Thursday, May 30, 2013

Barbara Jane Reyes and What's At Stake?

Barbara Jane Reyes is asking the great question of "What's At Stake?" on her blog.

Yes, again.

One of the passages that's been resonating with me as I consider the journey of Lao artists is:
So many Pinay writers I know are so preoccupied with the autobiographical “I.” Preoccupied, and then painfully self-conscious that they are so preoccupied with that autobiographical “I.” This is not a criticism as much as it is an observation. I get it. We grow up in this country, never encountering people like ourselves in books, on TV, in movies. We think we are invisible. We need to write in order to make ourselves visible, but then become so self-conscious of our visibility, and our attempts to be visible, and then dismissive of our own attempts to be visible.

I see what she's seeing. I still wonder about a number of reports of Lao Americans who started an MFA program than dropped out, and somehow feel like they shouldn't still try to get their voices out there.

To me, if I wasn't validated by a former colonial/imperial power's literary program, it wouldn't stop me from writing or trying to express myself. But given my background as a trasncultural adoptee, I wonder if that's an artifact from a certain zone of privilege I was raised with that many others did not have as they struggled to fit in.

I lost count of how many Lao American refugees have thought the answer was to fit in, to not be a nerd, to not be 'stupid' which to me would be: exercising your individuality, to be able to think beyond lockstep conformity. God, I hate that shit. Under normal circumstances, it isn't normally a part of Lao behavior. But someone told them a lie that to succeed and thrive, you have to keep your head down and not make waves or peep about your dreams, your memories, your experiences. That somehow, it would hold you back.

There are a lot of moments where I hate the fact that most of our most amazing artists and community builders are changing the world in spite of our community, not because of it. That we've made such a hot crucible of dysfunction barely any expressive voices have come forward from our community after 40+ years in the US. It kills me every time I see an emerging Lao writer giving up or selling out because of some shitty writers workshop or MFA program. That so few of us can't take criticism or stand our ground and stand by our words, even when they're a personal distillation of our experience.

I don't want to sound hostile to MFA programs, but they're seriously bumping off Lao literati or neutering a bunch as far as I can see. Only a handful of us are escaping decent writers, although I haven't seen many books from them yet. And as my annual reminder to my students: You don't need an MFA to get published or to win awards. You need to be GOOD.

I took plenty of heat in the late 90s and early 2000s when I started sharing more and more of my work. Which, as I look back on it, went through a strange evolution.

Between 1990 to 1997 most of my work was what could be characterized as speculative poetry, and hardly anything autobiographical or cultural. From about 1997 to 2003, my poetry often flew in the face of Hmong and Asian American writers, especially in Minnesota. I felt pretty weird taking on subjects no one else was taking on. For one journal, I also notoriously submitted work that was almost always an offbeat take on their lofty theme. I got criticized a lot for being 'off-message' and not singing "Kumbayah" with everyone most of the time. I just wanted to write about things. All sorts of things. Big things, little things, new ideas, funny things, sad things, old ideas, scary things, fantastic things, family things. Whatever. Maybe not as extreme as Cheech Marin's speech in From Dusk til Dawn, but close. And I didn't give a shit if it didn't sound the same as my fellow performers' work. That was never the point of the art to me. I wasn't going to stop presenting my work because someone told me the word "No." Because that's not true art if you back down at the slightest resistance.

And now, 2007 on, I've gone back to speculative poetry, although more culture is infused within it.

I guess it's like being a version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer who liked the other reindeer but was perfectly fine going my own. Solidarity is nice once in a while but I didn't see it as a raison d'etre.

It's not like I was an English Major or an MFA, but I knew what I wanted to write and I was committed to being rigorous about it. The results of my arc speaks for itself. But it gets pretty disheartening seeing all of the Lao voices we lost on the way who stopped because they thought they couldn't cut it.

Writing it all out, I find myself once again turning back to the words of Langston Hughes, who said in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,":
"We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

It's a powerful essay from 1926 when expressing such a sentiment was more dangerous than most of us can appreciate today. I find myself seeing a parallel with my conversations with other Lao poets when Hughes says: So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, "I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet," as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.

Barbara Jane Reyes goes on about how others have seen her work as foundational to them and she says:  I am deeply touched by this, but if I didn’t have my head on straight or develop nerves of steel, that would either turn me into a raging egomaniac, or paralyze me, or freak me the hell out, and also cause me to recoil.

I'm glad she has her head on straight (most of the time).

But anyway, like a good Kubrik movie, this is just an interrogative post, not a declarative. Think over some of what she's said, and see what else resonates with you:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

HP Lovecraft and Lao American Literature

As we start making the final edits to DEMONSTRA, a few great questions came up on Twitter about how one might see the work of H.P. Lovecraft through a post-colonial lens, and how, surprisingly, the themes of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos might be a better influence on our literature than many examples of contemporary writing, whether from the Asian American community or mainstream literature.

I would say most Lao would rather hear an old ghost story than The World According to Garp or the angst of Dawson's Creek.  Many Lao can more easily connect to Blade Runner and Prometheus over American Beauty, Crash, or The Great Gatsby.

It's still a nascent idea, but in an applied example, I finished composing a Lao American take on "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Doom That Came to Sarnath," and I'm satisfied enough with them that they'll be included in my new book DEMONSTRA. I wanted to test if  the language and tropes of Lovecraft might be more effective to comment on the sensitive inner experiences of the Lao in diaspora. It's an experiment for Lao horror. As I asked before: What's honestly scary to a 600-year old culture that was secretly carpet-bombed and Agent Oranged during our bloody 20-year civil war?

As the non-profit organization Legacies of War points out: "From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years" of our conflict. Over 30% failed to explode immediately and still contaminate the Lao countryside 40 years since the end of that bombing. Between that and other ways the war was fought, I think it's safe to say it alters the dynamics of fear and our culture's sense of the cosmos.

