisces non grata a la America. 

We’ll have to go back to Asia
To eat you years from now.

On the news they say you’re
A tasty reincarnated sinner
And I wonder how karma works out
Like that, making a funny fish face
For my visiting niece over a bowl of sour soup.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Lao Oral History Archive Exhibit reception: April 28th in San Pablo, California

The Center for Lao Studies invites you "to a special Lao cultural and educational event to celebrate the Lao Oral History Archive (LOHA) exhibit, "Refugees Among Us: An Exhibition of the Multi-ethnic Lao Community in San Pablo, CA."

The reception will be held April 28th, from 12-5pm at the San Pablo Art Gallery, 13831 San Pablo Ave., San Pablo, CA. An event for the entire family, the day will feature Lao food, traditional Lao performances, and a discussion on the history of Southeast Asian refugees.

"Refugees Among Us" is a multimedia gallery display, with photos, artifacts, and video interviews featuring the untold stories of San Pablo's Lao refugees. Five interviewees tell their stories of life in refugee and re-education camps after fleeing Laos between 1975 and the 1990s, followed by the difficulties of resettlement and adjustment to the U.S. that continue for many today. The exhibit will run from April 6th to May 5th.

The exhibit is the first to come out of the Center for Lao Studies' national Lao Oral History Archive (LOHA) project, which is the first to disseminate the voices of the underrepresented Lao population, whose stories of immigration reflect unique moments in both Lao and American history. More than 25 families have been interviewed across the country since 2009. Their stories can be heard at

Happy Year of the Snake!

Over the weekend, many of the Lao communities celebrated the traditional Lao New Year, 2556, the Year of the Snake, although the full moon does not take place until April 25th, when we will also have Gop Kin Deuane, the frog who eats the moon.

Probably my two favorite things spotted during the new year celebrations was this imaginative rendition of Year of the Snake in Fresno:

And the unusual appearance of a jackalope amid the traditional Southeast Asian spiritual icons in Ceres:

It absolutely has my mind spinning how we might read the jackalope as a Buddhist entity. One normally might expect to find him stopping by the Hare Krishnas, after all. But what would you imagine the Jackalope Sutra or the Jackalope Jataka would discuss?

Friday, April 12, 2013

[Poem] A Postcard to Luang Prabang, 2555

A Postcard To Luang Prabang, 2555

Ghost of kings and gilded glory
Flower of a sad and fading time,
You’re steps and caves and holy,
Hewn from a gentle nak spine.
Put on your best jewels and perfumed airs,
Indulge in such luxuries fine,

My pining beauty, who says you can’t compare
To all of your old neighbors nearby?

You'll always be mine,

A lash of fire, a gorgeous eye among mountains
Who shoulder their true names
                                                 in wounded silence

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

[Poem] Legacies and Opportunities

Legacies and Opportunities 

Sometimes a beginning awakens ideas, discoveries exciting, energizing.
Aspire. Change the inaction of nations.
Bombs others made before impede enlightened societies.
Assisting? Spread knowledge, involve new givers,
Include noteworthy voices of Lao viewpoints. Encourage.
Dream, rebuild, end abandoned munitions.
Enduring legacies embrace vibrant action, transforming everyone.
Explore possibilities infinite, tomorrows of merit exceptional.
Love aiding others today in appreciating "Now."
A meaningful experience remembers ideals, creating and speaking.
Overcome problems. Prevail. Open roads to unify nations. Inspire tomorrow's youth.

 The last poem I wrote in 2555, presented for the first time at Stanford University in California on April 9th during the Legacies of War: Voices From Laos Speakers Tour. A big khop jai lai to everyone who came, and I was honored to be invited. Here's to the future.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Voices from Laos: California

The Voices from Laos tour has come to California this week. I encourage everyone to come hear the presenters. I'll also be presenting briefly at the performances at Stanford on April 9th and Sacramento on April 11th.

The tour aims to create a space for dialogue on how individuals and communities are affected by Vietnam War-era unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos, how the problem is being addressed in the country, and ways in which people in the U.S. can help to clear Laos of bombs, support survivors of accidents, and help to create a safer future for the people of Laos.

Among those who will be speaking are Manixia Thor, who is the leader of an all-woman demining team in Laos. Also speaking with her will be Thoummy Silamphan, who lost his left hand when he was 7 years old to a bomb explosion. He now serves as a Victim Assistance Advocate in Laos.

