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Southeast Asian American Verse in the Time of Coronavirus

Looking for something to read because you find yourself suddenly with a lot of free time but no place to socialize? This year is the 45th anniversary of the Southeast Asian diaspora, especially for the Lao and Hmong community. Because April is National Poetry Month, Little Laos on the Prairie is providing a reading list of poetry books that are still relatively easy to order from Southeast Asian poets. We recommend ordering directly from their publishers to support them, but you can also find many at major new and used bookselling websites.

Lao Poets Light by Souvankham Thammavongsa, Pedlar Press, 2013. This collection won the Trillium Award in Canada for the best book of the year, examining life in Ontario. Light is among the one of the author’s books that are easier to find hers compared to her classics Small Arguments and Found, the latter of which was inspired by a scrapbook she discovered in the trash her father had kept while in the Thai refugee camps. Found later inspired a short film. Her latest collection, Cluster tackles everything from war to the financial industry, came out in 2019 from Penguin Random House.

Dance Among Elephants by Krysada Panusith Phounsiri, Sahtu Press, 2015. This collection of poetry is celebrating its 5th anniversary this year. It includes the Rhysling Award-winning poem “It Begins With A Haunting,” addressing UXO in Laos, and explores life in San Diego and the Houayxay province of Laos for a young Lue man trying to understand love, family, dance, and history in this stirring account. His second book, Every Passing Minute, is anticipated to be released later this year.

When Everything Was Everything by Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, Full Circle Press, 2018. This Minnesotan-based author’s award-winning poem was formatted as a children’s book with illustration by Cori Nakamura Lin. It explores the early years of life in St. Paul for a Lao refugee family and the complex trajectories their lives took.

Hmong Poets Karst Mountains Will Bloom by Pos Moua, Blue Oak Press, 2019. Pos Moua was among the first Hmong poets to have a solo collection of his verse published, with his 2002 chapbook Where the Torches Are Burning, which has been long out of print. Based in Merced, California Moua studied with acclaimed poets such as Gary Snyder, Alan Williamson, and Sandra McPherson. He has taught English and Hmong full-at Merced High School and Merced Community College.

Afterland by Mai Der Vang, Graywolf Press, 2017. Mai Der Vang’s debut collection won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets when Carolyn Forche served as a judge. It explores the Hmong perspective on the Secret War and resettlement in the US.

To Live Here by Soul Vang, Imaginary Friend Press, 2014. Drawing from his life experiences as a Hmong refugee and a veteran with roots in the Central Valley, To Live Here is a touching account navigating the traditions and opportunities the Hmong found in America. Soul Vang received the Fresno Art Council’s Horizon Award for his creative writing.

Poor Anima by Khaty Xiong, Apogee, 2015. This collection is a complicated one that challenges our expectations of what verse from the Hmong community can look like. The collection was described at one point as “a sacrificial poetry, both in the sense that it knows and performs ritual, and in the sense that it gives itself up, completely, to currents that it perceives but can’t tame.” A powerful and moving collection for the right reader.

Cambodian Poets Sacred Vows by U Sam Oeur, Coffee House Press, 1998. This classic collection is presented in a bilingual en face edition, moving the reader from early memories of a childhood in Cambodia to the traumas of the Killing Fields era, and the years after. Mixing the personal with the sacred, the mythic with the historical, the poems are often surprising and informative, giving the reader a sense of the diverse beliefs and customs of the Khmer and what the elder artists hoped to preserve and pass on to the next generation.

Apsara in New York
by Sokunthary Svay, Willow Books, 2017. Although it is a slim collection, Svay’s debut takes a significant step in challenging her community to ask how Khmer poets will respond to the 20th-century genocide and pushes the boundaries of verse to explore potential avenues of healing in the aftermath of the conflicts. Based in the Bronx, her verse is clearly influenced by classical music, hip-hop, and her traditions. Unflinching but humorous, there’s much to return to in this collection that will linger with readers.

