Culture, Lao Diaspora, Literature, Pop Culture, Refugee
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A Future We See Ourselves In: Talking with Bryan Thao Worra

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This week, the Science Fiction Poetry Association has announced that I’ve been elected as the organization’s new president. I’ll be the first Lao American to lead a speculative literature organization, and Little Laos on the Prairie has asked me to speak a little about that today.

The Science Fiction Poetry Association‘s mission is to bring together international writers interested in poetry featuring science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the imagination.

Founded in 1978, every year we publish several journals, hold contests and present 3 major literary awards for writers. I myself was a recipient of the Elgin Award for Book of the Year in 2014. The organization also provides resources for poets seeking professional publication and networking opportunities. And these opportunities are definitely needed.

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Although today science fiction and fantasy seem common in most corners of artistic endeavor, such as film, novels, and the visual arts, poetry is one area that’s received less attention even as remarkably innovative work is being done there. While awards aren’t everything in the literary arts, it’s hard not to notice the exclusion of a poetry category from most of the major awards given to other areas of the science fiction and fantasy field.

Yet poetry has always had a great tradition of engaging with myth, legends, science fiction, horror and the fantastic. Even as we remember the traditions of the Iliad, Beowulf, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, Sinxay, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, there are MANY poets doing very interesting work TODAY in speculative poetry. I can easily cite the work of such poets as Cathy Hong, Toby Barlow, Bruce Boston, Kyle Tran Myhre, Khaty Xiong, Marge Simon, Christina Sng, Salik Shah, John W. Sexton, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Margaret Rhee, and so many others around the world.

As an organization, we have over six hundred members from as far away as Singapore and Ireland, and all across the US, so I’m excited to see what we all can do together to examine the possibilities and push the boundaries of poetry in the years ahead.

Lao SF Rising

In my work as a writer, I’ve always been an advocate for the speculative arts in refugee communities. My roots are in Vientiane, Laos and the diaspora following the Laotian Civil War. The clandestine nature of our conflict, often referred to as The Secret War, influences my writing, particularly the various ways different cultures try to shape or obliterate inconvenient elements of our shared story. The techniques of both poetry and science fiction resonate with me as key methods to address this.

Many poets reside in nations where speculative literature in ANY form is just starting to emerge and find its footing. These poets reside in a cultural climate where expressing one’s self is confined to the ‘practical,’ and the ‘present’. There, excessive imagination can lead to tremendous troubles. There are societies today where it is risky to discuss a future these poets are a part of. How can we not stand beside them in solidarity?

In my time with the SFPA and afterwards, I hope they and many others might find a safe and supportive space where they happily dare to write to the very limits of their imagination. And for those of us in nations more free, that we do not take our freedoms for granted.

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I hold the distinction of being the first Lao American to receive a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment of the Arts. Part of the way I qualified for that honor was through the publication of my first full-length book in 2007, On the Other Side of the Eye. Next year my book will celebrate its tenth anniversary since publication. As a book of speculative poetry, it did not shy away from either my roots as a Lao American nor from my interest in science fiction and the fantastic.

I’m grateful that over the decades my poetry has found home in magazines and classrooms around the world, including Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, Germany, France, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and Pakistan. But much of that success has also come from disregarding the otherwise well-intentioned advice of those who wanted me to present the Lao journey in the safe, familiar way. Those writers suggested I need to tell our story the way that we’d already been telling the stories of the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, for example.

But I knew that would also be a literary dead end. One that locked our community into thinking that’s the only kind of stories we could ever tell. Our children would be stuck with a body of literature forever trapped in the past, one they would feel increasingly alienated from with each generation that followed.

Our best hope, if we were to truly rebuild after the wars of Southeast Asia, would be to take our arts where they were least expected. And then, our children, our grandchildren might well see: Anything is possible. All of subjects of literature and life were theirs to explore, freely and fearlessly.

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There’s tremendous work to be done in all corners of the literary arts, including non-fiction work such as memoirs and histories for refugees. But it remains my firm contention that we do the world a great disservice when we invalidate the dreams, the imaginations, the hopes of refugees who, more than almost anyone else alive, want a better world because they HAVE witnessed the alternative. They know what the post-apocalypse looks like already.

Refugees can appreciate the visions of a show like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. They can identify with a story like Quantum Leap where the hero must live many different lives on the hope that one day might return to his own home, his own time.

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Already I’m getting wonderful questions from poets around the world. What next? What will we do as an organization? To which I must reply, the fundamental nature of Poetry is uncertainty. You almost never get to tell it what to do, and that applies doubly so with Speculative Poetry.

But borrowing from that classic Star Trek line first spoken fifty years ago, we will doubtless continue to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” And I hope that keeps you curious enough to join us and add your voice to our shared journey and legacy.

 

You can visit the Science Fiction Poetry Association at www.sfpoetry.com

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