Bryan Thao Worra has done something I’ve always thought to be impossible. In his writing, mostly poetry, he’s managed to merge traditional mythology with pop culture and garner the respect of the “serious” literature scene. I know there are many writers who blend traditional narratives with more modern kinds of storytelling, but I think he is alone as someone who can mention Mothra in a poem and have it be taken as serious work (and I say this as a die-hard daikaiju fan myself.) His work is compelling on many levels, both for critical study and for reading pleasure. I jumped at the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his current projects.
T. A. Wardrope (TCG): Let’s talk a little bit about the Laoimagination project you’ve got going. I think a really interesting part of this project is that you are asking for views of the future rooted in a specific cultural tradition. Of course, every bit of speculative fiction is rooted in culture, but most of the time that fact is invisible to the majority of readers. I think what is great about this idea of yours is that it stands against the way people sometimes see traditional ethnic cultures as being frozen in time—the feeling that these beliefs belong in history books or museums, not as part of a real, living tradition. Could you talk a little bit about what is peculiar to a Laotian view of the future? What are the tensions between Lao mythology and the mundane facts of life?
Bryan Thao Worra: That’s really a great set of questions, because our community, like any, really, is looking at a moving target, especially since the end of our civil war that ended 40 years ago. There wasn’t really a significant amount of support to preserve Lao myths in the past. The rest of the world often framed us in diminutive terms, describing Laos as a lost Eden or Shangri-La—a quiet, peaceful kingdom of no great significance. I disagree with that type of assessment for a number of reasons I address in my writing.
But broadly speaking, the Lao perspective is coming from several different spaces at once during our antebellum reconstruction. There are large segments of our culture who have no idea of what was involved with the wars of the 20th century and our transition from a monarchy to a democracy. Either in Laos or abroad. But for those of us who do know about the conflicts, I see a lot of struggles to come to terms with what this meant back then, and what it means for us today, and how we formulate a sense of our future, if any.
We’re a nation that’s approximately the size of Utah or the United Kingdom, but close to a million live abroad as refugees. In our traditional borders, the Lao are far from a monolithic culture, with over 160 different ethnicities. Each has their own languages, customs, and myths, and most have their own view of our common history. And we’re nowhere even close to documenting all of them yet.
Lao writers and artists are frequently influenced to some degree by religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism and from exposure to various cultures who’ve passed through our borders, including the Russians, French, Japanese, Australians, Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Burmese, and Cambodians, just to name a few. The result has been views of the future that are either very provincial and unambitious or very global and cosmopolitan. Sometimes you run into very tribal views, and others are very sophisticated in their understanding of the machinations of the world, if not the cosmos.
Of course, there are those who feel it’s counterproductive to focus on our past beliefs when we need to be bringing everyone forward into “modernity.” It’s been interesting to see how many Lao are writing their science-fiction works, particularly post-apocalyptic material. In the Lao tradition, until this generation, there really hasn’t been literature that discusses the end of the world or the cosmos. There’s one or two epics where we’ve been brought to the brink, but when your paradigm regularly includes a sense of reincarnation, an Absolute End to everything isn’t something that readily gets discussed.
TCG: I’ve read most of your poetry collection Demonstra so far and am glad to have done so. The book is published by Innsmouth Free Press, which I know is dedicated to bringing weird fiction out of the shadows of the racism inherent in H. P. Lovecraft’s writing. There are many references to the Cthulhu mythos in Demonstra—even beyond the name-dropping of the Elder Gods, there is a cloud of cosmic dread hovering over many of the poems. Without getting too lit-nerdy, I wonder if you could talk about the difference between the xenophobia and exoticism of Lovecraft’s time and your own use of Laotian beliefs and myths.
Bryan: My work has always incorporated elements of the fantastic from the earliest stories and poems I was writing. Growing up, there’s a particular set of language and tropes that emerged connected to Asian American literature and Vietnam, most notably the visual vocabulary of films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. I was left asking: did I really want stories of Lao Americans to be read just as “Vietnam-lite” or “Cambodia-lite”? There are intersections, but why did it have to be the only way to express our journey? So, I jumped the rails.
Lovecraft has his distinctive flaws as an artist. Some consider him a dubious influence; I could say the same about those slave-owning Greeks, despite their invention of democracy. Or Shakespeare and his anti-Semitism. We could be appalled at anyone who looks up to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Twain, Miles Davis, or Marion Zimmer Bradley. Humans are humans, and they’re flawed. I think it’s tragic there’s this corrosive thrust of late to build a canon of literature apparently written only by saints. It’s such a small, dull shelf.
Lovecraft’s work resonates with me for any number of reasons. For example, I enjoy his sense that “when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.” I think that’s an approach to literature that can unlock so much.
For Lao American writers, I believe this is something we can connect with. But I understand how it can be a challenge for writers and readers who grew up as the dominant majority. When you’re part of the “mainstream perspective” for so long, it’s not easy to authentically write from a de-centered space. As Lao, we have a history older than America, but we’ve never been driven to be one of the defining centers of the world. Our ambitions were typically more modest, just to survive and to be a people together in some semblance of harmony.
