Monday, July 27, 2015

Laomagination: Rebuilding and re-imagining

One of my strongest beliefs over the years has been that a culture that cannot imagine its future will not have a future. At the very least, it will be one dictated by the agendas and interests of other powers. From a Lao American perspective, we have seen the disastrous consequences of this for our community already, with well over 700,000+ of us already living in some state of diaspora since the conflicts of the 20th century, and far more than this when we consider our brothers and sisters who were displaced by the conflicts of the 1800s that left much of Laos depopulated to other nations.

I have had some readers gently ask if this is not a quixotic task of rebuilding our culture. I have also seen many well-intentioned writers ask if my efforts are not better spent strictly on the historical and the "factual," such as it may be known. To me, this is the great challenge for a refugee community rebuilding. The frantic, and rightly expected effort to document and preserve our stories before they are lost. We are discouraged from great explorations of the imagination beyond the preservation of our common children's stories and folktales.

Over the years, I've been informed that Lao and Southeast Asian refugee fiction is often considered a suspect undertaking, and, to be taken seriously, must abide by US and European approaches that reject magic, a sense of the supernatural or a deep probing of the spiritual and the imaginative. If we do not uphold the conventional and accepted narratives that we presented in our early years, we risk excommunication from the world of Arts and Letters. I hope emerging writers have read me well enough to understand that this is in fact a trap, and if you tell the story we all "know" already, then you will become superfluous and unnecessary, since "that" story has already been "told."

I understand some of the elders' concerns. If we don't take time to write the stories of the people who were really a part of our lives, how can we dare to invent people and events. Yet, there is the issue that to write too true to some stories is to lose the power, the reason we tell the stories in the first place. There are some wounds that are still too painful to discuss outright. There are some stories where we can never get a full, fair, and balanced account from everyone involved. There are some cases where much of the truth that led to other moments of historic and cultural importance have been forever lost, taken to the grave or destroyed. But yet, to be a full people, we must still write.

And to my thinking, we must still dare to imagine. Or we shall become lost in the world.

Reading and creating speculative fiction such as fantasy, horror, and science fiction is one way to rebuild, to foster a true preservation of visionary hope, empathy, and an inclusive sense of progress that upholds the best of our cultural values. In the process of writing such stories, it often necessitates a level of research and recovery that we would not otherwise undertake in order to understand our origins.

If we write a story involving the rocket festival, to be fully realized, our aspiring writers must ask around and investigate: When does it take place. What is needed to build the rockets. What are the elders and youth thinking during such a time. What is the weather like, the food, the challenges, the types of music that people prefer to hear while it's all going on. What are the monks chanting? Do the festival participants find their fortunes changed in the rest of the year ahead? So many questions that can be asked. What if a real Nak came to attend, for example, and was secretly in disguise to light one of the rockets?

There are many questions we can yet probe with Lao speculative writing, when we invoke and commit to honoring our imaginations:

  • What if the fall of Lan Xang never happened? What if Laos had discovered the continent of North America first, and formed a democracy starting on the West Coast, expanding towards the East Coast?
  •  If we found a way to cure a terrible disease for the world, at the cost of sacrificing our biodiversity, would we accept that? What if it was only one species, but something unique to Laos and Southeast Asia, like the giant catfish, or the Laotian rock rat?
  • If we accidentally started the apocalypse, how might we set things right? Would Lao people want to live in a world without sticky rice and hot peppers?
  • If Lao mastered the sciences of robotics, how would we make them a part of our modern society? Who would they help? Who would they displace? What would happen if you had a Lao society that was completely automated? What would everyone do?
  • What if it turned out that the monkey warriors of the epic Phra Lak Phra Lam were in fact a kind of Australopithecus ally we had in the earliest years of our civilization. What happened to them, where have they been hiding. If we rediscovered a city of them today in Laos, would we welcome them, or turn on them out of fear?
  • If we were invaded by aliens, how would the Lao interpretation of the Buddhist 5 precepts apply?
There are so many questions we can explore, and so many ideas yet to consider. I am not saying that all of Lao art and literature must commit itself to exploring the possible and the imaginative, but to fully grow, we need a body of stories and art that let us consider possibilities.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Full Metal Hanuman print available!

In 2013, Nor Sanavongsay and I worked together to present the poem, "Full Metal Hanuman" which received a 2014 Reader's Choice Award from Strange Horizons Magazine. In 2015, working in the labs at Sahtu Press, we were experimenting with the idea of Lao American poetry broadsheets, and we have a limited number of prints featuring this poem now available, but not on the main website. So, if you're interested, drop us a line at to ask about ordering one. They're currently going for $10, but signed by both Nor and I. This run is limited to 100 pieces, and they're going quick. Thank you all for your support!

Sahtu Press celebrates first year

This weekend, Lao American publisher Sahtu Press is celebrating its first-year anniversary. It's been an amazing year with a lot learned and many roads yet ahead, but I'm glad to have a chance to be a part of that journey, and I look forward to doing much more with everyone in the coming years. In addition to Nor Sanavongsay and myself, we've been able to work closely with Krysada Panusith Phounsiri from San Diego, the wonderful folks at Rabbit Fool Press, Kevin Minh Allen, Soul Vang, David Zander and Sunny Chanthanouvong to help them share their voices with the world.

We've been able to take part in some historic events such as the National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit, and to observe festivals such as Wondercon, CONvergence, the Oakland Book Festival, the Bay Area Book Festival, and the Association for Asian American Studies Conference. We were able to tour to some wonderful cities such as Fresno, Ukiah, Minneapolis, Madison, Philadelphia, and many more yet ahead. We thank you all for the outstanding support you've given us, the insightful feedback and the energy and encouragement to reach for more.

Little Laos on the Prairie has the main write-up on the year that's been, and some of the incredible things we've been a part of. I'm looking forward to seeing what books we'll put out next year, and am still looking for new books of poetry, children's books and other creative works for the press.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Interviewing David Zander, folklorist, anthropologist

Recently, I interviewed folklorist and anthropologist David Zander for Little Laos on the Prairie. A longtime friend of mine and the Lao community, David has been an enduring and positive figure driven by a keen sense of justice and a love of the story.

I first met him while I was working for Hmong National Development and he was working with the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. Over the course of nearly twenty years, he and I have worked together in various capacities to make sure that all of the diverse voices of our community are heard.

Recently, he's been trying to get some traction going on his chapbook, Wolf and the Moon, and other Lao Folktales that he composed with Sunny Chanthanouvong, the award-winning executive director of the Lao Assistance Center in Minnesota. The collection consists of eleven folktales and a few retellings of the journey stories of Lao Minnesotans regarding how they came to America.

I'm very excited for him and his next projects, and strongly recommend Wolf and the Moon. While it's formatted in a very simple, brief style, it includes a number of tales that have not been previously recorded in any of the well-known collections I've seen. So that makes it a particularly good find, for me.

