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Crowdfunding the Lao American imagination

One of my big projects this season has been crowdfunding the deluxe edition of my new book, DEMONSTRA, a book of Lao American speculative poetry.  I wanted to work with the acclaimed Lao American artist Vongduane Manivong to help our community gain a renewed appreciation for the classic Lao myths, and to celebrate and rekindle Lao imagination.

My publishers at Innsmouth Free Press were gracious enough to give me permission to take a question to my readers: Do people really want a book of speculative poetry, especially one with art, from a Lao American perspective?  It sounds like a tough sell to a lot of people.

We were successfully funded in 24 hours, and we’re well on our way to getting almost a dozen more original illustrations commissioned for the book. It will be the first I released since representing Laos as a Cultural Olympian during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

I’ve done my research. I know the numbers. Depending on how you figure it, in the US there are between 200,000 to 400,000 Lao or people from Laos, including Tai Dam, Khmu, Iu Mien, Hmong, Lahu, etc. But less than 40 books written in our own words on our own terms. Lao American publishing, especially literary publishing, and especially poetry, is a struggling market for some reason.  But I happily tilt at this windmill.

Lao culture is almost three times as old as American culture, stretching back to the late 1300s. But our legends, our histories and aspirations are almost nowhere to be found in American letters after nearly half a century of interaction.  Or else they’re told by strangers who’ve no long term stake in the matter. I have to raise an eyebrow at this situation. What’s going on?

The real answer, I suppose, could take up a book.

I have a lot of jaw-dropping conversations with people who seem to expect that once you arrive in the US as refugees, your entire artistic output must be centered on the tragic, safe narratives. We are supposed to set aside the epics and fables our elders preserved for six centuries. Refugees are apparently supposed to lock themselves into the state of a morbid, perpetual victim whose dreams are of no further value, or subordinate to new American dreams.

It’s hard for many of my fellow Lao to be English or Arts majors in American academia under these conditions. To be constantly questioned, to constantly be told to put every story into context.  To explain and italicize every Lao word. As if sabaidee could never become the next aloha.

Lao American science fiction? Fantasy drawn from the legends of Phra Lak Phra Lam or Phou Thao, Phou Nang?  Good luck getting any constructive feedback or support on that. “Try a memoir instead, readers want more like that,” we get told.

Publishers can accept stories of hobbits, Cthulhu, jabberwocky, Grendel, and the curious land of Macondo, but there’s no market for the centuries-old stories of monkey warriors who rescued the beautiful princess on a demon-infested island? How could I possibly accept that?

A news story came to my attention last year, that a particular country in Asia hates stories of time travel. On the grounds that they encouraged “feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”  In 2011, they issued guidelines to their media that banned “fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques,” even “ambiguous moral lessons, and a lack of positive thinking.”

I’d be so disappointed if Lao American culture ever took similar views and discouraged our individual and collective imagination. But there’s always that possibility.

I run into so many Lao parents who are afraid they’re losing touch with their kids. Kids who supposedly have no sense of their culture, buried in video games and reality TV, and other trappings of American junk culture. But I see many kids searching for themselves the way I did when I first came to the US.

My journey growing up in America was often an alien one. One I navigated frequently by connecting with themes found in science fiction, fantasy, even horror.

I couldn’t connect to the faceless “Asians” of Full Metal Jacket, of Rambo, or Apocalypse Now.  But the Newcomers of Alien Nation?  The multilingual world of Blade Runner? A dystopia where your identities were always in doubt, always being questioned?

Even the comedic absurdity of Big Trouble in Little China gave me hope as I explored my identity and what it meant to be Lao, to be American. More than what I found in the news and history books. Those were filled with stories of hopeless boat people, ‘yellow hordes’ invading pristine Smalltown, etcetera or overachieving conformity-prone “model minorities.”  Ugh. Who needs that constantly in your face? I preferred to deal with alien facehuggers, than put up with the banal and manipulative narratives being foisted upon us.

So, as a teen, I found myself working out my journey with Star Wars and Star Trek, bored at the angst of Death of a Salesman or even The Great Gatsby, heretical as that sounds.  I suspect many of our Lao American youth are still wrestling with the same search for something to connect to.

I remember hating fleeting glimpses in National Geographic because I had no way to follow up on what little I learned of Laos in those scant pages. In the 1980s, you couldn’t find anything in-depth. Endless books on samurai and ninja? Sure. But tales of Lane Xang? Forget about it.

40 years later, I still see my nieces and nephews, my friends’ children wrestling with this deplorable paucity. They can tell me what a hobbit is or who is Medusa, but nothing concrete about a Nak or a Kinnaly, let alone our secret wars and the issues of UXO.

For me, I often explain to parents that in science fiction and fantasy, there’s an interesting way of telling painful stories without naming names. We can share experiences, seek greater meanings, or remember things we’re told not to remember, if we don’t want to cause trouble. Especially during that sensitive antebellum reconstruction phase every refugee culture faces.

So, I’m writing. I’m taking that risk, and putting it out there. And while I’ve heard it all of my life, “Write your memoir,” I see it more vital first to show our community that it’s ok to share our heritage and imaginative dreams.

You can check out my kickstarter at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1064450543/demonstra-lao-american-art-and-poetry It’s going on until January 1st. If you like what I’m doing, and you think Lao America should be sharing the best of our traditions and imagination, come support us.

~Bryan

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