Presenting the Lao journey as an analogue to "Shadows Over Innsmouth" might be more apt than the usual "USA A-OK" narratives on the market. "Peculiar folks are nice at first then turn into monstrous freaks who have horrific traditions they want you to join?" That's a bit of a hyperbolic oversimplification to be sure, but still. The seeds are there to be sown.

Colonials destroyed much of Lao and Southeast Asian history, violating and rewriting our story to aid their agendas. Horror as our literary and artistic response may work more effectively. In Rescue Dawn, Air America, Operation Dumbo Drop, and others, Lao are typically faceless, coolies, or the enemy. In the works of writers like H.P. Lovecraft we can start to flip the script. I think it's an unexpected direction from where we can start from, and avoid many of the colonial and feudal trappings that disempower us. Horror could also be a way to discuss things that are still very sensitive for many of the living participants.

Might some avoid a censor who is unsure if a particular tale is discussing the Secret War for Laos or merely recounting an alien war between Great Old Ones and Elder Things, with poor humanity caught between mindless horrors duking it out? I think our people can connect to that metaphor, as easily as using a retelling of the battles in the Ramayana to veil discussions of our recent past.

Granted, if we frame our history through such a lens, we might ask, tongue-in-cheek: "Are the Great Old Ones NATO or Warsaw Pact to the Elder Things/Elder Gods?"

"Nice plane when it's not bombing us, guided by alien processes from continents away in a bizarre language..."  How can we not see the themes H.P. Lovecraft pondered and not have them resonate?

Consider Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth, who appear in "The Whisperer in Darkness." We find they take the brains of their victims to their land in shiny metal cylinders. Science fiction horror, or do we see that as a Lao diaspora metaphor for the brain drain while we board the metal cylinders of a DC-10 or a 747 to escape our civil war?

Our current visual/literary vocabulary regarding Laos is currently Vietnam-lite. We see artists presenting it as a variation of Apocalypse Now, Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. Laos needs art without reinforcing cliche.   After 160 pages of poetry in DEMONSTRA, and plenty more I could have thrown in, I think having Lao American experience expressed through speculative literature works better than aping certain other poets today.

Horror and the fantastic allow ways to interrogate the present and past, vital for those recovering from civil war and sensitive topics For Post-colonials like Laos, can we invert the lens where we're the Other?

If Lao American poetry sounds like diced Joy Luck Club, we're not breaking new ground. Poetry probes that for which there are no words. Lao need new models. A key question for DEMONSTRA, and Lao poetry, was "Can a Lovecraftian lens, or the vocabulary of horror, address our diaspora best?"

Considering the alternative of imitating stock colonial narrative, I think we are obliged to try.

Concept: Alternate History of the Lao Secret War, with Lovecraftian Steampunk Zombies...

So, today in the workshop, I've been giving more thought to a concept of how to develop a story or poem regarding an Alternate History of the Lao Secret War through a Lovecraftian Zombie Steampunk lens.

Do we start it with Herbert West and his pals making a sidetrip to French Indochina? Or perhaps young Herbert West tried sourcing components for his serum from Lao botanicals in 1920s?

Because the mandate is to take it in new directions and to keep it subversive, punk and more than a pastiche, we need to consider alternate perspectives of how we could see the incident. Possibly, can we see it from the perspective of a shaman or Lao doctor at the time?

Where might we jump in with such a story?

"...he soon saw that the perfection of his process, if indeed possible, would necessarily involve a lifetime of research. It likewise became clear that, since the same solution never worked alike on different organic species, he would require human subjects for further and more specialised progress." appears close to the beginning, and provides us some clues of where we could take it, although the more likely point would be when West goes traveling after World War I.

The additional challenge is: What can we say interesting regarding this this material? At the present moment, I would say explore a Theravada Buddhist approach and worldview in counterbalance to West or his predecessor's assertion that life is a mechanistic, comprehensible process.  As I discussed in a recent poem of mine, "Digging for Corpse Oil," we might find the initial attitude towards someone like West's experiments are not strictly prohibited or horrific to the locals, so what would it require for them to take a dim view of such experiments? Or, how might they succeed where West and similar researchers fail?

Would French colonists or other foreigners be supportive, disruptive, or instigators? Or, should the story completely bypass them entirely and give the Lao more agency in this? What might prompt someone to explore reanimating the dead? Is it a response to the Jiang Shi tradition, or is there another reason why Lao might see the need to have a reanimated corpse around, even if it means unlocking forbidden knowledge?

How would the sudden presence of both steampunk technology and Lovecraftian process impact the path towards the Secret War for Laos? Would it avert it, or who would we see scrambling to master the science and magic first? Would the shamans of the various tribes suddenly become politically very valuable? But what would the cost of their alliance be? Would there be charlatans trying to get in on the act, who pay the ultimate price when their skills prove ineffective?

The story of the Toad King Khankaak who speaks of magic that humans abused until almost all life was wiped out might be an interesting legend to work with as we press forward with this. The Lao belief that the dead eat the vapors from food offerings might also be something to bear in mind while incorporating steampunk elements.

So, where do we add a truly transgressive taboo and where do we root horror from a Lao perspective? What are the unspoken customs and traditions that Lao would be horrified at seeing violated, without descending into mere gore?

Some thoughts on Lao American Poetry

A poetry manuscript should have a clear urgency without compromising our capacity for surprise. To me, a poetry manuscript isn't last word on a topic, even from you. Doubt is healthy. A good one leaves you with questions and wanting more.

Some poems you write like popcorn, others, you sculpt to slip past bone and hook into a soul.

Lao American poetry isn't CONSTANT subversion, but I'd hate to see you get out of practice. If, as a poet, you're using your work to create petty, bourgeois safety for yourself, and no one else, you need to check your priorities. Among a post-colonial poet's concerns must be how do we create a capacity for artistic risk if one must live among former occupiers. Lao American poets need to consider this and always be sure to keep their sense of privilege in check.

