Monday, May 23, 2011

Haiku Movie Review: Thor

Norse god of Thunder,
The plot is THIN but hammers,
Thanks to great actors.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Laos in the House Update: 50 days to go!

We all wanted to give a big thanks to everyone who's chipped in during the first 10 days of our Laos in the House: Midwest fundraising drive on and we're now 1/5th of the way there, but we need your support to make this possible.

This is the first tour in the Midwest of professional Lao American writers and artists in 36 years.

During our trek across the Midwest we're covering at least 1,111 miles sharing Lao American art and literature and more importantly, looking for new artists and community members and bring their voices forward.

We're collecting oral histories and finding the landmarks of Lao America, because many of our national and international accomplishments have their roots here. And if this tour is a success, we hope to bring the show to many other states as well so we can share the work of groups such as Legacies of War or the art of Vongduane Manivong and Mali Kouanchao, among so many others.

Now is the time to bring those stories forward and we all hope you'll join us in making this possible!

You can visit us at

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spice and Slice of Asia: Lao storytelling and spoken word this week

Learn about the history and culture of Laotians and other Asian immigrants at the fifth annual "Spice and Slice of Asia" program series presented at Hennepin County Libraries in May, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Storytelling, exhibits, a film, calligraphy, and a spoken word performance are scheduled. All are open to the public free of charge.

I'll be part of Burmese, Chinese, and Laotian storytelling on Sunday, May 15, 2 p.m. at Brookdale Library. I'll be sharing my story and depending on the time and interest a number of the classic folk tales we've told each other over the last 600 years. Brookdale Library is at 6125 Shingle Creek Pkwy. in Brooklyn Center, MN.

The "Spice and Slice of Asia" will also include a Southeast Asian spoken word performance for teens grade 6 and up on Friday, May 13, 4:30 p.m. at Sumner Library, 611 Van White Memorial Blvd featuring my good colleagues Saymoukda Vongsay and Fres Thao until 5:30 PM so we'd all be delighted if you can join us!

On the 19th at Brookdale Library we'll be showing the award-winning film Bomb Harvest, one of the best films regarding UXO issues still persisting in Laos today.

Recognizing Adisack Nhouyvanisvong this Friday

I've talked at length about Madame Bounxou Chanthraphone being recognized this Friday by the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans during the annual Heritage Dinner at the Earle Brown Center and the once-in-a-lifetime Leadership Awards given by the Council, which was appointed by the Minnesota legislature.

This year is a special year for Lao Minnesotans because we get to honor and recognize two of our own during the awards, the second being Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong, for his leadership in education and the community.

Adisack Nhouyvanisvong has been a teacher, student, entrepreneur, artist and family man. In a way he has lived many lives but he has always been committed to reaching for the best both in himself and in others. He has over 12 years of experience working in education, including the Minnesota Department of Education, helped to found the modern Lao American literary movement and formed a Minnesota technology company, inspiring many across the country given his humble origins as a refugee and immigrant from Laos.

He's been an exceptional role model and a good friend for many years.

As a graduate student Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong co-founded the SatJaDham Lao LIterary Project, a grass-roots organization established to promote the Lao literary arts. In 2010 he co-founded Naiku, an educational software company focused on bringing educational technology tools to help teachers and students.

Dr. Nhouyvanisvong spent the last twelve years working in education in Minnesota. He has created and ensured the psychometric integrity of large-scale educational assessments for the Minnesota Department of Education and for large testing companies. He has taught at the University of Minnesota and is an adjunct faculty at Metropolitan State University and Saint Mary's University.

Dr. Nhouyvanisvong received his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University and his MBA from the University of Minnesota. He's one of the few Lao in the country who hold an advanced degree but he's inspired a generation to reach for the best within themselves and others and much of our national conversations as a community were made possible because of him.

Success wasn't always a guarantee. There were many uncertainties along the way.

At the end of the war in Laos in 1975, his family’s journey was just beginning. It would take them to many states including Southwest Minnesota, North Carolina and Fresno, California. They were hoping to start over and build a new life with each other and the community. No one could say what would happen next, but it was clear Adisack loved to learn. Getting his advanced degrees, he set precedent and became a role model for many Lao, inspiring others and demonstrating academic success is possible.

But he also wanted to give back to the community and in 1995 he helped to co-found the SatJaDham Lao Literary project, a grassroots movement to give voice to the nearly 200,000 Lao refugees scattered across the globe and set in motion much of the modern expressive voice of Lao in America today.

