Asian American SF Poetry

An award-winning Laotian American speculative poet, Bryan Thao Worra holds a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts. A professional member of the Horror Writer Association and the Science Fiction Poetry Association, his work is taught and published internationally. He serves as the Creative Works Editor for the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement. His books include On the Other Side of the Eye, BARROW, and The Tuk Tuk Diaries: My Dinner With Cluster Bombs. He is currently editing a forthcoming anthology of Laotian American speculative art.

May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and this year it’s the Year of the Dragon for many communities, which seems as good a reason as any to me for readers to take a look at the speculative poetry of Asian Americans.

I often point out that Asian literature has a rich tradition of what we would consider speculative poetry, from the Kojiki creation myths of Japan to the variations of the Ramayana epic found throughout Southeast Asia. The legend of Sin Xay is found in both prose and poetic forms in Laos and Cambodia. But we also see significant and award-winning work from Asian American writers today.

One of the most recent examples is Cathy Park Hong’s 2006 Dance Dance Revolution, in which we have a poem-sequence set in an alternate history 2016 following ‘The Guide’ who speaks Desert Creole, much like the Cityspeak of Blade Runner drawn from 300 different languages, from Asian ‘pidgin’, Latin, German, Middle English. The Guide is being interviewed by ‘The Historian’ in a planned city called The Desert, where replicas of major world cities have been rebuilt as tourist resorts. This book received the Barnard Women Poets Prize. This was a significant milestone for speculative poetry.

I would also consider 2005’s Mad Science in Imperial City by Shangxing Wang, a recipient of a 2006 Asian American Literary Award for poetry. In 2010, Filipina poet Barbara Jane Reyes’ Diwata explored both the creation stories of the Bible and the Philippines and how these intersected with her grandfather’s story as a World War II veteran and survivor of the Bataan Death March. Before his death, he charged her with the responsibility of remembering. While not expressly presented as speculative poetry, I think Diwata is a good example of how Asian American poets are using elements of speculative poetry in their work today. This is also something you see in Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Year of the Snake as she incorporates Japanese myth and folklore into her recollection of her childhood.

Japanese American poet David Mura has a number of poems that blend both an Asian American narrative with speculative poetry, such as “Neuromancer Poetics”, which combines nods to the William Gibson novel Neuromancer with the work of Franz Kafka and Jeffrey Dahmer’s 1991 murder of a Lao boy in Milwaukee.

We don’t often get a chance to talk about Asian American Speculative Spoken Word, but we can find several who are taking this route. I think Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre’s “Love in the Time of Zombies” or Anthem Salgado’s “Time and Money” definitely demonstrate what Asian American Speculative Spoken Word is capable of.

I’m particularly excited about following Southeast Asian speculative poetry, where Vietnamese, Lao and Hmong writers are creating some very interesting work. For example, Vietnamese American writer Bao Phi often alludes to science fiction and fantasy in his poems. Particularly noteworthy is his “Godzilla Sestina” which explores his journey as an Asian American refugee using a grueling Italian form and the metaphor of giant atomic monsters from Japan. This poem was featured on Minnesota Public Radio in 2010.

The Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning Thavisouk Phrasavath has a significant amount of poetry intertwining Lao legends with the history of the Secret War for Laos and his visions for the future (also the poem “Heritage“). The emerging Lao poet, Binly Krysada Phounsiri also probes this territory. With a double major in Astrophysics and Physics and a minor in Creative Writing focused on poetry, it will be interesting to see where he takes his work in the future.

The Hmong of Southeast Asia trace their roots back over 4,000 years to pre-dynastic China, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that a written language was developed for them. They have a rich tradition of oral histories and sung poetry, but this is really the first generation that is producing written work in 4 millennia, and we get to be a witness to it.

Interestingly, many of their first writers are addressing science fiction, fantasy and horror, notably writers like May Lee Yang and Burlee Vang. Vang’s “Muse of the Man-Tiger”, “The White-Lined Sphinx” and “Confessions of a Hmong Thug” particularly stand out. In “Confessions of a Hmong Thug”, Vang’s poem connects Hmong refugees in the US with their shamanic traditions and evil spirits like the pi-nyu-vaih and the challenges of gang life in California.

Speculative poetry is taking some very interesting directions, both in the US and abroad. Will today’s speculative poems one day be remembered alongside “The Raven”, “The Jabberwock”, the Epic of Gilgamesh, “The Fungi from Yuggoth” or “The Wendigo”? History is always uncertain, but poetry continues anyway. Which is just as it should be.

4 thoughts on “Asian American SF Poetry

  • May 15, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    I found Cathy Park Hong’s “Dance Dance Revolution” a challenging read but well worth it. Wonderful if you love language play.

  • May 16, 2012 at 3:17 am

    To me the trick was getting comfortable knowing that you were going to probably miss a lot, and there are moments too, when I wonder if the characters necessarily knew what they were saying. Once you start crossing territory like “Dance Dance Revolution” I think it should all be suspect- if this is an alternate future, how can we be certain even as the words are ‘re-mixed’ that in this future the meanings have really remained the same? Just as the word ‘cool’ evolves in just one language, what would happen in Desert Creole? This makes it much, much more challenging than “Sharp Teeth,” but it’s fun to try and unlock as much of it as one can, I think.

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