Literature for Life: Mixing Laotian and American Culture with Poet Bryan Thao Worra

Growing up in a western culture, literature can often times be insular to the folklore of antiquity. Myths of legends derive from the Greek, Romans and Arthurian-English. A lot of western poetry uses these tales as a guide or a source of inspiration. Not too often, however, are people inundated with the folklore of Asia or Africa.  

This week’s Literature for Life will highlight Bryan Thao Worra and his ability to meld Laotian culture with American through his beautifully dense poetry. Then in the recommendations section, we will look at four poets of color who uses their own unique experiences and voices to create multifaceted literature including one depicting the Amistad Rebellion and another exploring what New York City was like post-9/11. 

Bryan Thao Worra is a hybrid of cultures. Born on January 1st, 1973 in the country of Laos during the Laotian Secret Wars. He was adopted as a refugee by an American pilot just three days later and was moved to the United States five months later. Due to his father’s occupation, Worra moved everywhere from Alaska to Minneapolis, Minnesota, of which he is the prominent member of the Minnesotan poetry scene.

It is these combination of experiences that makes Worra’s poetry so successful. Worra uses influences from the Gothic horror of Edgar Allen Poe to the speculative science fiction fantasy of HP Lovecraft mixed with the 600-year history of Laotian culture and folklore. But, although he loved the works of Western literature of Tolkien and Borgias, not much of American culture was able to connect his identity as a Laotian-American. So, instead of being attracted to the American classics like The Great Gatsby, Worra felt more in tuned with an issue of Wolverine, specifically “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

Poetry did not become something Worra would fully be engrossed in until his senior year of high school. It was during that time, like all high schoolers, Worra began to try learn more about the history and origins of his country of birth. Unfortunately, that was not an easy thing to do at the time. Due to the trouble political history of the country, much of the history was corrupted and altered during the Laotian Secret War or the history was told from an outsider perspective. “Poetry,” says Worra, “gave me a way to respond to what I – Could – learn in those years (teenage years) and there were elements of poetry to address many of the ambiguous elements of our (Laotian history) story that proved helpful in moving me forward as a writer.”

His style of poetry is that of speculative fiction – a pseudo-science fiction genre that is supposed to take place in a world that is not based on reality. His imagery in his poetry recalls that of Kafka yet although he works in a fantastical landscape Worra never shies away from politics. Being an Asian American author weighs heavily on his writing. Themes of identity and home resonates throughout his work. His poetry makes references to not only Asian mythology but true political events like the Vincent Chin murders of the 1980’s. In speaking about writing as an Asian American Worra states, “If Asian Americans can’t talk about our history in even the briefest of art forms, poetry, how can we expect others to?”

In order to expand his worldview, Worra traveled around the world in the early 2000’s exploring Europe, Africa and South Asia, including visiting Laotian and Hmong communities within the United States. It was during this time that he was able to go back to his birth country and meet his biological family for the first time since he was adopted. Worra has cited this as an influential moment for him personally and for his writing.

Learning from how difficult it is to find representation in one’s own culture, Worra has since released his collections of works for free as E-Books in order for a Laotian audience to find his work. His first full collection of speculative poems was released in 2007 titled, On the Other Side of the Eye. The book is an empathetic journey through identity, questioning how to confront the ghosts of the past while also being aware of the future to come.

The critical success of the book and the collective work Worra did earned him to receive a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts for poetry a few months after the release of the collection, making him the first Laotian to receive the award. Worra used that endowment to continue his mission of visiting communities across the United States and sharing his work to spread the possibilities of intercultural dynamics one faces as a child.

His next collection of speculative fiction was released in 2009. BARROW is Worra creates a collection of poems that defines the singular word barrow. This single world creates a language of mixed metaphors and imagery that seems to be present in all of his works. Like the word itself, Worra is comprised of many different meanings and identities which are all true at a single time. His continued success as well as his efforts in championing other Laotian and Asian writers through literary societies and foundations led him to be chosen as the representative of Laos as a Cultural Olympian during the 2012 Olympics.

His latest work on speculative fiction was released in 2013 called DEMONSTRA. With this collection, he is mixing all the stories that he loves in Laotian mythology and giving it a twist. In one particular poem, “The Terror of Taek,” he uses the Lovecraft story “The Call of Cthulu” and rewrites it in the style of Laotian folklore.

It is evident from his work Bryan Thao Worra is a true American writer. He is an American writer because his works represents a mix of identity and culture that is resonant with the melting pot idea of Americana. Through his poetry and, more importantly, his dedicated effort to keep his culture alive for himself and other students and writers, Worra is a testament of an American poet.

Recommendations

Ardency: Chronicles of the Amistad Rebel by Kevin Young: Using the Amistad rebellion, Young writes a poetic collection of voices to bring to life the Amistad rebellion. The book jumps from perspective to perspective as characters question their relationship with race and with God. He really captures the voices of his characters which is written in an epistle style. Language and rhythm hums throughout and faith is connective tissue that ties it all together.

Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong: Cathy Park Hong serves as a contemporary to Bryan Thao Worra who Worra talks in glowing terms about. Here is her speculative fiction poetry book that split up into three sections showing the “progress” civilization. Her first section is set in the old west, following outlaws as they try to build up their own land yet fall to base desires. The second is set in the boomtown of modern day China in which you see this oppressive working man world. Finally, the last section is set in the future when consciousness are all stored in computer data. She beautifully weaves these themes into ballads about where civilization was and coming to.

The Ground by Rowan Ricardo Phillips: Rowan Ricardo Phillips is an influential voice in contemporary poetry. The Ground is his debut collection of poetry. Here is a post 9/11 series of poems that uses the stories of myths and the urban flair of city dwelling. He explores through lyricism the connections people have with each other and with what we call home. Being a New Yorker and living through the time in which this is reference to, The Ground is a collection of poems full of resonance.

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes: In 2010 Terrance Hayes’ collection of poems, Lighthead, won the National Book Award for Poetry. The book has four sections each ending with a Japanese-style poetry format called the Pecha Kucha. Each Pecha Kucha wraps up the themes of each section. The poetry book is a collection of humanity exploring race, love, and family. Hayes would weave into the point of views of other cultural figures like Harriet Tubman and Fela Kuti all to create one point of view all his own. The book has the rhythm meant to be spoken out loud to capture the essence of Hayes’ elegant work.