Award-winning Lao American writer Bryan Thao Worra was one of the Guests of Honor at this year’s CONvergence, one of the largest science fiction conventions in the Midwest. This year, over 6,251 participants came to the convention, whose theme centered around dystopias. CONvergence ran from July 2-5th at the Doubletree Hotel in Bloomington.
Other Guests of Honor this year included leading figures of science fiction, fantasy, and horror such as Gordon Smuder, Lee Harris, Charlotte Fullerton, Nicole Dubuc, Chad Frey, Jennifer Ouellette, Wesley Chu, and Toni Weisskopf. Writer Rob Callahan served as the MC of the opening and closing ceremonies with the supportive guidance of the benevolent robot Connie Mark II.
Thao Worra has played a pivotal role in bringing Lao culture forward in science fiction, fantasy and horror. He is the first Lao American member of the Horror Writer Association, and he received the Book of the Year Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association for his collection DEMONSTRA. Many of his poems have been featured at the Smithsonian, the National Endowment for the Arts, and as a Cultural Olympian during the London Summer Games of 2012.
He spoke on several panels throughout the convention. In “The Language of Dystopia,” he spoke with Gabriela Santiago and Mitchell Faas addressing the questions of how writers have taken on the new language or degradation of language that seems common in dystopias. Examples included the Newspeak of 1984 or Blade Runner‘s Cityspeak. The panelists wanted to address what was the attraction to making this a part of dystopia world-building, and where it might go in the future.
“I was delighted and honored to be a Guest of Honor at CONvergence,” said Thao Worra. “CONvergence played a pivotal role in my journey as an artist and a writer. It was one of the very first that I attended in Minnesota, and I will always deeply appreciate the support they’ve given me over the last 10 years, giving me the chance to build an audience interested in Lao science fiction and fantasy.” Thao Worra’s most recent science fiction poem, “Slices of Failure in Super Science” was featured at Uncanny Magazine this month.
As expected, poetry played a significant part of his discussions there, including a one-on-one panel where he was interviewed by the poet Sandra Lindow, and a poetry round robin. The highlight event, however was definitely the “Giant Lizard Theater: 10 Years Later,” reading on Friday. In 2005, ten years ago, several writers from Minnesota held a poetry reading at CONvergence inspired by myths, legends, science fiction and fantasy involving dragons, dinosaurs, and kaiju. This year, the poets F.J. Bergmann, Ruth Berman, Eleanor Arnason, and Sandra Lindow were highlighted at the reading, which also served as a live presentation of the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Awards for the best speculative poems from 2014.
Keeping with the convention theme of dystopias, Thao Worra presented a panel with writer Bob Alberti entitled “Laopocalypse Now,” which asked what a doomsday scenario in Southeast Asia might include, and what writers might consider incorporating into those worldviews. “As you can imagine, the work of Saymoukda Vongsay came up,” Thao Worra noted. “The concept of the apocalypse from a Southeast Asian perspective is really uncharted territory, especially when you consider our diverse underlying cosmologies that might affect how we write about such events, and what types of societies we’d want to rebuild, if that was an option.”
Thao Worra did a panel on “Legends of Laos,” with Roy C. Booth, which looked at entities such as the phi, nak, nyak, and kinnaly of Laos. Weretiger legends were a particularly popular subject of discussion. Thao Worra and Booth also did panel on roleplaying games, looking at the historical way Southeast Asia has been depicted in popular games such as Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons.
“Over the years, Roy and I have done almost 20 panels together since we first met,” Thao Worra said. It became clear in the panels that the field was still wide open for emerging and established game designers to create really interesting material for players in the future. Thao Worra noted the archives at Northern Illinois University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of California-Irvine as having particularly good materials available online for readers who wanted to learn more. Participants who came to the panel also had a chance to take home some of the art of the legendary creatures he’d been discussing throughout the weekend.
“Overall, I think we made a really great case for the kinds of amazing stories that can emerge from a Lao perspective and Southeast Asia. There are challenges in bringing it forward, but it’s a rich mythology and an interesting perspective to consider,” Thao Worra remarked.
“One of my favorite panels I had a chance to attend was Charlotte Fullerton’s,” said Thao Worra. “I was aware that she’d written many wonderful things, but she was also involved in the creation of ‘Troops,’ a Star Wars-parody video of the late ’90s that was a particular favorite of mine for years. So there was a fun and unexpected connection there. Amazingly, she was also headed to San Diego Comic Con just days later.” For Guest of Honor Lee Harris, it was his fourth CONvergence, and he spoke enthusiastically of the experience.
There were many exciting new projects being discussed at the convention, but one that particularly captured the enthusiasm of the crowd was Gordon Smuder’s kickstarter for “The Vermin Show,” a family-friendly puppet show about a group of lab rats trying to get to bottom of a mystery at the company they work for. In one day, they almost made a third of the budget they needed for the first three episodes they wanted to shoot, but there will still be a lot of work needed to help get the show’s vision fully realized. “I’m really excited for them,” said Thao Worra. “I’ve known Gordon Smuder’s work for years, and it’s a delight to see them getting such a great response already.”
As one might expect there were hundreds, if not thousands of costumes on display at CONvergence, including a fully-functioning version of Howl’s Moving Castle, complete with steam and moving legs. “It was breathtaking,” said Thao Worra, whose other personal favorites included some amazing versions of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, Toothless the Dragon, and a trio of giant Lego people.
CONvergence takes over a year to plan, but it runs exceptionally smoothly thanks to a well-trained body of volunteers and community partners. There’s something for almost everyone from all ages, and it was inspiring to see how well it all came together.
Next year’s theme is “Getting There In Style” and will be centered on ideas of transportation in science fiction, fantasy, horror and other genres. The Guests of Honor will be Amal El-Mohtar, Christopher Jones, Joseph Scrimshaw, and Mark Oshiro. Bryan Thao Worra also plans to attend again. You can register for the convention at: http://www.convergence-con.org
Little Laos on the Prairie