Poetry is an introspective form, but if you're sharing it, you should explore your paths to inclusion. Good poems don't have to exclude your community. Don' t treat them like idiots, don't dumb it down for them. Don't make it over their heads simply as an exercise in ego. It's one thing to be a challenging read, but one must still ultimately be readable.

We must beware using the idea of 'book' or 'performance' to create validations that reinforce disparity i.e. "No book=Not Artist" because that's disempowering and violates our mandate to create art forms that we can all latch into as a community. But if you HAVE to make a book, I don't see it should be same effect you get reading any other book of poems. Always shake it up.

A book of poetry is monopolized by Euromerican ideas of it by most publishers. There's a horrific sameness and monotony to the presentation of so many books of poetry these days. But that's not the same route post-colonials NEED to take.

For Lao American poets, who's to say we can't include maps and charts and diagrams? Art, and so on? A book only of words is certainly possible, but it should be our choice, not because we think: Oh, that's how French and Germans and English people do it. We must explore what it is to create a book that is of value to our people, but not so valued people stick it away rather than engage with it.

One concern I often have brought forward to me is the idea that remembering the journey of your elders and ancestors is important. I concur, but it is not the same as doing what they did. I hope other poets recognize this in also not a permit to throwing the old ways under the bus. It is a call to evaluate our old ways to see if they're timeless or if there is room for flexible interpretation.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lao Horror Capacity: Scaring the khao peak out of you...

In the course of preparing for DEMONSTRA, I had to look through a lot of our classical folklore and contemporary literature. I now feel confident to say Lao horror can be distinguished by a consistent incorporation of dark humor almost verging on slapstick.

Cinematically, I think a Lao writer could easily have done films like "Re-Animator," "Drag Me to Hell" or "Army of Darkness," but would have had more of a challenge writing "Saw," "Hostel" or "Paranormal Activity." Or "The Human Centipede." I'm not missing saddened by that.

Continuing on that line, I'm on the bubble whether we could have done "The Exorcist." Lao writers from the 20th century and earlier would connect with it as a phi vs. mor phi story, but no one would have done it for fear of inviting malicious spirits to the set.

Based on some of the work of Sery Bounphasaysonh, I think we could definitely take on Twilight Zone scenarios or those akin to Luigi Pirandello. Existentialist or Theater of the Absurd horror might be a little more difficult, such as Sartre's "No Exit," Albee's "The Sandbox," or Ionesco's "Rhinoceros." But  "Rhinoceros" was technically remade recently as "Zombie Strippers," so, given Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay's "Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals," I'd say it's not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

"I Know What Pretty White Kids With Problems Did Last Summer" could have been done, but would most likely not have been made because most Lao writers would consider that boring. "Those kids should have been helping mom and dad at the shop!" or "Don't these brats have something better to do than getting into drama?"

Obviously, if they'd given us enough foam, latex and decent film equipment for a change, we totally could have gone toe-to-toe with Godzilla. But less boring exposition. "Phaya Nak vs. Mecha-Nyak?" Totally.

Our classical literature doesn't include a lot of stepmom or single parent angst, but a surprising amount of grandma and girlfriend gone bad angst. So, "A Tale of Two Sisters" could have been done, although it would have been more coherent. We'd have had an easier time doing something up there with "Hellboy" or "Pan's Labyrinth."

I'm less certain we could do Hitchcockian horror a la "Psycho" or his more intricate suspense pieces like "Rear Window" or "North by Northwest." We could handle the humor, but the elaborate set-ups and intricate plotting and sense of forensics is an area I think we could all stand a little more practice with.

We can definitely do social satire horror like "Dawn of the Dead" or "Planet of the Apes," based on the historic way Xieng Mieng and certain phi stories and others were used to discretely critique social customs and policies of the time.

We would have had a hell of a fun time with our take on "Predator." With less questionable racial subtext. Would it have been interesting to see 'A covert rescue mission goes awry for a special team of Lao, Hmong, Khmu, Tai Dam, Tahoy and the token falang paramilitary advisor..."

"Final Destination" stories? Definitely.

But X-Files might have been harder because much of the classical audience wouldn't be prone to the usual skepticism that drove the better episodes of the X-files. "Oh, Mulder, of course, the Fluke Man is possible, just ask your Phi Kasu partner...."

But what do you think? Which famous horror films could Lao writers have taken on, and which areas would we have struggled with?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Screaming On in the Twin Cities Daily Planet

The Twin Cities Daily Planet picked up my column on Lao American Horror Poetry this week, "Screaming On." A few minor tweaks and changes from what I'd already posted earlier this month on this blog.

DEMONSTRA will be coming from Innsmouth Free Press very soon. I had to finish a last pair of poems to really give it a good polish, and trim a little fat. In addition to the work inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Lao mythology and history, DEMONSTRA will include most of the poems that originally appeared in my chapbook "The Kaiju and I" from G-Fan Magazine.

For those of you who are coming by this blog looking for examples of other Lao American poets who are addressing horror topics, I would turn your attention to the Hmong writer Burlee Vang, and the poetry and writing of Binly Krisada Phounsiri, Saymoukda Vongsay, Sery Bounphasaysonh, and Jim Vongsouvanh, although they don't necessarily write that much horor. You might also find a few examples in the work of Phayvanh Luekhamhan and Souvankham Thammavongsa.

I can see there are already some big questions emerging from this column, and I'll try to address those in a few follow-up columns later on this year. For example, how do we keep from promoting a culture of nihilistic pessimism if we see too much horror poetry without enough romance poetry or poetry with happy endings? But let me know what other questions you'd like to see answered.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Science Fiction in China: A Conversation with Fei Dao

The Los Angeles Review of Books has an interview with Chinese author Fei Dao which gives an insight into some of the things happening with Chinese speculative literature. Will this be a big influence on Lao science fiction produced in Laos?