Beyond What Doesn't Kill Us.Talking with Brandy Lien Worrall

This April, I had a chance to spend some extended time with Vietnamese American Brandy Lien Worrall at both the Association for Asian American Studies conference in Evanston, Illinois, and also during a reading together at Madison, Wisconsin at the Rainbow Collective Bookstore. She's currently been touring across the country sharing her experiences and reading from her memoir, What Doesn't Kill Us from Rabbit Fool Press. I think it's a great book with a voice that carries wit, poetry and gravity throughout the text.

I deeply enjoyed hearing her perspective, which raised some interesting thoughts for me regarding the work we need to do in the Lao American community to assess the impact that chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange and others had not only on Laos but on our families today in the US. Here are some of the things that came up during our discussions:

Tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in writing?

I'm a Vietnamese and Pennsylvania Dutch writer and editor, and my press, Rabbit Fool Press, is located in Vancouver, Canada. I got my master's in Asian American Studies from UCLA and my MFA in creative writing from UBC. I'm a young adult cancer veteran and a mother of three. I'm passionate about engaging in all the communities to which I belong, which also are groups which are generally marginalized and politically disengaged.

My interest in writing began when I was a small child. I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was 2, so my parents were very fearful of letting me out of the house and out of their site. And since my sister was 12 (or 16....long story) years older, I grew up like an only child. Spending so much time by myself, I read all the time and began writing my own stories. When I started kindergarten, I was labelled a weirdo for being part Vietnamese, furthering my sense of being a pariah. So I decided I wanted to be a teacher (because they were nice) and a writer when I grew up, and that's exactly what happened.

You've done work both as a poet and through memoir. What are the biggest challenges to you in both forms?

I need to be in both the mood and the habit to write poetry. If I somehow fall out of my poetic routine, it's very difficult for me to retrieve that lens. But once I'm in the zone, I have fun with the poetic challenges of phrasing, word play, nuance, and subtext. I think of poetry as playing Tetris with image and meaning. It's quite nerdy and fun.

My memoir writing is really an expanded prosaic form of my poetry. Like poetry, the challenge is to keep up with my daily journal because without that, I couldn't write memoir. I log all my raw observations, feelings, and dialogue in my journal. It's my memoir bible and archive. Once I have a draft, the problem I encounter is what to cut. Each story is like a child, who has so much to say as they are developing. But sometimes I gotta tell a kid that they can't star in this movie...maybe they will in the next one. Again, like poetry, I play Tetris in memoir revision, except this has to do with chronology vis-à-vis theme. Which is more important at what point in terms of how the reader will experience the narrative?

How did "What Doesn't Kill Us" come about? What was the most difficult thing about putting this together?

I've always had tremendous curiosity about my parents' involvement in the Vietnam/American War and how they met and what their lives were like there. But it wasn't until my sister began divulging information about our mother's fictive persona that Mom felt she had to create and perpetuate in order to survive the war and her marriage to an American and her dislocation that I felt compelled to become a detective and archaeologist to the few narrative relics that I had in my possession. My first attempt to write something out of what little I knew was when I was 17 and my mom and sister had just returned from their second trip to Vietnam since they left in 1971. My sister was worn and weary, and she told me a shocking secret about a relative that Mom had kept hidden from everyone, including my father. At that point I started using writing as a way to try to document and figure out all these questions I had.

When I began my MFA at UBC, I knew I was going to write creative nonfiction about my family for my thesis. It was during the summer between my first and second year of course work that I was diagnosed with stage III Triple Negative breast cancer, and I had to take a year of medical leave to go through treatment, surgery, and recovery. During that time, my parents came to Vancouver to live with me to help and support me and my family. It was fucking nuts and horrible in all sorts of ways, but the saving grace was that through all that, I could finally relate to the trauma and isolation that I imagined my parents went through during and after the war. As part of my healing, I tried to transform the shitty situation into writing that I could use to help other people facing shitty situations, and also to help me find connections to my parents--especially my mother--that have otherwise eluded me my entire life.

The most difficult thing in the process of writing and revision were the triggers. Revisiting all that trauma over and over again wasn't something that I really wanted to do. So I had to make sure I was good about doing self-care, going to therapy, seeking support when I needed it, instead of holing myself up in my room under the covers. It was really fucking hard to face all that--and then to think that it would someday be cemented on paper for everyone to read. At the same time there was definitely a catharsis and liberation that came with the process, and I don't regret having done it at all.

What are some of directions in Southeast Asian literature you still feel are unexplored? Where are we seeing significant innovations? What are some key stereotypes you think still need to be challenged?

There are many ethnicities still vastly underrepresented or nonexistent in the realm of literature. Even Vietnamese American (and especially Vietnamese Canadian) literature, which is probably the best represented in Southeast Asian literature because of Americans' fascination with the Vietnam War, is still quite small in the overall Asian American literary canon. I'd like to see publishers take a risk and nurture the potential for these writers to be published and represented, but most are too scared to take that risk. They don't want to waste time on something they think no one will care about. Fortunately, there are small independent publishers that do focus on the goal of growing the Southeast Asian diasporic literary canon, like Sahtu Press and Rabbit Fool Press. These efforts are truly significant because they illuminate on more complex levels the secret histories that are important to people otherwise invisible to the mainstream population.

In terms of what needs to be challenged, the stereotype of victimhood is what irritates me the most. Survivorship, on individual and community levels, is what's important. Trauma is real; it persists. But it need not be silenced, and that's what continues to happen--the silencing of trauma. Southeast Asians don't like to talk about the trauma--well, who the hell does? But it needs to be put out there so that we as a community and as individuals can heal, and so that subsequent generations can know these histories and not be in the dark, wondering what this thing is that they feel acutely but can't explain. This was quite apparent to me when I was doing my book tour in universities. Students were shocked that I had these things to say, that I could be "brave" enough to say them, and that their parents likely experienced similar histories and trauma. And in their epiphanies, they felt compelled to learn more and get the courage to ask their parents about their trauma.

Was your family supportive as you began to show interest in being a writer?

My dad, who passed away last year from lung cancer from Agent Orange exposure, was always supportive of whatever I wanted to do. In fact, I think he was very excited for me to write our family stories because he felt he wasn't allowed to tell them himself. His family didn't want to hear about what he went through during the war, and they weren't understanding when he would have his worst PTSD episodes. They would tell him that all he needed to do was to turn to God and forget about everything in order to "get over" his depression.

My mother still doesn't get what I do. She doesn't think writing is a real job. That's pretty typical of Asian parents, I suppose. I accept her perspective. I just choose not to live according to her wishes, is all.

As a writer, when are you most satisfied with a piece?

When I can read a piece and feel the honesty and depth in it, I know that it's something special that I must keep.

Agent Orange plays a significant role in your memoir. In Laos, there isn't much discussion on the use of Agent Orange there, compared to the conversations we're having on UXO. But what are some things you think we need to be looking for in our community?