And So I Was Blessed by Bunkong Tuon, New York Quarterly Books, 2017. This is the second collection by Bunkong Tuon, a writer, critic, and associate professor of English at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. In this follow-up to his entrancing Gruel, Tuon provides his readers a first-hand account of his visit to Vietnam to see the village of his father he never knew, and what it was to like meet many of his relatives for the very first time, even as he missed his infant daughter and juggled the responsibility of leading his students on their term abroad. Complex and evocative, many readers in the diaspora will find much they can relate to in this powerful book.

A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok, Copper Canyon Press, 2020. In her debut collection, Sok “uses poetry to reshape a family’s memory about the Khmer Rouge regime―memory that is both real and imagined―according to a child of refugees.”

Vietnamese Poets A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, by Jenna Le, Indolent Books, 2018. This award-winning collection has taken a winding journey compared to many other collections listed here, first published in 2016 by Anchor & Plume. Born in Minnesota, Le now lives and works as a physician and educator on the East Coast. Imaginative and touching, it provides readers a new way to look at the labyrinthine histories of Southeast Asians adapting to life in a new country, what they remember, and what they might imagine for themselves. It is an outstanding follow up to her previous collection, Six Rivers and serves as an excellent introduction to her verse.

American Tatts, by Linh Dinh, Chax Press, 2005. American Tatts is one of the wilder introductions to the work of Linh Dinh, whose other collections include Some Kind of Cheese Orgy, Borderless Bodies, Jam Alerts, and All Around What Empties Out. He is also the author of three short story collections with Seven Stories Press, and he is one of the most distinctive Vietnamese American voices writing today, constantly defying your expectations of what Southeast Asian literature in the diaspora will look like. At times reflective and in-your-face, he takes a no-holds-barred approach to tell you like it is with humor and truth, rarely manicuring it for mainstream sensibilities. Worth finding and American Tatts is one of the best ways to get into his literary output.

Why is the Edge Always Windy? by Mong Lan, Tupelo Press, 2005. Over the decades, Mong Lan has lived many lives as a poet, writer, painter, photographer, musician (piano and guitar), composer, singer, Argentine tango dancer, choreographer, and educator. Among her collections, Why is the Edge Always Windy is perhaps the best point to get a look at her prior and later output as a writer. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and Fulbright Scholar, her verse will enchant many while exploring unexpected topics.

Dust and Conscience by Truong Tran, Apogee Press, 2002. Consistently hailed as an influential figure in Asian American literature, Truong Tran’s literary prowess as a poet is entirely on display in this 2002 collection. Based in the Bay Area, Tran’s other collection Placing the Accents is also a distinctive addition to any library, as is his children’s book Going Home, Coming Home. Tran works in multiple disciplines, including mixed media visual art, and it is easy to see the influence of that approach in his verse.

Correspondent Medley by Sophia Terazawa, Factory Hollow Press, 2019. Sophia Terazawa’s biography is cryptic, characterizing her as “a poet and performer of Vietnamese-Japanese descent working with ghosts. Her favorite color is purple.” Her first collection I Am Not A War is an eclectic, often puzzling demonstration of mixed-media poetry, at once historical and autobiographical, imaginative, and challenging. There are no easy answers for her as she explores those issues. Correspondent Medley won the Winner of the 2018 Tomaž Šalamun Prize, filled with haunting and evocative verse. Hopefully, it will not be much longer before we see a full-length collection from her.

Reenactments by Hai-Dang Phan, Sarabande Books, 2019. In this debut collection, Hai-Dang Phan takes on many of the experiences of the second-generation of Vietnamese Americans in diaspora searching for their identity, especially when you have to grow up in Wisconsin and the American Midwest. The author works in a variety of poetic forms to probe the Southeast Asian American experience and consider how it speaks to the cosmos at large. Don’t miss this one.

Share your additional recommendations in the comments below.


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