 He also has volunteered with many charitable causes including the recent Twin Cities exhibit Legacies of War: Refugee Nation, a multimedia, interdisciplinary project to examine the complex relationship of the Lao journey to Minnesota which drew over 1,200 people. Dr. Nhouyvanisvong was also a featured guest of the first Lao American Writers Summit, gathering nationally recognized Lao writers from across the country, many for the first time in 35 years, and recently spoke at the Lao Student Association of Minnesota's Student New Year Celebration at the University of Minnesota.

Last year he teamed up with local entrepreneurs who were just as passionate about learning technology as he was and he formed Naiku, an educational software company that has been discussed in the Star Tribune and Asian American Press. He continues to live in Minnesota with his wife and three children and is instilling a deep love of art, culture, education and community service within them.

From 1996 to 2002, Adisack and the grassroots organizers of SatJaDham produced five of the earliest collections of Lao American writing by Lao in their own voices.

As Lao Americans, we can see the results of these efforts as many in SatJaDham went on to lead and participate in national and local organizations committed to education, the arts and the success of Lao both in America and around the world. Organizations such as the Center for Lao Studies in California and the Lao Heritage Foundation. Adisack is often very humble about his efforts in this process but I believe it is fair to say much of the Lao American renaissance we see is possible in part because of opportunities and encouragement he and his friends created.

In 1995, they made direct connections between the arts, academic success, grass roots philanthropy and community building, a little ahead of their time as we look around the country today.

I deeply look forward to what he will contribute to our world in the years ahead and happily congratulate him with my thanks for all that he made possible here in Minnesota.

Laotian American Arts: The Mien,1975-2011

In Southeast Asia, the Mien, also known as the Iu Mien or occasionally Yao are one of the largest cultures throughout the region, tracing their origins back over 2,000 years in Southern China, with over 470,000 in Vietnam alone and 60,000 in Northern Thailand.

They are also one of the major ethnic groups in Laos, one of over 60 distinct cultures there.  It can be a little confusing because Iu Mien don't call themselves Yao and not all Yao are Iu Mien- They could be one of several other groups, such as the Lanten aka Kim Mun.

Anthropological distinctions aside, most Mien in the US are here as refugees because of their family's roles during the war for Laos. Most are rebuilding on the West Coast, especially in California such as Fresno, Oakland, Richmond, and Sacramento. You can also find Mien in Oregon, Washington and even Alaska, which is quite a contrast to Laos, presumably.

Mien culture is very distinctive, many following a classical form of Taoism, but as with many cultures in the region, they are also influenced by Buddhist, Christian and animist folk beliefs, and of course, in the US, increasing exposure to pop culture and hip hop.

But where I'm going with all of this is regarding Laotian American arts since the end of the war in 1975. We know that there are at least three major literary movements that took place within both the Lao and the Hmong community that gave rise to collectives such as the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project, the Paj Ntaub Voice literary journal (both around 1994/1995) and efforts to create significant theater and arts organizations, especially over the last 20 years.

For the Mien, the most significant of the literary journals that they have produced to date were the slim volumes Quietly Torn(1999) and Quietly reBorn (2000), with editor Fam Linh Saechao, Katherine Cowy Kim, and later Christine Wong. These are very hard to find, but I had a chance to see them at the UC Irvine Southeast Asian Archive this April.

Quietly Torn was a literary journal featuring writing by Mien-American women from Richmond, California and has often been praised for its striking and honest accounts of the Mien experience. Quietly reBorn focused more on youth voices, but included a number of oral histories, childrens' sketches and continuing discussions about culture, identity, religion, work and play, even wrestling with the question of what it means to be a hero.

But where are those voices today?

I found myself moved and saddened reading the Mien accounts because it is clear so many of them wrestled with many of the same issues as the rest of us but at the moment, we appear many more years away from seeing a fully realized expressive culture in the US, of Mien speaking in their own words, on their own terms about their journey through America and the rest of the world.

It reminds me we cannot take our stories, our arts for granted, or we can lose so much.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Recognizing Bounxou Chanthraphone this Friday

This Friday in Minnesota, we're honoring Madame Bounxou Chanthraphone for a lifetime achievement award in the arts as part of the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans' annual Heritage Dinner.