Those two topics are talked about within our communities but not really outside our communities, and we as writers really need to push that more out into the open. I was surprised by how many people didn't even know what Agent Orange was and that it was used in Southeast Asia for an entire decade. We really need to dig up and through the U.S. governments documents about these issues before they are destroyed, and we need to go to the places where people still suffer from the effects of chemical warfare and UXO's. I've been told by several people that this is dangerous work to do, but in my opinion, it's dangerous not to do it.

What's the best compliment you've received for your book so far?

People have said it's changed their lives in terms of how they can finally relate to someone who's been through a lot of shit that's isolating. That's incredible. I'm very humbled by that. At the same time, people also really love the humour in the book. If my words and stories can make readers laugh and cry in the process of making a significant connection to stuff going on in their own lives--and make them curious about subjects they never even knew existed--that's fucking awesome.

What's next for you?

I'm working on a book of poetry that will be the companion to the sequel to my first memoir, both of which will be titled "17 Days," which is the amount of time between my father's cancer diagnosis and his death. I guess you could say that the poetry collection is the bridge between What Doesn't Kill Us and the second memoir. Seventeen days is a finite period of time, yet in terms of my father's diagnosis and death, it has expanded the ideas with which I've grappled as a young adult cancer survivor in terms of uncertainty vis-à-vis aspirations, regrets, and known and unknown histories. I'm also finding that when my father passed away, my mother felt freer to tell me more stories about her own past. Her sense of liberation and desire to tell stories is in itself fascinating to me. So I'm devoting my creative life right now to exploring and documenting the stories as they come.

You can visit Brandy online at:

Laomagination Poems at CONvergence

During CONvergence as a Guest of Honor this year, I shared a number of poems throughout the convention formally and informally. I wound up reading enough that I'm certain it was a little difficult to keep track of them all. The key poems presented in full or in part during the major panels were:

One-On-One With Bryan Thao Worra
"Laos in the House," from Tanon Sai Jai, 2009
"Democracia," from The Tuk-Tuk Diaries, Our Dinner With Cluster Bombs, 2003
"Idle Fears," from Buddhist Poetry Review, 2012
"In the Fabled Midwest," from DEMONSTRA, 2013
"Khao Jai," from Tanon Sai Jai, 2009
"What Is the Southeast Asian American Poem of Tomorrow?," Angry Asian Man, 2013 

Laopocalypse Now
"The Doom That Came to New Sarnath," from DEMONSTRA, 2013
* As noted in the preface to the performance, this poem was a nod to the classic story by H.P. Lovecraft, "The Doom That Came To Sarnath," and the Buddhist city of Sarnath, as well as an examination of a Lao city in the wastelands, what a Phi Dip (Or Raw Ghosts/Spirits) apocalypse would look like, framed through a classic lens of Lao folk law.

Giant Lizard Theater This reading was performed with F.J. Bergmann, Ruth Berman, Eleanor Arnason, Sandra Lindow, and also included an announcement of the 2015 Rhyslings with a live reading of all of the winning poems.

"Destroy All Monsters," from The Kaiju and I, G-Fan Magazine, 2006
"The Moth," from The Kaiju and I, G-Fan Magazine, 2006
"The Big G Walking,"from The Kaiju and I, G-Fan Magazine, 2006
"Gop Nyai," from DEMONSTRA, 2013
"Passa Falang," from DEMONSTRA, 2013
"Kaiju Haiku," from The Kaiju and I, G-Fan Magazine, 2006
* The selections of poems from G-Fan Magazine were recollected in DEMONSTRA.

Poetry Round Robin This reading was performed with Ruth Berman, Sandra Lindow and Erica Hooper.

"The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa,"from DEMONSTRA, 2013 
"Full Metal Hanuman," from Strange Horizons, 2013
"Temporary Passages," from DEMONSTRA, 2013
"A Sphinx Reviews Myths as Self," from DEMONSTRA, 2013
"Zombuddha," from DEMONSTRA, 2013
"Fragment of a Dream In Atlantean Yellows," from Innsmouth Free Press, 2012

Again, a big thanks to everyone who participated and came to hear my work. Make time for poetry in your lives, and remember: It's not just words on a page or sounds in your ear, but souls talking to souls. Be amazing and awesome to each other!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

New Rivers Press seeks genre manuscripts from emerging writers. $20 reading fee.

New Rivers Press is seeking manuscripts from new and emerging authors in the genres of Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller/Suspense, Westerns, Young Adult, Inspirational and all sub-genres within and across those categories, for The New Rivers Press Electronic Book Series, an eBook-only series that publishes popular fiction titles with literary value.

Manuscripts will be accepted electronically through Submittable until Sept. 1. There is a $20 reading fee. Each author selected for publication will receive a $250 honorarium and a standard electronic book contract. All books will be distributed internationally in eBook formats.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't call attention to this sort of thing, because of my general feelings regarding reading fees. But, they did publish the anthology Tilting the Continent collecting many Southeast Asian American voices in 2000, 15 years ago. A lot has changed with the press over the years, of course, but they've had a history with our communities that may make them amenable to genre fiction with Southeast Asian elements. I'm not holding my breath, but still, at $20, it's a week of coffee to take your chances. That's not as bad a deal as some places have.

Monday, July 20, 2015


This week is Diversicon 23, with the theme of SPACE IS THE PLACE, and Lao American artist Nor Sanavongsay returns to provide this year's science fiction convention art, featuring the Guest of Honor, Ytasha L. Womack, and Special Guest, Rob Callahan. This year's Posthumous Guests are legendary musician Sun Ra, Leigh Bracket, and Gene L. Coon.

Ytasha L. Womack is a filmmaker, author, journalist, and choreographer. She is the author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013), and author/creator of the popfuturist novel 2212: Book of Rayla, first in a series. Her other books include Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity (Lawrence Hill Books). She also co-edited the anthology Beats, Rhymes, and Life: What we Love and Hate About Hip Hop (Harlem Moon/Random House). Her film projects include The Engagement (director) and Love Shorts (producer/writer). She is a Chicago native.

Rob Callahan is a professional purveyor of made-up stories about the way we really are. His works of fiction include the novel Hellbound Snowballs and the short story collection, A Wish Upon a Fallen Sky. He has written and performed two award-winning spoken shows, Idiosychronicity and The Last Ditch (co-written with Allegra Lingo), and he regularly joins the Minneapolis entertainment troupe The Rockstar Storytellers on stage. His nonfiction has been featured in Secrets of the City,, l’etoil Magazine, and He lives in the Twin Cities. (And I personally consider him awesome.)

