Igniting the Laomagination

In 2011, we first began to consider the concept of Laomagination, a portmanteau term to discuss a possible new movement in the vein of Japonisme, Art Deco, Rococo, Fluxxus, Punk, something similar that would allow us to explore the full limits of Lao expressive culture in diaspora. In particular, the founders of Sahtu Press and many of our colleagues have been interested in what would happen if we engaged Lao cultural output through the lens of speculative arts informed by progressive principles of science fiction, fantasy, and other escapist genres.

Over the years, members of Sahtu Press have regularly participated in conventions and gatherings dedicated to genre literature, comic books and the like over more mainstream literary gatherings. Sometimes members of the Lao and Southeast Asian American community have asked us about this approach. 

When was the last time anyone went to a book festival where someone loved "The Old Man and the Sea" so much he dressed up like Hemingway? Or attended a literary conference where people went around dressed as the Great Gatsby calling everyone "Old Sport." As I told one particularly serious-minded writer, you would be fortunate if someone loved your characters so passionately they organize entire conventions around them. In my work with various Southeast Asian refugee organizations, it's a similar conversation. 

Lao culture may trace its roots over 600 years, but when was the last time you saw a grass-roots event convened just on the grounds of a love for the culture? 

Where are the casual events where we can show off our favorite traditional costumes and dances, listen and watch new music and films, hear authors read from their latest books, and celebrate just being Lao without having to worry about if we're observing the proper ritual or ceremony? We might ask the same of the Khmu, the Tai Dam, the Iu Mien, and Lue, just to name a few other cultures who made the journey with us to the United States.

In my work with refugee assistance agencies over the last 20 years, I admit, I was often disheartened talking to Hmong and Lao families and our community organizers for whom the worst fate in the world might be that their children are nerds.  And still insisted that their kids had to do well in school and not get involved in gangs.

I suppose I understood where they were coming from, even if I abhorred the sentiment. 

When you come to a new country, especially after a civil war, you don't want to get singled out. You don't want to get picked on or bullied because you're different. Because you talk funny or speak different languages or eat different foods. People give you enough hassles about taking off your shoes in the house, and so on. Being a bookworm, being known for loving reading, science, math, education? Dreaming about the future or the pasts that might have been? Was that going to help your family?

No, in those years, it just gave people just one more reason to pick on you.

So, in many of the pictures of our community from the 1980s we have a lot of people with big hair, perms and dressing up in the New Wave style trying to look cool. Because cool and tough was what you wanted to be.

My experience was different. 

Adopted by an American family, I grew up cut off from a lot of that pressure. My parents encouraged me to study and read. It was ok to do well in school. One of the first books I ever read was an encyclopedia and its entries on Greek and Roman mythology. By the time I hit kindergarten I knew the characters by heart. But, I freely admit it was also a lonely childhood as the only Lao kid in fifty miles, which, when you're young may as well be five thousand miles.

What changed that was a young boy a class or two above me. It was winter and we couldn't go out for recess. Stuck together, he invited me and a few others in the same boat to play a game he had with him. It turned out to be Star Frontiers: Knighthawks, a game where you had to defend your spaceship against a fleet of enemy aliens. 

What a storyteller he was, with just a few sheets of paper and a set of dice! I'd never played anything like it. But it also brought me into his world, and over time I understood more of where he was coming from and vice-versa. 

In discussing aliens, we became less alien to each other.

I know a few other prominent Southeast Asian poets and writers who had similar experiences, although, even today, not everyone like that being made public knowledge, and I respect that. Still, the fantastic and the futuristic were a vital outlet for many Southeast Asian refugees as we grew up in the US.

When you come from something called "The Secret War," you don't get to tell your story the way others can because half of what you might tell may have been propaganda or else classified secret. Or, frankly, the rest of the world just couldn't be bothered to care about it.  They wrote off Laos like it must have been Vietnam-lite, like Apocalypse Now with less explosions. Like something out of Orwell's 1984, the way we told 'real' history erased how central Laos was to shaping much the modern world.

As a child, I was taught Laos was a tiny, peaceful country. Shangri-La. The Last Eden. It wasn't until really digging and doing research later that I learned Laos was the size of Great Britain, which once ruled most of the world. When I finally saw the real history of Laos and nearly 300 years of revolutions, civil wars, bandits and other chaos, that I really had to go WTF. But, so it goes.

But looking back, I also proudly acknowledge that I owe a debt to the science fiction conventions who encouraged me to come and speak about Lao culture and legends, my writing and heritage. As a Lao writer, I was welcomed more often to places where Klingons and Jedi roamed the halls than to more mainstream and Asian American literary events. Today, I have readers around the world, and my work has been translated in at least seven languages. My poetry was on display in London during the 2012 Olympics and you can find it in the Smithsonian's traveling exhibit, "I Want the Wide American Earth."  

When I see a Lao American play like Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals awarded best production of 2013 by L'etoile Magazine, I beam a lot to think we're making progress. We see the acclaim Mattie Do has received for her horror film Chanthaly, and in so many other areas of Lao expression. 

As I've said before, we must write to the limit of our imaginations for the sake of those who cannot. As we make the transition from a monarchy to a democracy, we must be able to express a future we can see ourselves a part of. There is a tremendous connection between meaningful social change, as well as personal and community success that can be tied to a command of both of our traditions and a sense of our future. 

As a movement, Laomagination will shift and grow over the years. People will come and go, and have different levels of artistic investment and commitment to the matter. It belongs to no one single group or network. But we hope that audiences will find something that resonates within this work, and above all, considers adding to it.

Bryan Thao Worra