One of the quotes I think is particularly useful to consider is: the late Qing dynasty around 1902, it was chiefly concerned with the problem of bringing ancient China into modernity. At that time, Liang Qichao [translated sci fi] because he thought it would be beneficial for China’s future … as something that could popularize scientific knowledge. And Lu Xun thought that if you gave ordinary people scientific literature to read, they would fall asleep. But if you blended scientific knowledge into stories with a plot, it would be more interesting. [He thought that] in this way, the people could become more modern. So at that time science fiction was a very serious thing to do in China that could allow ordinary people to get closer to modern scientific knowledge, and serve as a tool for transforming traditional culture into modern culture. It played a very important role, and had a serious mission to accomplish.
 There are a lot of responses that I think were going to be rather obvious. That Russian and Japanese writers had significantly more influence on Chinese writers than those from the West for a long time, for example. But overall, it was nice to see writers from outside of a traditional European American worldview being given a chance to share their views.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

[Poem] Ba

 From the moment I met her
        She's been wiggling,

                         This way and that
                         Like a naughty young nak

        Or a baby pla buek
        Who dreams of wide seas.

I'm only inviting her to visit,
My words a humble net of black line
She slips through every time.

Just when I think I've got her,

         Surprise, she's changed again into something
         Almost immortal

Splashing in the pools of my memory,
               Swimming just out of reach

While I stand upon the beach, laughing
Beneath hot stars opening the door for night

              And my dreams, where she's so much easier to hold on to.

Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans seeks emerging artists for artist retreat

The Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans (CAPM) in a partnership with the Minnesota Humanities Center is actively seeking participants for the 2013 Orange Crane Asian-Pacific Islander American Artist Retreat, June 28th – June 30th.

Orange Crane aims to showcase the diversity of Asian Pacific Minnesotan artists and to increase access to opportunities and output of APIA arts and culture. The 2013 Orange Crane is open to Asian-Pacific Islander (API) Minnesota artists who seek to cultivate tools and ideas to enhance and transform their skills and creativity.

The retreat is designed for visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, and writers who want to develop professional-level skills and perspectives on their craft. The retreat will offer specialized interactive workshops and presentations by CAPM’s Legacy Artist Fellows with mentorship and support with literary and theater artists May Lee-Yang and Saymoukda Vongsay.

The 2013 retreat will be held on June 28 – June 30 at the Mount Olivet Conference Center in Farmington, Minnesota. Retreat tuition, lodging, meals, and materials will be provided by the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans through the Legacy Fund.

Deadlines for electronic submissions is May 22, 2013, 11:59 p.m.

To submit your application electronically, visit the Application for the 2013 Orange Crane online form:

Please visit to download a printable format of the application.

Deadline for paper submissions is May 22, 2013, 4:30 p.m. Paper submissions can be mailed or hand-delivered to:

Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans;
Attn: Saymoukda Vongsay/Orange Crane;
658 Cedar Street, Suite 160,
Saint Paul, MN 55115

Accepted Orange Crane participants will be contacted May 31st, 2013 by email. Refer questions to May Lee-Yang or Saymoukda D. Vongsay at

Please visit for detailed information on Orange Crane, the application guidelines, and information on Mount Olivet Conference Center.

 The Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans (CAPM) is a state agency that advises the Minnesota legislature and Governor’s office on behalf of the Asian Pacific community, advocates on issues of importance to the APA community, and acts as a broker between the APA community and mainstream society.

 This retreat is presented by the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, and is funded with money from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund by the vote of the people of Minnesota on November 4, 2008.

Preparations to understanding Phra Lak Phra Ram

At the moment, being a Lao artist feels a lot like Fahrenheit 451, where each Lao artist winds up choosing to embody one book, one classic in a future where the people have almost no access to their own histories and culture. Nor Sanavongsay, for example, is focusing on the tales of Xieng Mieng, Peter and Bai Whittlesey are focusing on the epic of Sin Xay, and it's my understanding that others are taking on Phadaeng Nang Ai, and Manola and Sithong. I'd love to see someone take on an updated, less-sexist version of Horse-Faced Keo, and Kalaket. 

I'm particularly curious about Phra Lak Phra Lam, because I think it has a lot of potential with clear retellings.

An understanding of Phra Lak Phra Ram gets my attention because it demands a familiarity with both the Hindu Ramayana and the nearby Ramakien to fully appreciate where the differences are and how we incorporate it into our sense of ourselves as Lao.

To keep it comprehensible, you can look at Phra Lak Phra Ram as a text that originates from the work of the poet Valmiki who had broken down the Ramayana into 6 or 7 books, depending on who you talk to.
  1. The Book of Youth 
  2. The Book of Ayodha (The Book of the City) 
  3. The Book of Forest 
  4. The Empire of Holy Monkeys 
  5. The Book of Beauty and 
  6. The Book of War
In Thailand, Ravana, the demon king, is named Tosakanth and many of his evil characteristics are left out, and there are verses that allow a sympathetic interpretation of him. Rama is not divine, but merely a human prince in the Thai version, and the Ramakien is localized into terms of naming conventions, ways of life depicted, the food eaten, the dresses worn, and the weapons used. Some new characters are introduced, including Maiyarab and Sahatsadecha. The Thai version also presents Hanuman the Vanon as more lusty.

The Cambodian Reamker has several differences from the original Ramayana, including new scenes and emphasis on Hanuman and Sovanna Maccha, a retelling which would influence the Thai and Lao versions.