Dandilyon Fluff: An interview with horror writer Angela Yuriko Smith

Recently in Asian American Press I had a chance to interview Asian American horror writer Angela Yuriko Smith, who is a member of the Horror Writer Association and is the author of several books, including End of Mae and Mr. Bonejangles and Other Tales of Dark Karma. She's taken a very interesting series of twists and turns to get her literary career to where it is at the moment that's well worth the read. She has graciously taken the time to offer some helpful advice to other emerging writers in the field. Be sure to check her out at her website at:

Of Voice and Vermin: Talking with Writer Tim Wick

One of the things that has always impressed me about Minnesota is its vibrant literary community and its ability to make space for so many unique and distinctive voices. One of my favorites is writer Tim Wick, who is the artistic director of Fearless Comedy Productions.

Over the years, Tim has produced several successful shows at the Minnesota Fringe festival including “The Complete Works of William Shatner (abridged)” and “Story Time Time Bomb.” He has written comedy sketches for CONvergence and is a podcaster and blogger. You can find many examples of his writing at  (Hint: If you're a BIG fan of Indiana Jones, you'll understand where Tim got the name for his blog from.)

One thing that I particularly respect about Tim's work is his philosophy of theater production. "You shouldn’t be producing theatre if you are afraid to take risks," he says. "By taking risks, we grow as artists. By playing it safe, we will never achieve what we can if we are fearless."

Shortly after this year's CONvergence, I had a chance to talk some more with this wonderful wit and find out how he got started, and where he's going next.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in comedy, especially in a way that intersects with the science fiction and fantasy community?

I'm a comedian and a playwright.  I've always been interested in science fiction and fantasy and I was one of the people who helped found CONvergence back in 1999.  We've always tried to include funny sketches as part of the opening and closing ceremonies and over the years, I became one of the primary writers for those sketches.  I really enjoyed writing geeky humor for geeky audiences. Fans are great.  You can explore genre properties in ways that normal audiences would never understand.

But I also think that science fiction and fantasy are becoming far more mainstream.  An average audience gets James Bond jokes.  Or Avengers jokes.  Or even Game of Thrones jokes.  The way my interests have begun to intersect with mainstream popular culture has made it a lot more fun to write comedy.  I am writing for a lot more people than I used to.

Every time I check in on you, it seems like you have a million projects going on at once. What are your big top three for the rest of the year?

Right now, I'm writing and producing a show for the Minnesota Fringe called "The Sound of Footloose: The Not Musical."  I've written musicals before and I was excited by the idea of taking a musical and removing all of the singing.  For whatever reason, I decided I needed to do a mashup of "The Sound of Music" and "Footloose."  I'm not sure if it worked yet but the results are pretty silly.

I'm also producing a regular live radio show called Big Fun Radio Funtime at the Bryant Lake Bowl.  I've been having a ton of fun with that show and later this year, we are going to produce a horror version for the Twin Cities Horror Festival called Big Spooky Radio Spookytime.  I don't know the performance dates yet but I'm really looking forward to that one.

I'm also the artistic director for Fearless Comedy Productions and we are working on a lot of great original comedy over the next 12 months.  I'll be writing an original show to be produced in early 2016.  I don't know what it's about yet but I'm certain that it will have geek appeal.

One of your big projects is "The Vermin Show" with Gordon Smuder of the Puppet Forge. How did you get involved with them?

Gordon and I have known each other for a long time. He was producing Transylvania Television for quite some time and near the end of that show, he brought me on as a writer for some of their live webcasts.

When they decided to shutter TVTV, Gordon told me about this new series he was thinking about and asked me if I'd be interested in being head writer for the project.  Honestly, he had me at "puppet rats."  Then he mentioned Trace Beaulieu and I knew I couldn't turn him down.

Vermin Show

What do you see as one of the big long-term goals with "The Vermin Show"?
Right now, we are trying to get things funded via Kickstarter.  That's the first big hurdle.  If we can get the money to proceed, we have three seven episode seasons all mapped out.  There are a lot of things going on in the show that are only hinted at in season one.  What's with all the bagels?  Why is there a door only our hero rat can see?  Why do they keep moving the cheese?  And where did the ninja come from?

All of those questions will be answered as we progress.  It's an epic story, I think, but it is grounded in a comparatively simple workplace comedy about rats who are just trying to do their job.

Who are some of the great writers who inspired you?

David Mamet was an early influence on my writing.  Not just the swearing (although I do a lot of that).  He has a rapid fire quality to his dialogue I find appealing and I often try to emulate.

Mel Brooks is also a great source of comic influence.  Especially his greatest works like "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles."  Much of what I write is parody and Brooks' best work is a great example of getting a broad audience to connect with source material they may not immediately understand.  You don't need to be a fan of the Universal monster movies to love "Young Frankenstein" but if you are, you will enjoy them on a whole different level.

More personally, I draw inspiration from my good friend Joseph Scrimshaw.  We both write geek comedy and while our writing style is very different, I just enjoy the hell out of his work and find his continued success an inspiration.

We often hear about how artists get started, but what keeps you going? What's keeping it fresh and exciting for you these days?

As a comedy writing, nothing is more rewarding than watching an audience laugh at your work.  When I write a play, I genuinely don't really know if it is funny until I put it in front of an audience.  When they laugh, I feel validated.

Writing comedy can be scary.  You don't know if you've succeeded because while you may think what you wrote is funny, you have no idea if anyone else will think it's funny.  When they laugh at your work, though, there is no other feeling like it.

What's the most unexpected skill that has come in handy for you as an artist?

I'm an early riser.

No, really.  I find it a lot easier to get work done in the morning than I do in the afternoon.  Waking up early in the morning is one of the best ways for me to get my work done.

I'm also willing to say yes to just about any idea.  I have to turn down projects sometimes because I don't have the time but if someone comes to me and says "hey - can you write something funny about tract lighting," I'm going to say yes and then figure out what is funny about tract lighting.

Minnesota seems to bring out a really strong, inclusive sense of community among fans and creators of science fiction and fantasy. What were some of the important things that helped to grow this community over the years?

We have a great network of fan groups and conventions.  For a long time, Minicon was the only convention in town.  Just over fifteen years ago, a disagreement in that community gave rise to CONvergence and MarsCon .  Other conventions like Console Room and Anime Detour have also popped up.

This rich network of conventions has really created tons of opportunities for fans to gather and celebrate their shared love of genre fiction in all of it's forms.

As one of the people who helped form CONvergence, I really think it has helped serve as a crucible for other conventions.  Many of the newer conventions have been inspired by the success of CONvergence and a lot of the folks organizing the new conventions were attending our convention before they decided to start their own.

If Minicon hadn't inspired the community to fracture into multiple convention experiences, I'm not sure if the rich diversity that is the current Minnesota fan community would be as pronounced.

If you could make Trace Beaulieu take you ANYWHERE for lunch in Minnesota, where would it be?

Maverick's.  It's a little restaurant in Roseville that serves the most amazing roast beef sandwiches.  It's kind of like Arby's except the food is amazing.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Preliminary notes on the Phi Falang. Some likely foreign ghosts of Laos

"Oy vey! Have you got the wrong vampire!"
-Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

One of the issues I'd brought up during our recent conversations at CONvergence was the issue of non-indigenous ghosts and entities who've found themselves in or near Laos over the centuries. As mentioned before, there are over 160 different ethnic groups identified within the modern Lao borders, although some consider the differences to be slight enough to recognize between 47 to 49 distinct ethnic groups.