Out of 21,000 Asian Pacific Minnesotans in the state, she is just 1 of only 3 people being recognized, including Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong for his leadership in education. These awards are given only once in a person's lifetime and reflect a decision made by the State of Minnesota, among over 60 Asian American communities who could have been reflected this year.

It was my pleasure and an honor to nominate her for this award for many reasons, not the least being my conviction that when we have living treasures among us, we should recognize them and honor those achievements.

As the undisputed master weaver in our community of 200,000+ in the US, she has the distinction of being an National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow and a recipient of the prestigious Bush Artist Fellowship and a Bush Enduring Vision Fellowship.

As part of its efforts to honor and preserve our nation's diverse cultural heritage, the National Endowment for the Arts annually awards one-time-only National Heritage Fellowships for master folk and traditional artists. These fellowships are intended to recognize the recipients' artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to our nation's traditional arts heritage. This is one of the highest recognitions an artist can receive from the US government.

More importantly, she paved the way for many Laotians to see not just the craft but the art that our textile traditions can embody, and the significance of handcrafted work.

Madame Chanthraphone was born in 1947 in the town of Savannakhet, in central Laos. She learned Lao weaving techniques from her mother and grandmother, and soon studied more formally, learning the weaving techniques and designs of her native central region and of the northern and southern regions. She also learned the detailed ikot tie dying technique.

Her expertise allows her to weave single strands of linen, cotton, silk, and other materials into the traditional patterns, including the intricate symbols and geometric designs. She uses pigments derived from natural substances including berries, roots, and tree bark. These skills are then used to weave traditional Lao skirts, dancing costumes, wall hangings and other textiles.

She came to the US in 1982 with her daughter, Ladda, who has also begun to follow in her mother's footsteps. As a child, Madame Chanthraphone attended Savannah Elementary School and continued the study of weaving while she was training as a teacher in the city of Vientiane, Laos. In the 1960s she became an elementary teacher, and went back to the city of Savannakhet and taught in Immaculee School for eight years. Ultimately, in 1975 with the end of the war, she and her family fled and spent time in the Ubon refugee camp in Thailand. In Thailand, she was able to support her family through her weaving.

In the US she continued to teach her skills formally to many through programs with the Lao PTA and CAPI, the Center for Asian and Pacific Islanders.

One of the significant things I respect about her work is that she has consistently insisted not just on preserving the traditional patterns and motifs but engaging them dynamically, so that with her best pieces, we are looking at actual objects of art that connect us back not only to our heritage of the last six hundred years in Laos but something we can consider and present to future generations.

She is currently working on a new book and other efforts to document her life's work and I'm looking forward to seeing her family and others continue these traditions. I hope it won't be too long before we see a new exhibit of hers

Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders

One of the really interesting projects on Kickstarter this season that I feel could really use some support is Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art

This is a groundbreaking anthology of poems, essays and artworks by Southeast Asian women, and features work by women of Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei or East Timor descent, and minority groups such as the ethnic Chinese and Indians in Southeast Asia, and the often stateless Mien, Hmong, and Cham in many regions of the world.

They need to raise $20,000 but sought $2,000 with this Kickstarter program. They're halfway there from other fundraising efforts I've heard about, but could use help making it to the last $10,000 they need to really make this the book it could be.

As a writer and continuing our discussion of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I applaud the creation of such books but I also wish that our community had a robust love of the arts that would make it viable for these women to regularly have their own exhibits and books committed to a rigorous examination of their work and where it fits within the context of art in their communities and world art. I hope a book like this can help pave the way for this within the next ten years.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Laotian American heritage: May 9th

I'm always excited to celebrate Laotian American heritage during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Perhaps it comes from my background as an adoptee, but I still find new things to appreciate each year and it's a constant learning process. 

When you have 31 days in Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, you could take the time to learn about a new country every day.

If you were take on this task, you could study:
Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Burma/Myanmar (Shan and the Karen, among others), Cambodia, China, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Federated States of Midway Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Hawaii's, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Laos (Hmong, Lao, Tai Dam, Khmu, Iu Mien and over 82 different ethnicities who live there), Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mongolia, Nauru, Nepal, New Caledonia, New Zealand, North Korea, Northern Mariana Islands, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Pitcairn Islands, Samoa, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Tahiti, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tibet, Tonga, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, and Vietnam (including the recently arrived Montagnards (Rhade,Bahnar, Jarai, Koho and Mnong).

And that's just a start.

