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Tales and Travels: Talking with Folklorist David Zander

David Zander has been a familiar friend of the Southeast Asian community in Minnesota for well over 20 years now since he first began work at the Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans in the 1990s before retiring. But even in his retirement, he has continued to be a positive and constructive part of the community, volunteering his time and energy to help build a network of Southeast Asian American storytellers, with substantial success in the Hmong, Vietnamese, Karen, Cambodian and Lao communities. In 2013, he was deservedly honored with a Lifetime Service Award at the Council On Asian Pacific Minnesotans Asian Pacific American Heritage Dinner.  He recently celebrated his birthday this week.

Trained as a cultural anthropologist, over the years he has applied that knowledge in a dizzying array of avenues, from the arts to public policy. He has worked tirelessly to connect Asian American artists to excellent opportunities to train and perform in Minnesota, at events such as the Twin Cities Dragon Festival. Many of the Lao community met with him recently at the National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit this April. In 2014, with Sunny Chanthanouvong of the Lao Assistance Center, he recently completed the collection of a book of eleven Lao Minnesotan folktales entitled The Wolf and the Moon. Sahtu Press is currently helping them to distribute the book outside of Minnesota. We sat down with him recently to discuss his journey, his favorite Lao folktales, and what’s next for him.

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Tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in folktales?

Born in London, England. Interest in folktales began while studying for a teacher’s certificate – under the British system you can develop research of your own choosing and I posed the question to myself why did we teach myths and legends to children. Remember reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology which I still see around on the shelves here of Half Price Books. Then my interest really deepened when I was a teacher in Kenya listing to takes of the Kikuyu teachers who had been Mau Mau freedom fighters fighting the British army there under colonialism occupying their tribal lands. Jomo Kenyatta was an influence; He became the leader of his people to independence but also wrote a book about his tribal origins in the classic Facing Mount Kenya.

What’s one of your favorite tales from this collection?

I like two. The title story of the wolf and the moon, of great appeal to young children, and told to me by Sunny Chanthanouvong who learned this story listening to his father when he was a boy in Laos. But I also like the Old man and the Steel Box. My hope is to see both of these stories become illustrated children’s stories. I do have a set of illustrations for the Old Man story by the Hmong illustrator Tue Vue who is also in California and who studied at MCAD Minnesota College of Art and Design.

The story was told to me by Ajan sitting quietly peacefully in his monk’s robe in the small room in Lao Assistance Center. I think I might have mentioned to him the Buddhist wisdom stories. It has suspense and like all the Lao stories I have collected had a message and it is fascinating to sit around after a story has been told listening to the Lao discuss the stories meaning.

How did Wolf and the Moon come about?

I wrote a grant proposal to the MN Humanities Center to hold some story circles in the Lao community. The grants had been made possible by the work of Rose McGee who now has published a book on Story Circle Stories which includes our Lao story circles. The Bush Foundation was also supportive of these grants.

So we convened a small group. And slowly and miraculously the participants delved into their memory and came up with these stories. I suspect that some of the stories we have collected and translated into English have not previously been collected.

David Zander 2What are some of directions in folktales and Southeast Asian literature you still feel are unexplored? Where are we seeing significant innovations? What are some key stereotypes you think still need to be challenged?

Personally I am struck by the deep theme of Buddhist values that permeates all the stories.

The directions we are working on is how to make these stories available to the second generation of Lao parents here who feel they have so few resources to give to their children about their Lao heritage. I am not trying to be at any forefront of innovation. but am more in the wake of what happened in mainstream America where folklorists and storytellers realized there was a huge repertoire of stories in all the cultures here, but there was needed an effort to preserve and perpetuate them. You can read more about this in the National Society for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS) and their anthology.  But you will also see that in this roster of American storytellers – Native American, Black American, Amish. Jewish Irish Americans – the Asian storytellers are missing. So that is my mission right there – to try to bring about a similar revival of Lao storytelling, identify and nurture tellers so that they become the master storytellers and then help them pass down their lore to apprentices in the community. The significant innovations are coming from the vision of Saymoukda, who is one of our master storytellers working with apprentices.

What do you see as key stereotypes that you think need to be challenged? The only stereotype that I would venture is that the Lao see themselves as invisible, invisible to mainstream Americans, and invisible because they are over shadowed here in Minnesota by the larger group of Hmong.  But the work of Saymoukda with her mystic themes and magical quests embedded in surface backdrop of martial arts and zombies, will serve to shatter any stereotype of Lao as quiet and voiceless.

What was the most difficult thing about putting this book together?