Besides ethnic Lao, the Hmong, Thai, Puthai, Lu, Katang, Makong, Akha, Xuay, Ta Oy, Iu-Mien, Lahu, and Lisu would be communities who would theoretically have entities from their cultural traditions roaming about. There is some understandable debate about the proper taxonomy, however. Do we consider a Phi Kasu distinct from the Phi Krasue and the Phi Ab or the Filipino Pennangalan, for example? There are some who say we should keep it simplified, although I would argue this approach may be as erroneous as saying geckos, newts, and salamanders are all just the same creature. It may not apply to all of the entities in question, but it seems imprudent to assume there is no need to recognize distinctions. This could easily lead to scenarios that are the equivalent of trying to stop a vampire with silver bullets.

But even as we continue to sort this out, there have been some distinctive communities from abroad who've been part of Lao culture long enough that it's not strictly inconceivable supernatural entities may have arrived with them. Documentation is obviously scant and in some cases likely suppressed, but let's consider some of the likely candidates:

Countries known to have definitely cross-pollinated Laos and Southeast Asia with their own ghosts include China and their hopping Jiangshi, Burma, and India. Among the Indian ghosts that appear to have come into Laos are forms of the Bhoot, Vetala, and Pishacha. Weretigers have also come in but their precise provenance is still a matter of research. It should be noted that in making the transition from India and South Asia, many entities seem to have undergone some changes. The Kinnaly of India, for example, have equine features, but avian features in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

We know there have been Jews in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand since the 1600s. Many arrived in Southeast Asia as Ashkenazi descendants of refugees from Russia/Soviet Union. Persian Jews arrived between the 1970s and 80s to escape Iranian persecution, and we know many Israelis enjoy taking their holidays in Laos and Thailand. This means there is potentially a chance for an encounter with Dybbuks, the non-malevolent Ibbur, and the Ru’ah Ra’ah. Future scholarship will have to consider the possibility of Mazzikin, and particularly Shedim/Lillin who are “serpent-like” and are sometimes winged humans. The formless Ruhot are also entities that may now have arrived in Southeast Asia.

We know there are substantial Muslim communities in Thailand, with the majority from Sunni tradition. The southen provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat are home to 18% of the Thai Islamic community. In Laos, Muslimsconstitute about 0.01% of the population and are found in Vientiane, where they maintain a mosque. Jinn, Zars, and particularly Ifrit would be entities to take note of. Human ghosts are not mentioned in the Koran and as such, many do not consider them to exist.

It seems unlikely there will be many English supernatural entities outside of Thailand, although some may be near the Thai borders. More research would be needed to see if any British mercenaries fighting under Rama IV had been killed in action or met untimely accidents in the region during 1800s. Far more likely would be French ghosts, or phantoms, particularly legionnaires caught in the conflicts and various rebellions from the late 1800s to 1954. Of note is that many French legionnaires were also from the African colonies.

For a brief period, Laos was under Japanese control from March, 1945 until their expulsion in August, 1945. There are accounts from Hmong partisans who recall watching many Japanese soldiers commit suicide upon news of the Japanese surrender to the Allies. At least one unit did so by placing grenades under their hats with the pins removed. Over the decades since the end of the wars in Southeast Asia, Japan was for a long time one of the largest suppliers of foreign aid to Laos. Russia also maintained a significant presence, as did Australia.

While there are a significant number of Americans who are believed to have died in Laos over the years, there do not seem to be regular reports of possible American ghosts. Overall, one would anticipate the majority of ghost would be those of soldiers, NGO workers, and tourists.

This all remains inconclusive, but for investigators, hopefully this will provide some food for thought.

Tea, Bones, and Roots. A conversation with poet Sandra Lindow

Sandra Lindow is one of those poets of the world who reminds me why I enjoy poetry, and particular;y poets in the speculative tradition. I've known her for well over a decade since meeting her and her husband, the writer Michael Levy at science fiction conventions in Minnesota.

The author of eight books of poetry and many acclaimed publications around the world, she's a frequent nominee for the Rhysling Awards.  She's been living for years in Menominee, Wisconsin and her awards include the Jade Ring for first prize in poetry from the Wisconsin Regional Writers' Association, and the Wisconsin Press Women's Award for Poetry in 2003, and the WFOP 2003 Triad Theme Contest.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by her during the 2015 CONvergence convention where I was a Guest of Honor, and she was of tremendous assistance in presenting the 2015 Rhysling Awards with me for the Science Fiction Poetry Association. You can visit her online at:

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in poetry? What’s it like writing poetry in Wisconsin? 

I have loved poetry since I was a small child. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who read to me. Soon I had memorized Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses and most of the early Dr. Seuss Books. My family was active in a rural farming community church, and I loved the music. I began singing in church choirs before I could read. I think I have hymns in the marrow of my bones, the rhythms and rhymes are so deep.

Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I was also fascinated with the space race. In fifth grade I wrote a poem that began, “Many years have come and passed from Pilgrim ships to rocket blast …” and went on to laud American patriotism. My mother’s genealogy went back to Elder Brewster who came over on the May Flower, and my father’s parents were first generation German Americans. The rhythms of dialectical differences fascinated me. (My first book of poetry, Rooted in the Earth, is partially written in my German grandparents’ voices and explores the history of our century farm as well as the rapidly disappearing rural culture.) My first published poem appeared in a Sunday School magazine when I was eleven. I knew early on that I wanted to teach English, so when I was ten, I created a school room in our upstairs where I tried to make other children sit in rows and work in workbooks and was offended when they didn’t think it was fun. During high school, I wrote a collection of poetry about country living, the beauty as well as the long school bus rides. At graduation I was named outstanding English student for my class. I majored in English at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and published in its student newspaper and literary magazine as well as a counter cultural mimeographed magazine written in protest of the Viet Nam War.

Although in the sixties, I may have been the only wannabe poet in the unincorporated village of Chili, Wisconsin, Wisconsin has always had a dynamic tradition of poetry. The Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, now in its 65th year, is the second oldest state poetry organization in the nation. (August Derleth was a charter member.) I joined in the 80s after winning the Meudt Award for Narrative Poetry. I have served as West Central Regional Vice President since 1988. The Fellowship provides a Museletter with markets, sponsors various contests, supports poetry activities in the state as well as the Poet Laureate and publishes a Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar every year. As can be seen in the Calendar, there is much about Wisconsin weather and landscape that makes for poetic inspiration.

Do you prefer coffee or tea? And how do you like it?

I prefer tea and have many different kinds of tea in my house so that I can fit it to my need at the time, caffeinated, decaffeinated, herbal etc. I usually drink it unsweetened or with a little honey. I have concluded that artificial sweeteners and sugar aren’t good for me, and, in any case, foregoing sweetener makes it possible to savor the delicate flavors of the tea. I actually have poems that mention tea drinking. One is called “Tea with Peter’s Mother” and is about the problems of mothering a Peter Pan.

