I caught up recently with award-winning Lao American poet Bryan Thao Worra, whose work appears in over 100 publications internationally. Based in California, he shared with us his thoughts on the artist’s journey and future directions for the Lao American community and the arts. I’ll be reading with him in December in the Midwest as he debuts his new book DEMONSTRA and I debut my first children's book A Sticky Mess.
How did you get started?
Bryan Thao Worra: It’s a complicated story. I was born in Vientiane, Laos on January 1st, 1973, and came to the US in that same year. I was adopted by a US pilot and his family. I grew up at various points in Montana, Alaska, and the Midwest, but these days I divide my time between California and Minnesota. I went to Otterbein College in Ohio in the 1990s which is also where my literary writing, and my journey back to the Lao community really began, with a few bumps here and there. In the Midwest where I developed a love for the arts and community service.
Ten years ago I returned to Laos for the first time in three decades, searching for my long-lost family.
And did you find them?
BTW: I did. It turned out they had actually came to the US in the late 1970s, and were now living in Modesto, California. So it was a funny phone call to be making to mom from Vientiane when she says I should come visit her.
Do you still keep in touch?
BTW: I do. Living in California has made making visits a lot easier now.
It’s been 5 years since the release of your book Winter Ink through the MN Center for Book Arts. How does that feel and can you tell us a little more about it?
BTW: I was asked to compose a number of poems for the 2008 Winter Book of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Each year they select authors, artists and book makers to work together to create handmade books that embrace both literary excellence and artfulness. This was the 20th anniversary edition, so I was honored to be asked. It’s hard to believe how much time has flown by since. But their process really made me appreciate the artful experience of a book we often lose sight of in this modern age. As I often say to my students, you shouldn’t look at a book merely as words on a page, but souls talking to souls. It’s important to respect a book, even as we also have to make sure we use a book. Good books are meant to be read. If someone’s put time and care into making them, it’s a shame to see them simply gathering dust on a shelf.
What’s your writing process like?
BTW: Human. Endlessly reading. Even I sometimes am surprised, exploring, collecting, reflecting extensively. There’s meandering, examining secrets. Sometimes a gem emerges. Listening and observing sharply. Writing often requires reworking, adjusting.
What made you choose poetry?
BTW: Most poets will tell you poetry chooses you. For me, the more I wrote, the more gaps I discovered when trying to tell my story in a linear narrative. Poetry allowed me to look at different moments and points in life without necessarily being concerned initially with where it all fit in the bigger picture. Over time, my ideas and understanding of what poetry could do grew and changed, and the fact that poetry can be so fluid in its potential kept me constantly interested in it. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t read or written bad poetry, but there’s more than enough good stuff to keep me coming back for more.
You’ve won over 20 awards for your community service and your writing, and you’ve been translated into at least 7 languages. How does that feel?
BTW: It’s one of the nicest feelings in the world to know that your writing is inspiring someone, that it’s moving them. That you’ve found words for someone who didn’t have those words before. You can’t let it get to your head. I’ve represented Laos during the London Summer Games as a writer, but I still have to go back to the day job when it’s all over. It keeps you modest. Fame is fleeting, as they say.
What’s your new book about?
BTW: DEMONSTRA continues some of the conversations and questions I began in my books On The Other Side Of The Eye and BARROW but it’s not essential to have read those ahead of time. It’s an exploration of what we show each other and what we’re shown. My book is something of spiritual successor to my chapbook MONSTRO and an examination of the transcultural adoptee experience, too. It’s also a Lao American response to our diaspora of the last 40 years. It’s been 60 years since Laos gained independence, but most of us have grown up to be strangers to our own birth country. How does one respond to that?
You chose to use a lot of science fiction, fantasy and horror to discuss the Lao culture.
BTW: Yes. One thing that concerned me is that we have to create innovative ways to discuss our journey or else we risk falling into the trap of imitating the voices that have already written about their experiences in Southeast Asia. The Lao experience was different from the experience of the Vietnamese and the Cambodians. There were unique challenges and unique issues that I didn’t want to see getting lost in an effort to sound like lite-beer versions of Apocalypse Now Meets the Joy Luck Club. For Lao literature to grow and thrive, we must be able to surprise others and ourselves.
What are issues you feel are important for Lao Americans?
BTW: We definitely need to help each other gather the oral and visual histories of Lao American journeys. With every elder who passes away, that’s a part of the history of our cultures that’s lost irrecoverably. Reducing barriers to assist refugees as they rebuild is vital. We need to create access to education and real opportunities to start and innovate small businesses. There’s so much we can learn from each other if we take the time to listen.
What’s your advice to emerging writers?
BTW: Every writer is at a different space and a different stage in their life, I try less and less to give blanket, one-size-fits-all advice anymore. Listen and read with sincerity. Be curious about others, and respect your own inner voice and the voices of others. We have to remember, the goal isn’t to sound like other writers, but ourselves. We need to keep the big picture in mind, of where our work might stand long after we’re gone. We often think there are hundreds and thousands of books, but in the end, it really is still a finite number. A massive number, but still finite. For Lao American writers, if you try to name all of the books we’ve written over the last 40 years, really written and gotten out there, I think you’ll see, our work has really only just begun. You don’t have to write for everyone. But for the people you do want to write for, write for them as well as you can.
You can find more of Bryan Thao Worra’s work at http://thaoworra.blogspot.com
Connect with me on twitter @ArtofNor.