The challenge was that the time frame set by the MN Humanities Center was short. Then their funds dried up so there was no support to publish the stories we had collected. Fortunately the students of a local Graphic Design Club came to the rescue and we slowly evolved the front cover of the Wolf. I was very influence by the anthology from SE Asian – particularly the Snake Prince and Other stories from Burma and the set collected in Vientiane simply called Lao Folktales.  I do envision that we will at some point have enough material for a full anthology of all these folktales we are collecting in Minnesota.  I am also struck by how I am finding variants of some of these Lao stories told to me by refugees and monks in the Karen ethnic community, the refugees from Burma. For example Mrs. Banlang will tell ne a story of a bird trying to save its nest from a herd of elephants, and I have already heard the story told to me by a Karen monk speaking in Karen, at a Karen temple in Blaine, north of the Twin Cities……

Was your family supportive as you began to show interest in being a writer?

I think my mother once said to me “you don’t want to go to college do you?” “Yes, I do!!” was my reply, but I realized that I would have to find my own way to college as a student independent of any family financial support.  I had a life very separate from my family as I was enmeshed in a peer group. My mother was interested in my travels but being the first one of my family to go to college, it was a world foreign to her. She had been too busy dancing the Charleston and dancing all night in the streets of London in that cray period of her young adult life in what was called the gay twenties, when people tried to heal their psyches from the immense devastation and loss in the first world war. I did have teachers who affirmed an emerging talent for writing and much of my progress happened when I was in college.

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As a writer, when are you most satisfied with a piece?

My creative writing is a mysterious process. Things write themselves. I go into a sort of trance and wake up to find the writing has magically appeared. I am most satisfied at that very moment of coming out of the trace and realizing that some side of me has expressed itself.  Satisfaction comes from also seeing a piece published. For example I wrote a few words for Phuoc Tran which is on the cover of her magnificent beautiful collection of Vietnamese Folktales. It seems I wrote these words”

There they are on the book jacket. They fit well. Yet when I submitted them I did not have that sense they would be used. Similarly the story circle in Rose McGee’s book about how we influenced policy makers through engaging them in story circles about the redesign and placement of “Hubs” in the community to provide services – this was again written at a frantic pace for a deadline – but I read it and have to admit this inner voice of the creative spirit gave expression to the right things. Much like I am writing to night – answering these questions – it just flows out from an underground river. Like it or not, it’s the life force.

What’s your starting advice for anyone thinking of getting into collecting folktales for their creative process today?

I want Lao to start asking their elders ‘what stories did you hear in Laos when you were a kid? What stories did you bring with you? Collect these stories before they are lost. From my perspective we all need to do this, to develop a listening capacity. The stories are all around you. Get out there and find them.


What’s the best compliment you’ve received for your book so far?

It was heartwarming to give Mrs. Banlang a copy and then find out weeks later that she was using the stories in her ESL class in Minneapolis and then the ultimate compliment was to find I had  her trust – that my sharing stories with her, was like a key opening a door and she is now telling me her stories. It is trust. Maybe I am unconsciously acting out the myth of Johnny Appleseed. I move around the community – giving these books to people I meet – and moving on. Maybe there are fields of stories springing up behind me like the orchards of apples from Johnny Appleseed. Bit into that one!

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What’s next for you?

At the end of Wolf and the Moon we have a fragment of Sunny Chanthaounvong’s personal story with fragments of his escape and life in the refugee camp.  This year we were awarded a folk and traditional arts grant and I have been holding monthly story circles. Three story circles focused on personal stories. In the first, the Lao soldiers told of their experiences, and we heard first hand of the reeducation camps and labor camps in Laos. In the second circle I decided I wanted to hear from the women who tended to sit quietly if the men were there. So with the help of Vilamone “Noy” we gather a group of Lao women. It was magical. Women in their 70s and 80s telling of their life when they were left behind, and of their escape. In this last one we listened to their first memories of their lie here when they arrived in Minnesota. The main theme seems to be very positive memories. No tales of hardship and oppression and racism, but their happiness at having enough food to eat and cheap clothes to buy. And a healing that we can feel in the circle as they tell their stories. A glint and sparkle comes into their eyes.

So what’s next for me is to get these stories published, and other collections I have sitting on the backburner collected by Karen youth from their elders, and an interest among the Cambodians to have their stories told…What’s next would be seeing some of these stories illustrated and then maybe pulling all this material together under some umbrella term such as Folktales and Personal stories told by refugees in Minnesota.

~Bryan Thao Worra
Little Laos on the Prairie

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