Wednesday, September 16, 2015

[Laomagination] Laotomatons and Post-Colonial Prometheans?

"You mustn't be too attached to who you were..."

The modern science fiction genre came into being through Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly's Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus regarding Dr. Frankenstein  and Frankenstein's Monster, who shambles through the novel anonymously because Dr. Frankenstein won't claim it. Here's an example of the Thai edition of the novel:

In the West there are many stories of humans trying to create artificial life, from robots, to golems and homonculi, just to name a few possibilities. In modern times we see tales like the replicants of  Blade Runner or Maria from Metropolis.

Some might argue that the Vanon or Vanara are another form of artificial life in this vein, within the Asian traditions.  It's often difficult to find stories in which human beings are fully comfortable with their own creations or extend them full rights. The automatons are often created for slave labor purposes, as weapons, or for intellectual curiosity and showboating to prove that it can be done.

Lao literature could certainly bring a unique perspective to all of these issues and possibilities. I naturally hope we explore the subject in even more interesting ways, because I don't think the last word has been written on this subject at all.

Questions would definitely emerge from Lao projects to reanimate and construct automaton in a predominantly Theravada Buddhist society. Much of Laos is firmly animistic rather than mechanisitic in our worldview. Lao have a sense of most parts of reality having particular spirits connected to it. A spiirit of a house or doorway, for example, or a spirit of a city.

Classically in Buddhist tradition the human body is seen as being composed of at least 32 distinct spirits, which can become prone to "wandering" if care is not taken. This is at the heart of the Lao baci ceremony, also referred to as a "su kwan" to call the spirits back to the body of family and friends who are being honored.

Without getting too technical, the ultimate point of this note would be that many Lao see and understand the basics and principles of mechanics when it comes to inanimate objects, but when it comes to biological sciences, there would be significant debate about "interchangability" of organs and tissues. It would take significant mental rationalization. This is not an insurmountable task, but it would be an issue to consider.

From a metaphysical perspective, if "the creature" is created from multiple humans, would it also carry the collective karmic weight of previous owners, or somehow a blank karmic slate is established? If they don't attain nirvana in this period, what happens in the next incarnation, if anything? Many other questions are posible.

Because many Lao are cremated, the acquisition body parts also poses an interesting ethical question. They would most likely be procured from visitors or from minority communities in the region, such Hmong, Khmu, Tai Dam, Lue, Ta Oy and others.

Historically, there have been controversies in other Southeast Asian nations erupting when the bodies of ethnic minorities were desecrated by mystics who believed their bones and organs had properties useful for magic and amulets. Bioethics get complicated by how the scientists and local authorities may view those minorities and their rights, particularly the rights of corpses in whichever era the story takes place.

One might argue in some times "it's nothing a few kip won't solve" but in others the situation might be very different.

Given the economic scenarios in Laos historically it becomes interesting to determine who the instigator would be in such a story. Who would have the resources and education to have access and authority to get the equipment necessary and to conduct their experiments without interruption?

In the classic Frankenstein tales, it's a baron in a remote part of the countryside. Would it be a village chieftan or a province governor in Laos? Or perhaps a rogue monk or layperson with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of Buddhism? Or perhaps a mad scientist on the run in Europe, but who is given free reign in Laos because a person with medical skills is hard to come by, and the locals would take what they can get.

Might the Lao or others create their automatons in the tradition of the Jewish golem, so frustrated by rampant corruption and abuse that they turn to building their own protector animated with a divine spirit? In the tale of the golem, one is supposed to erase the sacred word on the golem's forehead once its task is done or else you invite misery and destruction, losing control of a thing that is no longer just a thing, but neither fully human. You can see some of those themes play out in Blade Runner among other stories. How might Lao respond to the Island of Dr. Moreau where the scientist is attempting to create a new form of life without the human character flaws?

Perhaps in the aftermath of the conflicts of the 19th-20th century, we might see a story play out closer to Blackenstein where help is sought for a disabled Vietnam veteran, or Universal Solider or Robocop, where various powers that be have determined that someone's duty is not yet done, and the sacrifice of their lives for society was not enough.

No one definitive story has been written yet in the Lao community, but I hope we'll see our writers and artists consider it an interesting topic and take it on in the years ahead as the issues become increasingly relevant.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Lao Heritage Foundation Marks 11 Years

The Lao Heritage Foundation is holding their 11th annual cultural Gala on September 26 at Herndon Community Center. with Sahtu Press authors Nor Sanavongsay and Krysada Panusith Phounsiri. The evening starts at 7pm and tickets are $35 for most people at the door.Participants will have a chance to enjoy delicious traditional Lao cuisine, and traditional music and dance performed by the students of the Lao Heritage Foundation. A community dance will follow with music provided by the Woodbridge Band. There will be items for auction and raffles to raise funds to sustain and expand the cultural programs of the Lao Heritage Foundation,

Krysada Panusith Phounsiri is a Lao-American Artist and Engineer. His debut collection of poetry “Dance Among Elephants,” was published by Sahtu Press in 2015. His work has been featured in the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement and the Smithsonian’s “A Day In The Life Of Asian America” digital exhibit. He is currently the chair of the National Lao American Writers Summit that will convene in San Diego in 2016 for the very first time. He was born in Laos in 1988 and came to America with his family in 1989. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 2010 with a Physics and Astrophysics Double Major with a Minor in Poetry.

He’s also a dancer, photographer and world traveler, developing the Snap Pilots Photography Project he founded with his friends.

Nor Sanavongsay is an award-winning Lao American writer in the San Francisco Bay area and the founder of Sahtu Press. He has been a member of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project, the National Lao American Writers Summit, the Lao Artists Festival of Elgin, among many others.