When you introduce someone to your poetry for the first time, which poem do you like to start off with, lately?

This is a difficult question. Certain poems seem to sum up various periods of my life. When I was in my forties, it was a poem called “A Celebration of Bones” and described falling in love with a life-sized x-ray of my own bones that was taped to a chiropractor’s wall. Now in my sixties, my poem “The Hedge Witch’s Upgrade” comes to mind. A hedge witch is a woman who lives at the physical and psychological edge of a village and spiritually connects between civilized and natural worlds. The poem is about gardening and getting a little gardening help from a passing frog.

When are you most satisfied with a poem you’ve written?

I am most satisfied with a poem that is tightly written but still maintains the rhythms of beautiful language. I want my poems to have powerful images and an emotional center that can be conveyed to the reader. Usually my inspiration for writing is something that touches me emotionally. My desire is to explain it without over explaining, to leave meanings open so that they continue to “work” on my readers. I was pleased with this year’s Dwarf Star selection for that reason:
cyborg surgery
birdcage breasts beneath skin
heart a little cuckoo

Who’s been an enduring influence on your poetry over the years?

I went through Robert Frost, T. S. Elliott, and Ezra Pound periods but I have been most influenced by women who wrote about their daily lives such as Emily Dickinson, Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Mary Oliver. I have been powerfully moved by women poets like Olga Broumas who use the tropes of the fairy tale to describe what it feels like to grow up in a world that undervalues women. Here is an excerpt from Broumas’s “Cinderella.”
Apart from my sisters, estranged
from my mother, I am a woman alone
in a house of men
who secretly
call themselves princes, alone
with me usually, under cover of dark. I am the one allowed in
to the royal chambers, whose small foot conveniently
fills the slipper of glass. The woman writer, the lady
umpire, the madam chairman, anyone's wife.
I know what I know.
Other speculative poets that have influenced me include Jane Yolen, Terry Garey, Laurel Winter and Ruth Berman. Part of the pleasure here has included knowing them and reading with them. I wish I could write like Ann Schwader. She writes these perfect little sonnets.

What’s a skill you picked up which was unexpectedly useful in writing your poetry?

I write a lot of poems about gardening, but unexpected skills might be yoga meditation, doing Sudoku and playing Solitaire. Poetry requires mental concentration, the ability to tune out distractions and focus on a mental task, to be “inside” an activity for an extended period of time.

If you could do a poetry reading anywhere in the world, where would you like to perform?

I would like to read a poem on Garrison Keiller’s Prairie Home Companion Radio Show. It would also be wonderful to do a reading outside in summer in a band shell as part of a local Chautauqua event. Farther from home, I am not sure how well my work would translate to other cultures, but I could see myself giving a reading on a boat in the Lake Country of England or on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

What’s an underused mythological creature in modern poetry?

Hmm, I could see potential in Babe the Blue Ox or Coyote, particularly in their female incarnations.

What's your starting advice for anyone thinking of getting into writing poetry seriously?

Don’t quit your day job, dearie. Serious poetry is hard work, but it doesn’t pay for groceries. Read lots of poetry. Join a writers’ group that meets monthly and focuses on rigorous critique and emotional support and encouragement rather than chit chat. If there is nothing available locally, start your own group and coordinate readings at libraries and coffee houses. My experience is that everyone who starts writing seriously can find places to publish.

What's next for you?

Right now I am running for vice president of the SFPA. If elected I plan to revise the constitution and get nonprofit status. I have poems that I would like to publish as books, a series called Arboreal about child raising, and Cinderella’s Breast, a collection of speculative poems about breast cancer. I have started experimenting with writing modern sonnets—fourteen lines of ten syllables. They don’t require the strict rhyme scheme of traditional sonnets.

Someday I’d like to edit an anthology of poems about famous people meeting in heaven. These require a little research and are fun to write. Mine include, “Ronald Reagan and John Lennon Meet in Heaven” “Emily Dickinson and Melville Dewey Wed in Heaven” and “Annette Funicello and the Iron Lady Meet on the Way to Heaven.” It would also be cool to edit an anthology of speculative poems that are redactions of famous main stream poems. Ruth Berman’s take on Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” won second prize in the 2014 Rhysling Contest. I have one “When I Am an Old Physicist I will Wear Ultraviolet” that was published in an anthology of women’s poetry. I bet other poets would have fun with this too.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

CONvergence followup: Legends of Laos

One of the key panels that I was able to present during the recent CONvergence convention in Minnesota was Legends of Laos. The presentation was described as: With over 160 different cultures in Laos, there are many different beliefs that can be difficult to untangle. We'll look at many entities from traditional mythology, including giant carnivorous warrior-sorceresses and lusty super-simian bio-weapons. Roy Booth helped provide many examples of cross-cultural traditions for comparison.

In part, the hope throughout the entirety of my time with my fellow conventioneers was to generate a healthy interest in the various entities attributed to Southeast Asia. I hoped to help them to understand the work that's been done to date, and areas where we still have significant gaps in our knowledge.

This year, we wound up covering a staggering number of entities in a very short period of time and I suspect it was easy to lose track of them all. So, to that end, I want to make sure there's at least one post at this blog that provides a rough recap of what we discussed, and what you might google for further research.

Weretigers were one of the first entities we discussed because it led into a significant number of issues we need to understand when dealing with many of the creatures of Southeast Asia and Laos in particular. While we're all agreed that weretigers are present in Laos, each of the various tribes and cultures there feel the weretigers have different powers and forms. The most common being anything from abandoned babies, bathing beauties, to pious monks or a piece of jewelry. The weretiger condition can be contagious, depending on who you talk to. Shapeshifting is possible in almost all cases. But almost all of the creatures of Southeast Asia shapeshift, so it's entirely possible you never know who you're really dealing with. To complicate matters, there is a forest hermit tradition variously spelled as Leusi, Lersi, Reusi, and so on. These hermits often gain the ability to change shape into beings who have heads like tigers or other fierce creatures. The hermits are relatively friendly to everyday humans. The controversial text, Peoples of the Golden Triangle by Paul and Elaine Lewis is, despite the character flaws of the authors, in many ways a good place to start with a surprising number of footnotes taking beliefs about weretigers and the like into account. I have not yet had the chance to review Patrick Newman's Tracking the Weretiger: Supernatural Man-eaters of India, China, and Southeast Asia, because it did not seem to have much material specifically regarding Laos. However, there may be cross-cultural information worth considering.