The Southeast Asian accounts are typically different from the Hindu Ramayana suggesting that Sida has to face many additional trials after being rescued from Lanka, primarily tests of loyalty that even lead to a Snow White scenario where she is supposed to be taken out to the forest to be executed, but the her executioner realizes she's innocent and brings back a deer's heart instead. Prince Ram winds up faking his death to test her loyalty and when he peeks to see her crying over him, she's furious and calls upon the earth to open up so that she can descend and live among the Nak. Not quite Romeo and Juliet, there.

In the Lao edition, the Phagna Khrout Garuda replaces the figure known as Jatayu in the Ramayana, and switches the roles of the Vanon known as Sangkhip and Palichane, who are the sons of Nang Khaysi and Phra Athit. This is significant because one story of Sangkhip and Palichane is often read at the temples, possibly to stop buffalo sacrifices of the old days. There are several other differences I'm still trying to sift through. The Vanon and Nak figure a lot more significantly in our versions.

More analysis to follow.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Considering Lao American Speculative Dance

In the aftermath of my exhibit and presentations during the Beyond the Other Side of the Eye Exhibit in February in Minneapolis, one of the concepts that has been lingering with me that I haven't had a chance to discuss at length yet is a theoretical set of additions to the traditional Lao dance repertoire: Lao American Speculative Dance. Dance of the imagination.

One Lao community member I spoke with said we would run into friction because we have enough of a hard time getting Lao to learn traditional Lao dance, or Lao audiences to pay attention to the existing repertoire as it 'fades' into the sunset. But people have been saying that about ballet, ballroom, tango, and the cha-cha-cha for almost a century. If we treat formal Lao dance as something that cannot be expanded upon, then Lao dance has encountered a dead end, and over time the rot will spread across the beautiful face of Lao culture.

Traditional Lao dance will not appeal to everyone, just as not all forms of music appeal to all people. After all, some hate rap and love death metal, others like zydeco over New Wave, others prefer pop to New Age. There's tremendous variety and options. Viva la difference.

As Lao, we have historically been able to embrace many different forms of the arts while still transmitting the core ideals of our culture. Over time, our culture and heritage will support some forms more than others, but we can do what we can to keep the most meaningful of these alive. I would not ask anyone to support all of the arts equally, but to at least find two or three forms in your life that you support with great passion, and respect the others.

But there is also always room to evolve and innovate, or to expand upon the repertoire. Lao education must not be centered solely on rote memorization and repetition but curious encounter, contemplative appreciation, and bold innovation. We must not have water for blood, or we will not see the Golden Age of Lao thought emerge.

If we don't demonstrate to Lao youth and dancers of the possibilities within Lao arts, and give ourselves freedom to innovate properly, we'll one day have generations that considers the tongue-in-cheek hip-hop song "Teach You How to Fawn" a serious addition to our dance and musical repertoire.

A great hallmark of Lao arts has been the infusion of humor and a fluid, gentle grace to our work. When we wanted to express grand ideals and calls for peacefulness and the search for wisdom, even in the simplest, minimalist settings it was amazing. When the art called for bawdy energy or slapstick, you could have audiences rolling in the aisles without it being a South Park episode. I'd hate to see us get away from that. 

But we've seen Lao dance assaulted from two ends: joyless instructors who make it seem like traditional Lao dance must be presented with a thorny stick up its behind, or swaggering thugs full of hype and flair, but nothing meaningful at the core, masters of the Fon Douchebag.

 Lao American Speculative Dance could be one bold direction this innovation takes to revitalize our form for the next centuries ahead.

Lao American Speculative Dance could be one bold direction this innovation takes.

It would encourage a new direction for Lao youth and the next generation of Lao choreographers. Lao American Speculative Dance is centered on the question: Where are our dances of the futuristic and the fantastic? Where are the dances that confront the present and our concerns, from UXO to overcoming the terrors of poverty, the traumas of PTSD, the struggles to adapt to new cultures while preserving our own heritage?

I reject the idea these are unreasonable questions.

One might turn to the dances of Ananya Dance Theater of Minnesota, a company of women artists, primarily of color, who work to create intersections of artistic excellence and social justice. Inspired by the commitment and passion that infuse women’s movements worldwide, these dancers create original dance theater that reflects women’s lives.

One of the key outcomes is fostering strong communities, addressing social-justice issues, conveying power, and creating beauty. Centered in traditional South Asian dance forms often mixed with a sense of the mythic and imaginative, it obliges me to suggest Lao dance, too, can confront such issues, IF we took the kid gloves off.

The UC Irvine Bare Bones Dance Theater presented this Filipino artist's interpretation of the UXO issue in Laos, a 5-minute dance that sought, through a series of movements, to convey the horrors of the bombing, the attempt to resume life as farmers, but the consequences of lingering UXO.

But I really don't think that can or should be the last word in how we address this subject through an art form such as dance. I think this is a very intriguing dance, but the fact that we ourselves did not develop an artistic response to it first shows to me a critical blind spot emerging in our capacity for artistic expression.

It is my hope that Binly Krisada, a dancer and poet in California, the Royal Lao Classical Dancers of Tennessee, and the Kinnaly Dance troupe in Washington will in particular take note and consider where we have opportunities to push the limits of the possible. Who else might be in a position to explore this possibility, where they have a good balance of community support, vision, and resources to develop new work?

When I initially suggested performances centered on the idea of Lao American Speculative Dance, I naturally received quite a few laughs, but so much is already in place.

If a typical dance performance runs 60 to 90 minutes, the traditional dances that would be included in a Lao American Speculative Dance would include the Fon Ling, or Monkey Dance, although I think it should be classified as a Vanon Dance; the Fon Manola, a dance of the Kinnaly princess; the Fon Kinnaly;  the Monkey and the Mermaid dance inspired by the epic Phra Lak Phra Lam; and the Fon Nyak, or the dance of the giant Rakshasas.

If these alone were presented, it's a half-hour show. What other dances might be developed to make a full evening of it?

