Before We Remember We Dream
In his sixth book, Lao American writer Bryan Thao Worra blends memoir and fiction as he explores culture and identity among the Southeast Asian diaspora in his collection of poems
Poems by Bryan Thao Worra, Intro by Alastair McCready
‘The Trump campaign came//Calling at the Lao Assistance Center seeking souls//Who’d vote for him. We were certain their team//Misread the instructions to recruit Latino voters.”
This humorous reflection on US politics is indicative of the wry whit offered by Lao American writer Bryan Thao Worra in SEAArching – one of 55 poems that form his anthology, Before We Remember We Dream. Published in April this year, Thao Worra’s collection – complimented by the illustrations of Laotian artist Nor Sanavongsay – blends memoir, history, mythology and fiction.
Born in the Laotian capital Vientiane on January 1, 1973 during the country’s civil war, Thao Worra would be adopted by an American pilot when he was just three days old, moving to the United States seven months later. A celebrated writer today, he is a co-founder of the National Lao American Writers Summit and the author of six books.
Published by Southeast Asian-focused US publishing house Sahtu Press, Thao Worra’s collection of loosely chronological poems chart this 47-year journey from the banks of the Mekong, to his life as an established author in the US today. Reunited with his biological family after three decades in 2003, the poems featured in Before We Remember We Dream offer a nuanced exploration of identity, culture and belonging as experienced through the Southeast Asian diaspora in North America.
Four poems from the collection are selected here (Interesting Times, SEAArching, Déjà vu and Bryan’s Toybox Blues) exploring diverse aspects of the diaspora experience – from political campaigning, citizenship exams and childhood toys.
Ajahn pulled me aside one saffron morning
After the chanting, with a secret he wanted to share
Like a war in the tropics.
“If Americans visit Laos, they’ll never be President.
Just ask Hubert Humphrey, Hilary Clinton,
Ross Perot, David Dukkke, and John Kerry.
My memory is fuzzy, but I also suspect John McCain.”
“Obama was already President when he went,
So that doesn’t count, but we can watch to see
What legacy remains.”
“It won’t necessarily be emails or Benghazi,
Swift boats, or an obscure faux pas
Skipping flyover country like the Motor City.
But the ghosts of Lan Xang have a habit of doing in
Even your most elaborate political machinations.”
That’s a weird way to dissuade tourists and sexpats.
“We do what we can against corruption and extinction, Falling skies and blind ambition.”
He asked me to explain Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” A tattered copy someone left behind a lifetime ago.
We all might as well have been East of Eden.
Helping an old Vietnamese veteran in ’97
Apply for citizenship in D.C., he returned to me
Distraught over failing one question:
“Who makes the laws in America?”
“Well, the answer is Congress,” I noted.
“What did you say?”
I didn’t know what to reply, and took him for pho
Down the street from our office by Dupont Circle.
It probably wasn’t the comfort he needed
Any more than that autumn night the Hmong soldiers
Of Missoula wanted me to inspire their children
Until I told them I was a poet.
We went to slay some emus on the Moua ranch instead.
A Khmer poet I knew trained to be a UN diplomat,
Survived the Killing Fields, became a bit of a Casanova.
Had a lovely book of poetry printed in Minnesota.
They asked him to leave out the bits where forest spirits
Saved him from the Khmer Rouge, because it made him
A few two-faced Januaries ago, the Trump campaign came
Calling at the Lao Assistance Center seeking souls
Who’d vote for him. We were certain their team
Misread the instructions to recruit Latino voters
As they stood confusedly in a room full of Laotians.
But it wasn’t so long past
The Apple Store suggested we might
As well be looking for Martians
Than any app that knew where Vientiane was.
Still, I have no regrets for asking. As refugees,
If you can’t start somewhere looking for home,
You might as well be some sad phi on the prairie
Searching for dirty laundry in winter.
Ken Burns is bringing up the Vietnam War,
It’s a documentary with a soundtrack to die for:
Nine Inch Nails and Yo Yo Ma, Ray Charles and CCR.
18 hours to cover a war of 20 years and 180 days.
Or 19 years, depending on who you ask, picking up
Shortly after the end of the French at Dien Bien Phu.
For the occasion,
I filmed a poem of mine this summer that someone found again,
One I wrote in 2002 as I remembered a visit in November, 1997
In Missoula among Hmong veterans while searching for my family.
It’s a long story.
A poem doesn’t give you much time to talk about Secret Wars
Or valkyries, spectres or the secret stories behind the codenames
Of Company men like Hog and Kayak, Black Lion or Mr. Clean.
I hold old photographs in my hand, I click through digital faces
Salvaged from old legionnaire estate sales, dying photographers
Who thought I might like to know what they saw in my lost jungles.
For a price.
It’s the closest I get to a time machine, with no way to change
The present, but possibly the future. Still, I’ve said this to you before.
In writing this, Time stops being a one-way river, less a bamboo Styx.
1,080 minutes is all of the time they think we can spare
Forty years later on a war that never ended for many of us,
Our voices fleeting smoke they try to box into a neat package,
Believed a bygone era we’ll never relive again, Buddhist ideas aside.
Bryan’s Toybox Blues
They chew me out for calling Larry Hama’s opus
An Asian American literary masterpiece, flipping
The script on dragon lady tropes and yellow peril fears
With slinky Eurotrash and entitled used car salesmen
Determined to rule the world, thwarted by ninjas, grunts,
And feisty Chinese American tunnel rats from the Bronx.
You’d think I suggested that Tera Patrick memoir
Could be a textual counterpoint to Woman Warrior.
What’s a childhood after the Secret War?
Among boat people and escapees from the Killing Fields,
You didn’t see yourself reflected in meaningful stories.
C’est la vie, so it goes, that’s just the way that it is.
Put us in a toy aisle, and you’ll spy a bunch of kids
Full of wonder, trying to find a mirror in a Thundercat,
Beneath a mask, straining to relate to bespectacled Clark Kent.
There wasn’t a Barbie with black hair anyone wanted.
Looking at muscle-bound Masters of the Universe,
Anything that marginally resembled you was a caricature
One punch away from blatantly racist.
Space samurai stare back.
We were as puzzled as white children what they stood for.
Would I have become a poet if I’d had G.I. Jun?
No one wants to hear about Laoptimus Prime, or
The elaborate back stories of My Little Phi Noi,
Or epic adventures of Kulap Vilaysack, aka Katharsis.
The other day, the comics rebooted to boost slumping sales
Revising the notorious Cobra Commander’s secret roots
To a ruthless orphan of drug wars in the Mekong.
It was supposed to be an improvement.
My niece doesn’t quite understand why
I’m giving her Resistance Bombardier Paige Tico
And not one of the cute droids or at least a Jedi,
Too young to truly discuss empires and irony.
Poem illustrations are by Laotian artist Nor Sanavongsay and the cover by Sisavanh Phouthavong Houghton. Poet Bryan Thao Worra’s website can be found here, while Before We Remember We Dream can be purchased here.