Kinnaly were another major subject. These are the half-human, half-birds of Hindu and Buddhist legend, and a key point in this year's conversation was taking note that many entities from these legends change form along the way. In India, the Kinnaly were said to have equine features. We felt it was interesting to note that similar to dragons and large reptilian entities of legend, in Asia, creatures tend to be intelligent, wise, and powerful. But once they get into Europe, they tend to devolve into brutish, savage, and hostile creatures. The carnivorous bird women of Greece, harpies and sirens, for example, would seem almost unrecognizable as relatives to the Kinnaly of Laos, who are considered the embodiment of beauty, grace, music, dance, and the arts. This year's discussion included a recap of the Lao epic, Manola and Sithong, regarding a young Kinnaly princess who was captured by a human hunter and sold to a prince who fell in love with her, despite various court intrigues.

Phi is the general catch-all term for various types of spirits who can be found throughout Laos. We discussed the Phi Phaed (or the Lao term for Preta, hungry spirits, in Buddhist tradition). We discussed a variety of grandmother ghosts including the hungry Phi Kongkoi and Phi Ya Wom, who broke into a million carnivorous pieces who continue to plague humanity today.

We also discussed the Phi Kasu, similar to the Pennangalan of Filipino tradition, an entity that's actually reported throughout Asia. We discussed how some villages put thorns around their windows to prevent the Phi Kasu from coming in, especially since they tend to hunger for the blood and flesh of pregnant women by many accounts. In China, there was once reportedly an entire village of them, and at least one was the consort of a Chinese general, although it freaked the troops out, and they set about dispatching her to the other realms.

We had a conversation regarding the Buddhist hells of Nalok or Naraka, and how during August, the gates of hell are opened for a night for the ghosts to visit their relatives during the Boun Khao Padab Din festival. Many in the Latin American cultures could see parallels to Dia de Los Muertos.

Nyak and their women, known as Nyakinee can be roughly described as gruesome, giant, carnivorous warrior-sorcerer perverts who indulge in all sorts of unsavory practices that humans are forbidden to engage in. Their roots can be found in the classical Rakshasa tradition, and they were the primary antagonists in the Lao version of the Ramayana, known as Phra Lak Phra Lam. It should be noted that many of them took vows to protect the teachings of the Buddha, however, and that they will mete out terrible punishments to those who distort the truths of Buddhist teaching. You can find images of Nyak in many Lao temples around the world.

The primary guardians of the Lao temples, as well as sacred waters and caverns of Laos, and some believe, of all Lao people, are the Nak (not to be confused with their animalistic cousins the Ngeuak) also referred to as the Naga. Female Nak are referred to as Nakini or Nagini. Younger ones are considered Nakanya or Naga Kanya. There will be some variations of spelling. Some accounts identify well over 1,000 different types of Nak. Some have multiple heads, others have very specific powers or domains, etc. Connected to the rainbows, they are said to bridge the mortal realms with the celestial realms. But they will also fiercely defend sacred streams, so while they are somewhat friendly towards humanity, they are also typically best left undisturbed.

The Vanon come from the Hindu tradition of the Vanara, and are the "friendly" warrior monkeys such as Hanuman, the White Monkey general. Lao legends note Hanuman's great courage and ferocity but also tend to remember his habit of trying to romance the mermaids and Nak princesses. The significant thing I have tried to get across is that the Vanon were created by the various deities and demigods of legend to fight against entities such as the Nyak. They weren't all strictly monkeys. Some had features of bears or badgers, tigers, or other wild beasts and imbued with various mystic and superhuman powers such as high strength, speed, and senses. While Lao legend typically presents them as cute, I would strongly argue that you need to consider them laughing bio-weapons.

There were numerous tangents we went on throughout the conversation, as in any good panel. One or two principles that came up was a question of what do we consider paranormal. In Southeast Asia having to confront such moments actually often feels quite normal. The research of S. Suwanlert has some fascinating questions about the realities of entities such as the Phi Pob and how you deal with them, for example. In Southeast Asia, it differs from the US and Europe in that dispelling or exorcising the ghosts and the supernatural isn't really the priority, typically, as much as finding a way to live in harmony with them, especially ancestral or guardian spirits, or to determine to avoid them.

As you can see, this is a LOT of material we were covering and there were many more things we could discuss, but I hope this helps those of you who were in attendance, or who wanted to come but couldn't, to get a better sense of some of the things to research or look for in the future. But what are some of your questions?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Full Steam Ahead: Catching up with J. Damask

A while back, we did an interview with author J. Damask aka Joyce Chng, for Asian American Press and I've kept in regular touch with her since because of her insight and perspective on science fiction and fantasy in Singapore and Asia, particularly from a Steampunk perspective. 

Her writing is always lively and intriguing and she's finishing up the final stages of getting the Southeast Asian steampunk anthology The SEA is Ours out with her co-editor, Jaymee Goh of Silver Goggles fame. The SEA is Ours will be coming out this Fall from Rosarium Publishing. I had a chance to catch up with her recently about her other upcoming projects and other ideas that have been on her mind lately!

You always have so many projects going on at once. What are your top  three at the moment you're really excited about?

Aww, thank you.
1. The SEA is Ours
2. Dragon Dancer (a picturebook about a boy and a dragon)
3. Something I have been working – shhh, it’s a secret...

What are some of the things you've learned while editing "The SEA Is Ours?"

That working with a like-minded and passionate co-editor (Jaymee!) is awesome. That we really have talented people from Southeast Asia.  That bringing together this group of talented people is a journey of its own.

"The SEA Is Ours" is a really ambitious project! How did you get  involved in the first place, and what are some of your hopes for it  once it's released?

Jaymee and I have been talking for a long time about a publication by Southeast Asians for Southeast Asians. We tossed around ideas – and finally, we had a brainflash to start something on Southeast Asian steampunk. We both love steampunk and would want to see stuff from Southeast Asian writers.

In your novels, you're often working with some interesting themes of  family and transformation. What are some of the directions you're  thinking of taking for your characters next?

I am still in the middle of planning. I am not sure if I want to write more in the Jan Xu Adventures world (including Gabriel Sutherland’s story – I still need to go back to his story and write more. Now if I have more time!)

Likewise for my werewolves-in-space space opera: there is a sequel, but I have to work on it. Definitely issues that the main characters have to face, carpets being pulled under their feet etc etc.

As a writer, what are some of the current concerns you have about the 
way we're discussing diversity in world literature?

Oh, yes, that.

As a writer, I feel that the diversity push in the States is different than the concerns faced by writers of different non-US countries. For example, Southeast Asia is already diverse and the key issue is visibility (at least, in places like the States and the United Kingdom). At the same time, market needs (let’s be serious, publishing) are also different. So, the key thing is to have the markets meet (or least, agree on common grounds)

World literature is diverse and in order to walk the talk, we need to include things like translators and translations, because many of the diverse works are not in English and not all writers are Anglophones. Indeed, even for SFF writers writing in English, they have their first languages or mother tongues

What's your advice for a beginner who is interested in getting  involved with writing?

Write. Write even more Do not give up Find like-minded friends and mentors who will inspire you.