Sahtu Press is a nonprofit publishing company with the mission to promote Lao literature to the world. Sanavongsay is the author of children's books inspired by Lao folktales, such as Xieng Mieng: A Sticky Mess, and original intellectual properties. A graduate of Northern Illinois University, he and his family came to the US in 1979, first resettling in Kingsport, Tennessee then moving to Elgin, Illinois.

This year is a significant year for the Lao community as it marks 40 years since the beginning of the modern Lao diaspora. Over 230,000 Lao are rebuilding their lives across the US in all walks of life with many who hope to maintain the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Laos.

Technology and Lao American story telling

Learning about the Secret War is a series of hard lessons. But it's important for youth to understand they are capable of the gift of life. This is a very powerful notion. We need to instill in our youth the knowledge that the everyday person has the strength to stand up and say no to the worst in human nature and to stand up for what's right. That's what it would have taken for us to avert some of the worst moments in human history.

When I speak to young Lao students I try to emphasize that even in the worst times, there were brave, heroic people who chose the moral and the ethical acts, who put their lives on the line to help people. This is very much within our tradition.

In planning conversations for the Living Arts Outreach project, the decision has since been made to focus on developing a Lao American storytelling corps in North Minneapolis that effectively grows our neighborhood memory while finding innovative ways to share and express that journey.

Thanks to support from CURA's ANPI program, we have been doing the majority of our work at the Harrison Community Center. This has been chosen because it's where our community feels most connected to Lao Assistance Center services for close to a decade now. Our core constituents are Lao American refugee families historically been underserved by the arts. Hopefully in future years, other communities across the country will be able to find similar programs that will invest in such a process.

Today there are approximately 230,000 Lao in the U.S., many whose stories have yet to be documented. Technology will be instrumental in keeping the lessons of the Lao diaspora alive for tomorrow's generations. Films, photo galleries, interactive exhibits, digital books, documentaries, even writing contests for schools and other techniques will all be essential, and hopefully avert future wars involving our community.

Technology has changed much, especially the ways we communicate with one another. We know that the seeds for conflict, for hatred and oppression are still very real. But we also have opportunities for victims to be heard and to find advocates for their struggles. This will not be without challenges however.

Overall we need to remember that the arts and artists can play a strong role in community revitalization efforts and we can see extensive growth as a result of this process. We need to ask how can we build the leadership and power of low-income communities, communities of color, youth, people with disabilities or other historically excluded communities? We can't be afraid to start by focusing in a neighborhood or specific geographic area.

Traditionally, Lao elders have provided stability and have been the bearers and gatekeepers of culture and tradition. Our elders provided wisdom and experience that was necessary for the survival of the family. However, immigration to the U.S. brought the need for knowledge and skills different than that required back in Laos. So to many, the knowledge held by Lao elders in the U.S. has come to be viewed as obsolete, resulting in a deterioration of their status in the community.

Preparing youth with advanced educational degrees (i.e., law, medicine, education) is viewed as an investment in the future which serves to empower the extended family (including the elders) and the Lao American community as a whole. We can make a big difference through effective story telling. But that doesn't come from telling just the success stories. We need to be upfront about our stories to include genuine struggles and challenges.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Coming to ZAPPCON in Fresno, October 17-18th

This week ZAPPCON made the official announcement that Lao American artist and author Nor Sanavongsay and I will be joining them as special guests this year. Other featured guests are voice actress Andrea Libman, the musical duo of the Doubleclicks,  artists Ron Randall, Lukas Ketner, Paige Halsey Warren, Cat Farris, Drew Green, Eben Burgoon, Terry Blas, and RK Post, author Starla Huchton, and Cosplayer professional Christine Sprankle. They're also highlighting the local film Tribal Black Ops

This looks like it will be a very fun lineup!

Nor and I will have an artists table all weekend and we will present on many subjects including Southeast Asian superheroics and the Cthulhu mythos in Laos. We plan to have several exciting books and prints for folks who visit our table for both long-time readers and new ones. 

I always enjoy presenting with Nor, who works closely with me to expand our community's visual vocabulary of how we understand the heros, myths, legends and monsters of Lao tradition. We want to look at the lesser-known parts of our heritage, and where we might take them in ways that would be distinctly Lao for today's audiences and tomorrow's. 

One of my favorite projects with him was for my poem "Full Metal Hanuman," and current efforts to expand our understanding of the Kinnaly. He's also been doing great work to help the Diversicon convention in Minnesota. He's currently hard at work on the followup to his debut book A Sticky Mess inspired by the classic Lao trickster folktale.

This convention excites us because it's the first gaming and comic book convenion we've done in Fresno and the Cenral Valley, with over 6,300 Lao in the surrounding area. We're excited to encourage our community to come and participate!

ZAPPCON is "a hybrid of gaming and comic book conventions- a weekend of entertainment and all things nerdtacular: special guests, comics, gaming, artists, vendors, cosplay, kids zone, and more." It aims to be the Central Valley's biggest convention for geeks, by geeks. It will be held at the Fresno Convention Center's Valdez Hall at 702 M Street in Fresno, California. This is their second year presenting. In their inaugural year they had over 1,400 attending and 90 exhibitors.

ZAPPCON is named in honor of Zapp's Theme Park in Fresno, which was founded in 1904 and created amazing memories for the community until it shut down in 1917. It's an interesting story well worth reading, and I hope it inspires others to consider building attractions like these for their community in the future.

We look forward to seeing everyone in Fresno, and throughout the weeks ahead I'll be sharing more connected to our presentations. A big thanks to everyone who's made this event possible! Be sure to follow ZAPPCON on twitter and facebook!