A Lao American writer exploring things from a Lovecraftian angle is an unusual concept in our community. It means suggesting that the guiding Buddhist principles which have tried to create order and goals—not just for humanity but for the Devas, Nyak, Nak, Kinnaly, Phi, and other cosmic entities—are ultimately irrelevant. I felt our community needed a chance to at last freely engage in thought exercises we’ve not written before: “You can follow the five precepts, and it may make you a better person, but it’s not going to save you from being eaten or, say, thrown into the middle of a secret war during the Cold War, or caught in the middle of a clash between the Great Old Ones.” That’s a challenging proposal.
TCG: To continue a little bit further along that line of thought, culture bias in world building is becoming more and more of an issue, and rightfully so. (To stand on the soapbox for a moment, I think that our elder science-fiction writers completely missed the boat when it comes to anticipating what our global culture would actually become.) So, what is it like to create a world that you know will be alien to the majority of your readers, but is an important aspect of your own world or life? For example, when I read your poems, I encounter the Lao culture, which is strange to me to some degree, in addition to the deeply weird worlds of the Nameless.
Bryan: For a time, I had some concern and self-consciousness. Between the effects of the various conflicts of the last 300 years in Laos and other issues, our history had a lot of holes punched in it. Some of them get patched by the accounts of strangers, but it’s an incomplete solution.
But by the time I was finishing up my first book, On the Other Side of the Eye, I’d found that most of the Lao youth, adults, and elders really didn’t have much of a sense of the classic myths, legends, and folklore, and that has made it something of a relief, I suppose. We’re all coming back to these tales with fresh eyes, and I don’t think many cultures get a chance to do that, to have a chance to rework the myths like this. So, while some of the classic Lao mythological creatures might seem really new to a non-Lao person, chances are, many Lao might not be familiar with all of the legends themselves.
I realized that our common frames of reference have become so fragmented anyway. There was a particular journal I’d sent a poem to where I’d really stripped out any overt Laoglish or allusions. It was a poem on adoption that was blending in the themes and images of Pinocchio and Nietzsche, and the editors didn’t recognize them. I’ve made references to JFK and JR, and I’ve had plenty of Lao and non-Lao readers who don’t get it. If I was a prose writer, I suppose I’d get all torn up about this predicament. But as a poet, part of our process is working with language that’s writhing around the obscure and the mysterious. We confront the chaos and uncertainty of the world, the memories and dreams we’re losing and uncovering, and we find ways to not be paralyzed by it all.
TCG: In addition to Laotian culture, you bring in many different Asian cultures. There are references to Japanese kaiju, China’s Lao-Tzu, Vietnam, and more. Do you feel like there is a specific Asian sensibility you are trying to bring forward? Or are you playing with the mainstream culture’s tendency to lump all Asian culture together?
Bryan: In Demonstra and other works, I often want to experiment with how we see ourselves in relation to other cultures and communities with roots in Asia. For example, is there a difference of perspective when we’re seeing it from a predominantly American context versus how we would express it when we’re in the traditional borders of Laos? In some ways, too, how we talk about others is an effective way of talking about ourselves, such as in a poem like “five fragments,” which looked at both the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the less well-known aspects of the Hmong Secret War in Laos. I’m rarely interested in the established narrative and perspectives we’ve been presented to date, so I look for the other people’s stories.
We don’t often see works that discuss our interaction with other traditions and their view of our shared journey. The Lao Buddhists are primarily practitioners in the Theravada tradition, but they’ve been known to embrace elements of Tibetan Buddhism and Zen, and local folk beliefs that seemed practical along the way. Spiritually, many Americans and Europeans like a “pick a side and stick with it” model, but that’s not what I’ve seen in most of the Lao communities I’ve traveled to. This resulted me in presenting a fluid “Asian” sensibility, as nebulous as I think that whole idea should be. In the US and Europe, we like things in hard, concrete, logical, consistent categories, but in actual practice in Laos and other parts of Asia, it’s possible to be a Buddhist, a Taoist, a Confucian, and a Hindu all at once or in part, depending on the circumstances. You might think of it like that classic vampire film set in China with Dracula. There, the heroes have to fight the Chinese vampires one way and then Dracula in another. You use the techniques that are appropriate. Often, Lao are open-minded about who and what needs to be respected in particular situations.
In some cases, our first exposure to the ideas from other Asian cultures and beliefs has been through European or US interpretations of Buddhism and Asian culture. That can sometimes get problematic. It can lead to incomplete or alternate understanding of these principles. But I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, as long as the final result is interesting.
Bryan Thao Worra’s latest collection of poetry, Demonstra, is available from Innsmouth Free Press. He holds over 20 awards, including an NEA Fellowship in Literature, and he is the first Lao American professional member of the Horror Writers Association and an officer of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Additionally, he is the creative works editor of the Journal on Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement. His work is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s national traveling exhibit “I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story.” His blog offers many ongoing updates to his Laoimagination project.
Bryan is a guest of honor at Minnesota’s CONvergence science-fiction and fantasy Convention for 2015.