What are some of the things you think are overused in Steampunk  literature? Where are there areas where you feel we can go next after  "The SEA Is Ours"?

Gears. Steam. Gears

The worlds we see in The SEA Is Ours open up endless possibilities. We have skywhales. We have trains. We have volcanoes. We have people from parts of Southeast Asia doing funky and creative things!

I would like writers to look at their landscapes. In Southeast Asia, we have the Ring of Fire. We do not have seasons like the Northern Hemisphere. Instead we have monsoons, typhoons and hurricanes. Even the energy resources are not just steam-related, but solar, wind, thermal etc!

Who are some of the voices in Steampunk that are really exciting you today?

Jaymee GohSuna Dasi and Dru Pagliassotti.

Who do you consider some of your biggest role models as a writer?

Kari Sperring, Judith Tarr, Han May and BingXin.

Travel often figures heavily in Steampunk literature. If you could travel anywhere in the world like "Around the World in 80 Days," today, what would be some personal 'Must-Sees' for you?

Petra, Jordan, The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Egypt, especially Cairo. Russia. The Grand Canyon in the United States. My ancestral home in Fujian, China.

Christopher Jones and the 2015 CONvergence Guest of Honor Badges

One of the outstanding perks of being a CONvergence Guest of Honor is that you get a wonderful one-of-a-kind Guest of Honor badge illustrated by Christopher Jones, who has been the artist for an amazing number of titles over the years for Marvel and DC comics, among others. He's done work for the Batman '66 series, Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, Kolchak, Black Scorpion, Re-Animator, Young Justice, and Pirates of the Carribean. He recently posted his guide to the Guest of Honor badges he did for all of us this year and the ideas that went into each badge, including mine.

Here, we have the CONvergence mascot Connie as a classic Nagakanya or Nagini from the Hindu/Buddhist mythology that's common to Laos and Southeast Asia. As I've discussed in many places elsewhere, these are the daughters of the Naga Kings who are often closely connected to wisdom and knowledge at a profound, cosmic level.  In Laos the term would be Nakini or Nakanya. I think Chris did an excellent interpretation with short notice.

He's going to be the Guest of Honor at next year's CONvergence, so that's going to be interesting to see how he does a self-portrait. In the meantime you can also follow him on Twitter at: @ChrisJonesArt

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

To Live Here: A conversation with Soul Vang

In some circles, the Hmong are considered one of the oldest continual cultures of the world, but it wasn't until relatively recently the Hmong are said to have had a written tradition. Among the first writers I'd met from their culture was Soul Vang, whose work appeared regularly in later issues of the Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong literary journal which was first established nearly 20 years ago.

Some of Soul's work will be appearing in the upcoming special issue of the Asian American Literary Review, and has also appeared in classic Hmong anthologies such as Bamboo Among the Oaks and How Do I Begin, which takes its name from one of Soul's classic poems. He's based in California and much of his poetry draws from the unique terrain and culture found in the Central Valley experience.

I've known of Soul's work well over 15 years now, and am always deeply impressed by its quality, vision and breadth. But it was not until this year that I had a chance to meet him in person, despite our regular correspondence in year past. He recently released his first full-length collection of poetry, To Live Here and I consider it an absolute essential read for anyone who wants to get a sense of the future of Hmong literature. I had a chance to talk with him about that journey.

Tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in poetry? 
I was born in Laos and came to the U.S. as a teenager. Being uncomfortable socializing and integrating into the U.S. school system, I found comfort in books. Stories and poetry became my friends. Throughout high school and beginning in college, I had trouble situating myself. I dropped out of college to join the U.S. Army. After a stint in the army, I came back to college and took a poetry class as an elective. It gave me a tool that I had been looking for, the ability to define and reshape my life.

How did To Live Here come about? What's one of your particularly favorite poems from this collection?
The core of To Live Here is my M.F.A. thesis. I have been adding to and refining it over the years, so in essence it is my collected work thus far. My favorite poem of this collection is the first poem, “How Do I Begin?” I think it sets up the scope, content and tone of the book.

What was the most difficult thing about putting "To Live Here" together?
I had to reshuffle and reorganize the book in a couple ways to see which way would work best. I think the most difficult thing was to make the book flow, content wise and thematically. I am glad to finally sort it into a sense of order.

What are some of the fun things happening with the Hmong American Writers Circle these days?
The fun things that The Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC) is going through these days are holding workshops, making homemade pizzas, enjoying our writing lives. Our members are going through growth spurts that we find exhilarating. We are submitting and being published, we are going to retreats and conferences, we are growing and looking forward to the future with optimism.

You have a great many talents and interests. Was your family supportive as you began to show interest in being a writer?
My family has been very supportive of my writing. Although writing doesn’t guarantee success or an income, my family has been there 100% to see me through.

 What's your starting advice for anyone thinking of getting into writing poetry seriously, particularly from communities with roots in Asia?
If you are interested in poetry, read as much as you can. Then learn some basic skills and gradually add to and refine those skills. And keep a journal, and write down everything and anything interesting. Once you start writing, find fellow writers and form a community, or join an existing community to give you encouragement, guidance, and critical feedback.

Lastly, strive to find your voice, not just in writing but also in performing. Join readings and slams to finesse your style.

What's the best compliment you've received for your books so far?
A person who introduced me at a reading once said that HAWC is literally creating Hmong American literature before our eyes. That is a profound and I think true statement.

What's next for you?
I am working on a collection focused on my private life and my family. It may be a mix of poetry and creative non-fiction. Then beyond that I want to explore a collection of poetry about the future, about hope and possibilities, thanks to the inspiration from a friend.

You can get a copy of To Live Here from

Monday, July 13, 2015

Photos from CONvergence 2015

I'm still in the process of adding a few more photos as they come in to my CONvergence 2015 album on flickr, but if you're interested in seeing some of the things that happened at this year's CONvergence from my perspective as a Guest of Honor there, you can check out what's up there at the moment.  You can also see some of my photos and the photos of many other wonderful participants on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook among the various shots with the hashtag #CVG2015

Among the various costumes and creations, I think many of the cosplayers and themed party rooms really had a good handle on Dystopia. Of course, there were also some classic Disney characters like Elsa and others who reminded me that a good many Disney films do seem like the residents are in somewhat dystopian realms given all of the drama they get into.

Next year's theme will be "Getting There In Style" looking at transportation, travel and destinations in science fiction and fantasy. I think that's a theme with a lot of potential.

I definitely appreciated the many nods to classic and contemporary science fiction and fantasy throughout the convention, as well as the various mash-ups and innovations we saw. I wish I'd been able to catch a good photo of Howl's Moving Castle, which one first place this year, but I was quite busy trying to get a picture of the amazing Toothless the Dragon who was scampering around the Doubletree. And it was worth it.

Again, a big thanks to all of the organizers who made this possible. It wouldn't have been the same kind of dystopia without you! All hail, Mark II! I look forward to preparing some presentations for everybody next year. Be sure to register now over at: