Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lao Americans Writers: Time to ratchet things up a notch

This week I saw that two of my poems had been nominated for a Rhysling Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. This is the first year that my work has been considered for this award, so I'm happy about that. The poems in consideration both appeared in Expanded Horizons: "The Robo Sutra" and "Five Flavors."

Maria Mitchell provided original artwork inspired by "The Robo Sutra" which appeared in the December, 2013 issue:

The winning works are "regularly reprinted in the Nebula Awards Anthology from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., and are considered in the SF/F/H/Spec. field to be the equivalent in poetry of the awards given for "prose" work— achievement awards given to poets by the writing peers of their own field of literature."

As I've mentioned elsewhere, win or lose, I'm happy this year. Why? Because now that Lao poems have made it this far, openly tapping into our heritage and our imagination, we've set a precedent. I hope many other Lao poets will find courage from.this and dare to discuss a future where Lao are still a part of the world.

At the same time, as I've mentioned to Saymoukda Vongsay, as Laotian Americans, we need to ratchet things up a notch, not only within Lao science fiction, fantasy and horror, but in all of our books. There's right ways and wrong ways to go about that.

As proud as I am of Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, Nor Sanavongsay's A Sticky Mess, my own DEMONSTRA, and so many others, I also know we can do better. Many of our recent films are in the same boat. As we approach the next horizon, mediocrity needs to be stomped on. Hard.

Across the board, I think every Lao American book that comes to mind has been falling short of technical perfection over the last 40 years. Even the best of our work.

In every book, Lao or not, there's at least one thing that the author could have done better, if we're really honest with ourselves. That imperfection is part of the human condition, but it doesn't mean we should stand by lackadaisically accepting it like Job or Dr. Pangloss, saying this is the best of all possible worlds.

I'm not saying focus so much on production values that in the end we have a technically perfect book that has a boring story. But we can do more to create and present works that deserve to last generations. We cannot just idly accept the "merely competent." We must strive for excellence on our own terms that transcends the expectations of previous generations and even our own contemporaries.

This is a hard critique to write, but we owe it to ourselves and to our readers to hold ourselves to the highest standards. We may not always hit J.K. Rowling or Stephen King numbers, but when we create, we must do so passionately to the very limits of our abilities. It must be breathtaking in its risk, it must be an experience to encounter. We should never settle for less.

There's an old quote by Hokusai on his 70th birthday that I adore:
'From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing."
How can Lao not strive for that same ambition?

At the same time I'll also point out the counsel an old college friend of mine once gave me that lingers in my mind: You cannot be a true writer until you can look yourself in the mirror when you wake up in the morning and say: "I've written some pretty dogshit stuff." But then you have to be able to forgive yourself, commit to writing even better than the day before, and move forward.  Fortunately, as Lao writers, we're currently having more good moments than bad, but we cannot let ourselves rest on our laurels. We must push on.

Our very future depends on it.

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