What might the Fon Nyakinee look like? Would it be a nod to the Nyakinee who vow to protect the teachings of the Buddha at the gathering at Vulture Peak? Or would it interpret the dark story of Phra Rod Meri, which told of a Nyakinee and her daughter who usurped a kingdom and turned the king's wives into blind cannibals?

Perhaps others would prefer an adaptation the epic romance of Phadaeng Nang Ai or the tale of the Toad King. Perhaps the Fon Gop could be the long-needed interpretative dance of our tradition of Gop Kin Deuane, the frog eating the moon.

What might the Fon Bombies look like? Would it look like the dance at UC Irvine, or would it place it into the context of the 600 year history of Laos and the many other wars that have left so many Lao in diaspora? Between the troupes in Washington, California, the Midwest, Tennessee, and the East Coast, there are at least five groups who have been involved enough with the issue who could present fascinating responses.

Would the Fon Phi Dip or Fon Phi Zom look like the Indian Thriller? Or take a more imaginative direction drawn from the far corners of Lao imagination?

There are references to the Fon Nak, but it seems very rarely presented. The Fon Nakinee or Nakanya, would most likely be a nod to the 8-year old daughter of the Phya Nak who presented a pearl to the Buddha then demonstrated that even women can achieve enlightenment.

The Fon Ya Wom might interpret the legend of the young orphan girls pursued by an elderly forest spirit who wants to eat them who chases them all of the way to the heavens. Because of the final outcome of this chase, such a dance might be hard to present, but an intriguing challenge. It might be easier to do the Fon Phi Kongkoi, but that might terrify too many audiences outright.

What might the Fon Laomerica 3000 look like? How might it suggest a distant future? Would it look like Steam Powered Giraffe below?
What might we see with the Fon Xieng Mieng? Might that be as fun as this dance for the African trickster folk hero of Anansi the Spider suggested by J'adore Dance?

The Fon Sin Xay could also have many intriguing iterations.

A meaningful, earnest approach to exploring the many possibilities of the Lao imagination and contemporary social issues would have many side benefits beyond entertainment in our community. It would give many Lao vendors and traditional artisans economic opportunities. It would encourage more use of local arts spaces in the community, more research with our archives and among our wisdom-holders.

Lao American Speculative Dance, or any well-managed Lao dance program, would provide our youth an alternative to gang involvement, and allow them to grow healthy bodies, healthy minds and spirits, and positive intergenerational and intercultural relationships. Involvement with an energized and innovating Lao dance program would give our students study skills and key communication skills that will help them in their professional, academic and civic lives.

I hope in the future we will give this some serious consideration and give ourselves the freedom to hold on to our traditions and add our own voices, and feet, to this wondrous road and stage. 

Sunday, May 05, 2013

[Resource] Short dictionary of religious and Buddhist terms Lao-English, Vientiane/Luang Prabang, 2005

Patrice Ladwig is one of my favorite scholars on Lao issues, particularly religion, funerary issues and phi. He kindly uploaded a "Short dictionary of religious and Buddhist terms Lao-English, Vientiane/Luang Prabang, 2005, 87 p. [in Lao]" that absolutely should be downloaded and pored through by anyone interested in doing speculative literature such as horror, fantasy and science fiction for the terms the dictionary pulls out for the reader. While it doesn't provide a Laomanized word for many of the terms defined, it is still a valuable document to get a sense of the items connected with Buddhist thought and teachings.

Check it out.

May 4th, Kent State, and Cambodia.

The May 4th, 1970 protests at Kent State were against the illegal invasion of Cambodia by the US government. That is why U Sam Oeur is invited to read there every year on 5/4.

Barbara Jane Reyes poems "To Love as Aswang" and "To Be Prey"

Barbara Jane Reyes has a great pair of poems she's sharing over at her blog at "To Love as Aswang" and "To Be Prey," which, like most of her pieces can be entered into many different ways. The Aswang is a classic Filipino horror, and the question is: Do you need to know that to appreciate the poem? I suspect you might not have to, but it becomes enjoyable if you do. She goes into the behind the scenes of the poem, which she considers a multivocal poem.

I'd personally love to classify it under speculative poetry, but some might not see it as a poem that can or needs to be classified as such. It's possible "The poem just 'is'."

But check it out, and see how it might change how you approach your own work. Or not.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Lao Futurism and lessons from Afrofuturism.

Lao Futurism is still a work in progress. It may not even actually exist as a definable aesthetic and cultural movement of interest to scholars yet. But what might happen if we saw the various elements of our culture take it seriously and consider what it would mean to occupy that seemingly distant space and point in time.

A culture without a capacity to envision itself in the future is careening towards a dead-end where its residents will be co-opted into the future of others. If we want an enduring Laos, it must dare to articulate a future for itself, even if it sometimes feels silly or beyond our means.

We must create realms of optimism wherein our many participants can see themselves and explore the heights that should mark the Golden Age of Lao philosophy, thought, and innovation, a Lao renaissance.

I've been engaged with the topic for some time, although it's often felt like there were few others actively wrestling with the topic in the Lao community. Which struck me as odd, given how often I visit Lao households where the children are playing video-games centered on the futuristic visions and myths of other societies. But where were their visions, their sense of presence within speculative literature beyond that of the observer?

Along the way, I ran into many intriguing figures within the Afrofuturism movement. Some only by books and music, others in person.

Among my personal favorites have been writers like Minister Faust and Dr. Nnedi Okorafor. I'll confess I love the concepts of Samuel Delaney more than the actual reading of his books, but his essays on writing are almost all absolute must-reads.

Minister Faust recently contributed a great article to IO9.Com on the contributions of George Clinton and Parliament, which I think is a great role model for our own artists. Parliament was an amazing response to the exclusion of meaningful African and African American voices within speculative literature. But even if you weren't into the socio-political subtext of Afrofuturism, you could still groove to the music.