The speakers tour aims to educate audiences about the dangers of UXO in Laos, mobilize positive action, and show how war and conflict can haunt innocent civilians decades later. The tour will also present an opportunity for healing and hope. By mobilizing communities, Legacies of War will build a movement to stop the senseless deaths and injuries caused by UXO and build a bright future for the children of Laos.

[Poem] Mon

When I go to sleep there is a distant city for a nation,
And in that city a street at night, fragrant as a frangipani.
On that street there is a house, there is a room, there is a pillow,
Soft and welcoming like a strong woman‟s smile
Who reminds me of everything a world is supposed to be,
One dream at a time, where I want to whisper, a phoenix,
“I don‟t want to be a stranger,” but I barely have the words.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

New Creative Works at the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement

Today for National Poetry Month this month, I turn you to the recently published poems at the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement. Among the poets included are Phet Phonvongsa, Anna Minh-Giang Nguyen, Kev Minh Allen, and Phira Azalii-Chriissnia Sun Rehm. Additional writers' works are pending inclusion, but congratulations to those who've been selected for publication.

Friday, April 05, 2013

10 Years of The Tuk-Tuk Diaries: My Dinner With Cluster Bombs.

My last post of the year for the Twin Cities Daily Planet is up, examining 10 years since the publication of The Tuk-Tuk Diaries: My Dinner With Cluster Bombs.  I also reflect on the issue of unexploded munitions left over in Laos after 40 years, and the coming Voices from Laos tour that Legacies of War is organizing.

Later this year, I'll be releasing a collection that includes the Tuk-Tuk Diaries, Touching Detonations and Tanon Sai Jai, as these are reasonably thematically related. 10 years later, some of the poems seem way out of place or too rushed, so I won't be including those. But I think most will enjoy the results presented.

In the meantime, you may also want to check out The Buddha of Bombies, which appeared in the Buddhist Poetry Review last year.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

[Poem] April Reflection

April begins as a joke in a house of children:
A surprise, a word, a laugh if we‟re lucky.
There are still bills and taxes and poems ahead, at least in America.

With a sabaidee we say hello to a new year,
La kawn to yesterday and the many mornings before.
The flowers begin to bloom, the rain and wind are welcome.

There are so many places to go these days,
But only one body and never enough money

To journey to every city where a Lao song, a wise word,
A festival of dreamers wants to greet you with a smile,
A nop

Between friends and strangers who might become family
Or a nation ready to create a better tomorrow
With the same ease as a wonderful today.

-From Tanon Sai Jai, 2009

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

ANGRY ASIAN MAN mentions Women for Peace & Hope in Laos

A shout-out to Angry Asian Man for covering the Voices from Laos fundraiser to support the tour. They're still a long way from their goal, so if you can donate anything to the cause it would mean a lot as Lao describe firsthand their experiences with UXO leftover from almost 40 years. Women for Peace & Hope in Laos is a group of philanthropists who invite you to commemorate the 40th anniversary since the end of the bombing campaign in Laos by making a contribution to a speakers tour that launches this month.

You can go directly to the fundraiser here:

New poem accepted for Line Break: "Songkran Niyomsane's Forensic Medicine Museum, 2003"

My new poem, "Songkran Niyomsane's Forensic Medicine Museum, 2003," was accepted for Line Break's special issue on adoptee art and poetry. It will come out later this year, possibly late April.

That's one way to kick off National Poetry Month!

The Doom That Came to Fiddle Creak funded! On to stretch goals!

The Lovecraftian marionette play from CastIron Carousel was funded a few days ago, but they still have few stretch goals to try and make!

They are already going to be taking the show on tour to Seattle and are very close to their goal of making a more professional DVD. They would love to be able to take this show to other places around the country. So, the long and the short of it is that they still need your help getting the word out.

I recently interviewed the artistic director for Innsmouth Free Press and the latest installment of Innsmouth Inktank. Hopefully that will go up soon, but while we're waiting, let me say that from what I've seen I really like what they're doing, not only because they're taking on the Cthulhu Mythos, but because they're stretching our expectations of puppetry.

There's some great stuff for backers, and I applaud their innovative DIY approach. Check them out: