Dance Among Elephants study guide

We're excited about the reception Krysada Panusith Phounsiri's debut book of Laotian American poetry has been receiving, especially among teachers who want to bring it to their classrooms. By popular request, here are some possible study questions to consider as you read his work.

A resident of San Diego, Krysada Panusith Phounsiri’s family has roots as refugees from the Bokeo province of Laos. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 2010 with a Physics & Astrophysics Double Major with a Minor in Poetry. In addition to his skills as a writer, he is also an acclaimed photographer and dancer with a strong history of civic engagement. He was recently selected as the chair of the 3rd National Lao American  Writers Summit in San Diego to be held in 2016.  His photography has been featured in the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center’s online exhibit, “A Day In the Life of Asian America.”

Bokèo (Laotian: ບໍ່ແກ້ວ literally "gem mine"; previously, Hua Khong, meaning "Head of the Mekong") is a northern province of Laos. It is the smallest and least populous province in the country. The province is the smallest of the Lao provinces, covering an area of 2,392 sq mi. Bokèo has five districts (Houay Xay, Tonpheung, Meung, Phaodom and Paktha) and is rich in deposits of precious and semiprecious stones. Bokeo's provincial capital is Houayxay on the Mekong river. Krysada Panusith Phounsiri's family traces their heritage to Houayxay.

  1. In many poems, culture plays a role, and generational  differences play a role. What are examples where Lao culture helps the author, and where does it seem to create challenges? Where do differences in generational perspectives create greater connection, and where do they create rifts?
  2. The book often focuses attention on how the father teaches his sons and influence their decisions. What do the sons teach the fathers, and what ways do they help the family navigate American culture?
  3. What are ways that both Lao and American beliefs are part of the characters' thoughts and choices. Do these beliefs help the generations connect, or does it separate them?
  4. What are the traditions and customs the author seems most interested in preserving. Are these different from the ones the older generation wants to preserve?
  5. How are themes of violence and pain encountered in each generation, and how do the characters address it? Does the author feel it’s necessary to suffer to understand one’s heritage or that suffering can be avoided?
  6. Do you feel the book focuses primarily on male characters, women characters, or an even mix of both? What patterns, if any do you see in the way he describes these characters and how he relates to them? What does he leave out, what does he often include?
  7. How do the generations differ in their ideas about love and family? How does each difference manifest itself in the way each generation deals with issues such as marriage, divorce, and raising children?
  8. What are the types of ideas the author expresses most through Lao words? Why do you think the author might prefer to use a Lao word rather than the English word in a particular instance?
  9. How do buildings and locations in the city express the importance of family or other themes in the book?
  10. Pick at least two characters in Dance Among Elephants. To what extent has each fulfilled the American Dream. How does the importance and/or definition of the American Dream change between generations?
  11. Examine the symbolism of dance in this book. How does break-dancing relate to the author’s perspectives on life? What do you think the author means by dancing with elephants?

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