To me, Ketsana is the only Lao musician we have who even comes close, but I hope in the future we see some really ambitious and amazing work from her that blows everyone away and redefines Lao Futurism. Here's her song "Chanting: Inner Peace," but my favorite of hers that hints of Lao Futurism is "Vientiane by Night."

Faust helpful reminds us of Clinton's liner notes for Parliament's retrospective album: Tear The Roof Off: 1974-1980:
Funk upon a time, in the daze of the Funkapus, the earth was on the One. Funk flowed freely and freedom was free from the need to be free. Even Cro-Nasal Sapiens and the Thumpasorus Peoples lived side by side in P(eace). 
But soon there arose bumpnoxious empires led by unfunky dictators. These priests, pimps, and politicians would spank whole nations of unsuspecting peoples – punishing them for their feelings and desires, constipating their notions and pimping their instincts until they were fat, horny and strung-out… 
The descendants of the Thumpasorus Peoples knew Funk was its own reward. They tried to remain true to the pure, uncut Funk. But it became impossible in a world wooed by power and greed. So they locked away the secret of Clone Funk with kings and pharaohs deep in the Egyptian pyramids, and fled to outer speace [sic] to party on the Mothership and await the time they could safely return to refunkatize the planet.
 And I admit, I'm nowhere near as unrepentantly funky to put out a story like that, but it's a vibe and energy that demonstrates what it's like to create culture shift and crack bedrock.

Many of our emerging Lao writers are influenced by the hip-hop scene, and I have high hopes for what they contribute, and what they bring back. Lao culture has thrived for over 600 years from encounters with others while still retaining a fundamental desire to pass on and retain our language and approach to life. With luck we might last another 400 or more.

Or we might crack apart in 40. Who knows.

Another important project from Afrofutuism influencing my thoughts on the matter is Sanford Bigger's Cartographer's Conundrum, which is an installation, film and website inspired by artist, scholar and Afro-futurist John Biggers. Sanford Biggers traveled "through western Africa along the same route John Biggers followed in the 1950s, meeting with colleagues and family members along the way."

He blended science-fiction, cosmology and technology to create a new folklore of the African Diaspora while simultaneously illuminating the underrepresented career of master painter and muralist John Biggers. How might we create something worthy for the Lao diaspora?

The Lao American Speculative Arts Anthology took a pause, I must confess because Saymoukda Vongsay and I are trying to get our own projects finished. DEMONSTRA will be out soon, and her play Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals will also be due out in October. That's a lot of pressure between now and then.

But we anticipate the anthology will come out next year in time for the next Lao American Writers Summit and Lao Artists Festival.

Now, back to the getting us in space!

[Poem] Our Brave New World

There's only a few in creation
Who read me like you.

So it goes.
I, debating between Heaven and Earth,
The wild bunch and the truths regarding better luck tomorrow,
A better tomorrow where maybe every woman can be
The princess bride in a never ending story, a legend.

You, watching with me in your own way,
Seeking stories nearly a continent away,
A phoenix of rebuilding
As familiar with Nang Phom Hom as the legends of the Fall.

We listen, hearing hearts within bodies with so much to teach,
So much to smile about.

Surviving like bamboo, some moments arriving as slow hurricanes
Some like Kansas twisters, offering a journey to Oz.
Some a desert, others, a city by the sea in a state of lost angels,
Wandering xang and atomic sinners, strangers sharing space
And sometimes more.

[Steampunk] Lao Space Program: A cue from Hungary?

So, while pondering a retro-steampunk approach to consider what MIGHT a Lao space program have looked like if we'd participated during the late 1800s and early 1990s, at I09,  Attila Nagy found several "Hungarian scientific journals, most of them are from the early Fifties, depicting the future Soviet space activities like launching one or more stage rockets, travelling to the Moon, constructing space stations."

I'll have to talk with my colleagues at Village Science and a few others, especially with recent renewed interest in the aftermath of the success of 'The Rocket' to see what would have been a possible branch-off point and likely arc for Lao rocketeers to emerge based on available materials and parallel technology and capacity at the time.

Perhaps rice rockets might actually have become a real thing, and not a diminuating pejorative as it is in the present?

Lao humor being what it is, perhaps we could even see the same process used to distill Lao Lao rice whisky to make Lao rocket fuel. Time to get back to the notes...

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Preliminary notes on supernatural locales of Laos

The following are some preliminary notes on supernatural and unusual locales in Laos.

As can be expected, boundaries and territories for phi, weretigers, Nak and Nyak, and other entities are certainly NOT set in stone. We have attempted to restrict entries to the most persistent reports.

Some locales, such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang have far too many individual sites reputedly haunted or occupied to supply a complete listing at this time.

Suggestions are welcome.

1. Attapeu: ອັດຕະປື Once part of the Lan Xang Kingdom under King Saysethathirath, and a famed home to wild buffaloes. Locations of interest include Wat Sakae, which houses a particularly ancient Buddha. King Setthathirat is buried at the temple of Wat Pha Saysettha. Alak, Katang, Kaleum, Katou, Suay, Nge, Lave, Tahoy, and Nyajeung villages can be found here, along with prowling tigers and cloud leopards.

2. Bokèo: ບໍ່ແກ້ວ Previously known as Hua Khong, meaning "Head of the Mekong." It is the smallest and least populous province in Laos. Currently named after the sapphires mined in Houay Xai District. A stele dated to 1458 is located in Wat Jom Kao Manilat. The Bokeo Nature Reserve was created to protect the black-crested gibbon, previously thought to be extinct but rediscovered in 1997.

3. Bolikhamsai: ບໍລິຄໍາໄຊ is a province of Laos, located in the middle of the country. The province is home to Nam Theun 2 Dam. The province endured many invasions throughout its history. The Saola (spindle horn) or Vii Quang Ox, has often been sighted here. At Wat Phabath a very large “footprint” of Lord Buddha and numerous murals can be found here.