What are the signs of a culture? What are the elements of our heritage? Besides just learning the history, you should learn the dreams and see the different arcs and strains of thought a society has had throughout their journeys to be a people.

Today one of my projects was trying to identify Lao American writers and artists who could be included in an anthology covering 1991 to 2011. I was delighted to be able to quickly identify over 70 of us.

I admit, I was filled with a deep desire to see the great Lao American Library produced, where we might see at least fifty, if not more, of these writers and artists bring a book forward.

Books that might be considered an essential part of the intellectual and cultural body of every Laotian American home, so that we as a community might see the many fascinating ways each of us has explored what it means to be Laotian, American, Laotian American and human in this time, in a way that might speak to tomorrow's youth and wisdom keepers.

Not all 70 are anywhere near ready to have a book come out, but I know that in 36 years we've seen less than a book a year come from our own voices, on our own terms, and that troubles me for a community of over 200,000 rebuilding their lives here.

Today, when I sit in a bookstore, I see all of these vast rows and shelves and it's hard to imagine filling even a single case with books by our community.

The matter becomes somewhat tragic for me when I run into fellow writers who've felt great defeat and despair, who tell me of their friends and families who told them they couldn't do it. That no one would read them. No one would care about their stories or their perspectives.

It breaks my heart to hear so many people who've heard that. I've heard it, too. I still have people who occasionally come up to me and suggest I just give up as a writer, but I ignored it and pressed on. Still, I wonder how many amazing stories we've lost because we wouldn't treasure the voices among us in our own lifetimes.

I look at many a bookcase today and see the books that should have been there. And I write. I hope in celebrating our heritage, others, too, will say it matters, and add their voices to the great tapestry of the human journey, as best they can. That, in my estimation, would be one of the best ways to celebrate our heritage.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Asian American and Pacific American Heritage Month 2011

So, this month is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. You can see President Obama's proclamation.

And you can also visit to learn more about the heritage of different Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

There are over 60 different cultures who trace their roots and heritage to Asia. But more importantly I think people should check out the work of the Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And for Southeast Asian Americans, I strongly recommend keeping an eye on the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, which does exceptional work to help our communities in transition.

So, in the coming days ahead, I'll try to put up some more posts discussing what appreciation of our heritage means to me. We need to see it not as some effort to mothball the past but to connect us to future generations, creating a meaningful sense of continuity to examine healthy ways to create a society.

What are some of your favorite resources?

Historical Lovecraft anthology now available!

After a good wait and much anticipation, the Innsmouth Free Press has released their new anthology Historical Lovecraft, featuring my short horror story, "What Hides, What Remains." This is the first time the story has appeared in print anywhere.

My story is set in Laos in the late 1890s, told from the perspective of a young Lao man named Saeng who has a peculiar gift for languages and finding hidden, ancient treasures for French colonists in Southeast Asia. When his cousin comes to him in Luang Prabang, asking for help finding a special version of a palm-leaf manuscript of an ancient Lao poem, they all get much more than they bargained for.

In this anthology, "Horror meets History & Lovecraft." Featuring Vikings. Inquisitors. Kings. Monks. Across time from places as varied as Laos, Greenland, Peru and Stalin's Russia, come 26 unique tales of horror, madness, Mythos, and destruction. You can find out more at: Innsmouth Free Press

And a big thanks to everyone who helped me flesh this one out!

Also be sure to check out the call for submissions for their next anthology, Future Lovecraft!

Laos in the House: Midwest kicked off!

The long-awaited Laos in the House: Midwest tour is now on and we have sixty days to try and raise $5,200 to make it across the Midwest, traveling to cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio and places in between.

After the Lao American Writers Summit in Minneapolis and the successful Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibition and theatrical performance, it was clear from many of our guests and readers across the US that you wanted to see similar programs in your own cities and states. We know something like this has never been attempted before by Lao writers and visual artists but we think it's important to try.

Catzie of Yellow Rage, Mooks and I are really excited about this tour and we have lots of exciting things to offer sponsors as rewards. But whether you chip in $1 or $5,200 your contributions definitely make a difference.

During our trek across the Midwest we'll be covering at least 1,111 miles sharing Lao American art and literature and more importantly, looking for new artists and community members to share our voices and journey with.

We've been in the US almost 40 years now but we still have less than 40 books by Lao writers in our own words, on our own terms. But now is the time to bring those stories forward and we all hope you'll join us in making this possible!