4. Champasak: ຈຳປາສັກ has a rich cultural heritage including ancient temple ruins and French colonial architecture. At least 20 wats are here. Its ancient history is traced to the 9th century, associated with the Funan and Chenla kingdoms. By 1349, it was under the control of King Fa Ngum. The Li Phi Falls are believed to trap ghosts and spirits in the rapids, alternating between stunningly beautiful and scorching depending on the season. Many corpses floated through the Li Phi Falls from the north during various wars.

5. Houaphanh: ແຂວງ ຫົວພັນ is the home to the Viengxay caves, an extensive network of caves, and fine textile traditions.The Viengxay caves are also referred to as a “Hidden Cave City.” Hintang Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site nominee, is dotted with about 2,000 years old menhirs and megaliths considered "the Stonehenge of Laos,” referred to locally as Sao Hin Tang. Funerary burial sites with artifacts of ancient trinkets and other evidence of ancient rites have been unearthed here. Overall, these archaeological discoveries suggest cultures older than those found at the Plain of Jars. Local animists believe stone discs at the site once fed Jahn Han, a sky spirit.

6. Khammouane: ຄໍາມ່ວນ is mostly forested mountainous terrain. Many streams flow through the province to join the Mekong River. Tham Khonglor Cave (meaning: “Beauty in the Dark”) in Hinboun Mountain extends almost 7.4 kilometers. A branch of the nomadic Tongluong forest people reside here.

7. Luang Namtha: ຫລວງນໍ້າທາ, literally "Royal Sugar Palm"or "Royal Green River". From 1966 to 1976 it formed with Bokeo the province of Houakhong. The history of Luang Namtha Province is traced to inhabitants from 6,000 years ago, evidenced by archaeological finds of stone implements discovered from the Nam Jook River Valley in Vieng Phoukha. There are some 20 temples in Muang Sing.

8. Luang Prabang: ຫຼວງພຣະບາງ was the capital of Lane Xang Kingdom during the 13th to 16th centuries. It is listed since 1975 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for unique architectural, religious and cultural heritage, a blend of the rural and urban developments over several centuries, including the French colonial influences during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many Nak and other entities are reputed to dwell here or in the nearby caves and jungles.

9. Oudomxay: ອຸດົມໄຊ has long been the home to many of the Khmu. Muang La is an important Buddhist pilgrimage for Theravada Buddhists in the province. Saymoungkhoune Rattana Stupa located here has a highly revered Buddha image, which is 400 years old and reportedly hassupernatural powers. Chom Ong Cave, the longest cave in Laos, was explored by a team of cave researchers during between 2009-2011 and reported to be 18.4 km long. The cave is considered the second longest in Laos and 9th longest in South East Asia.

10. Phôngsali: ຜົ້ງສາລີ Its culture is historically heavily influenced by China and was relatively untouched by the wars of the 20th century. Many undiscovered species are suspected to live among the remote rugged mountains and lush forests. Over 28 different ethnic groups live here, notably Khmu, Phounoy, Akha, Tai Lue and Hor. The Nam Ou is the largest tributary to the Mekong River. At 1,400 meters above sea level, Phôngsali Town is considered the highest town in the entire nation.The province is acclaimed for its green tea.

11. Salavan: ສາລະວັນ has significant mountains and wide valleys formed by volcanic activity. It is home to the Bolaven Plateau, a key agricultural area with coffee as the dominant crop. Tahoy town is where 30,000 Tahoy reside, who practice shamanism and animism. During Tahoy festivals, they erect totems in the form of a diamond to warn outsiders not to enter the town.Tigers are a common sight, which keeps residents indoors during nightfall.

12. Savannakhét: ສະຫວັນນະເຂດ derives from Savanh Nakhone, "City of Paradise" or "Land of Fertility." Prehistoric culture is evidenced by stone tools dating between 100,000 and 12,000 years old, with bronze tools from 2000 BCE. The Pha That Sikhottabong stupa is situated on the grounds of a 19th century monastery. At least five fossil sites are in the province, including one dating back 110 million years ago.

13. Vientiane: ວຽງຈັນ The great Laotian epic, the Phra Lak Phra Lam, claims Prince Thattaradtha founded the city when he left the legendary Lao kingdom of Muong Inthapatha Maha Nakhone. The Vangxang Cave also called the "Elephant Court" contains remnants of an ancient sanctuary of the Lan Xang Kingdom. The That Luang Stupa was initially built in 1566 during the reign of King Saysethathirath. The Xieng Khouan Buddha Park built in 1958 has Buddhist and Hindu sculptures created by Bunleua Sulilat. Reputedly, if you accepted a drink from him, you would one day give him all of your money. That Dam stupa is rumored to be the home of a sleeping Nak who once awoke to drive off invaders.

14. Sainyabuli: ໄຊຍະບູລີ; is home to Laos’ majority of domesticated Asian elephants. Approximately 75% of the nation's 560 domesticated elephants work in Sainyabuli. Wat Simungkhun in Hongsa is reputed to have a hole "'leading to the end of the world". Rumors of Yeti persist in the region.

15. Sekong: ເຊກອງ is the second smallest province in Laos and among the most remote areas of Laos. Many of its largest villages are virtually inaccessible by road for at least half of the year. Home to the Dakchung Plateau, five Lao Teung cultures make their home here, many citing spiritual links to the land. Sekong Souk Samlane Hotel is particularly rumored to be haunted.

16. Xieng Khouang: ຊຽງຂວາງ, the “Horizontal City" found on the Xieng Khouang Plateau, home to the Plain of Jars. The creators of the massive jars are unknown. Many ghosts reside here from various conflicts over the centuries. Some histories of Xieng Khouang suggests links with the Tai Phuan.