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Long-lost family and Luke Skywalker lead Lao-American poet to Modesto

jfarrow@modbee.com

Working as an artist in residence at the University of California at Merced.

Serving as president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association.

Being near his long-lost Laotian birth mother.

Luke Skywalker.

“All of the above” is the answer to the question: What brings a guy like Bryan Thao Worra to the Northern San Joaquin Valley?

First, the family ties.

Worra was born in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, on the first day of 1973, and within seven months was on his way to the United States as the adopted son of an American military pilot, John Worra.

I’ll be drawing on over 20 years of publishing experience and writing experience and trying to show people where they can take their work and find places to get published both in terms of magazines or maybe a full book. Even if they’re just emerging writers, I don’t want people to be scared about that. Part of my job is to demystify it a bit and show them that everyone starts out as a beginner.

Bryan Thao Worra, on engaging the community as a UC Merced resident artist

His adoptive parents always made clear to him, Worra said, that they were supportive of him going in search of his heritage, his roots, if ever he chose to. But he grew up in places – Anchorage, Alaska, Missoula, Montana, and Ypsilanti and Saline, Michigan – and at a time when there wasn’t much information about Laos readily available to an American schoolkid.

“You didn’t see Laos covered in the news much more than an occasional issue of National Geographic. You didn’t see it discussed in classrooms,” he said.

By 1991, Worra said, he was at a point where he felt he could undertake a search to answer questions like: Where am I from? Where is my family? “I owed it to myself to know as much about each culture to determine who I was.”

But with the next decade a whirlwind of college, working in journalism, literature and the nonprofit sector with a focus on the Hmong and other Asian communities, his big leap in finding his Laotian family didn’t come until 2003.

He traveled to his homeland as part of a program on Laotian literature and folktales. With information his adoptive parents had kept for him – his birth certificate, some old addresses in the neighborhood his family was said to come from, and a photograph of his mother – Worra went knocking.

On faith and religion: “I’m exploring, which sounds strange, but I think to me that’s become the best path we can have. … There will be some days that a Buddhist outlook is helpful in a situation, other days the Taoist approach of go with the flow works. Some days, you need to be doing the Christian approach of forgiveness and compassion, and then other days, ‘No, we’ve got to go totally Old Testament on this.’

Bryan Thao Worra

In Vientiane, he was steered to the Buddhist temple his family likely attended. “I found this monk who had in fact known my mother, and his English was very shaky but he was sending me down three or four blocks to another house, saying something about my mother’s sister, an aunt, living there.”

The woman turned out to be a friend of his mother’s, but she told him her friend had no son, just a daughter, who had visited Vientiane the year before. The woman had a phone number for her friend, now living in the United States, and called her, saying, “There’s a man here who says he’s your son.”

Long story short, Worra gets on the phone, they talk and he realizes he could have saved himself the cost of a plane ticket from Minneapolis to Laos because his mom was in Modesto. (His trip also provided a Darth Vader-esque moment, Worra said. For that, see sidebar on modbee.com.)

Later that year, they met in Modesto and Worra learned his mother was an adopted child herself. “She didn’t know for the longest time,” he said. “She got a little wild in her teen years in trying to wrestle with the idea the family she grew up in wasn’t the family she was born to.”

She ran off to the countryside, fell in love with a farmer and became pregnant, Worra said. As much as the farmer liked her, she told her son, he needed a country girl as a wife, someone who could work the farm, so he sent her back to her merchant family in the city.

Worra will be moving to the Ceres-Modesto area in the early summer once his travels conclude, which include being a featured artist at the Southeast Asian Studies Conference in Lowell, Massachusetts, a featured speaker at the National Lao American Writers Summit in Seattle, and a presenter at a Godzilla convention in Chicago.

Some of relatives “flipped out,” said his mother was bringing disgrace upon the family and insisted the baby be put up for adoption. “When I was born, my mom says she got to touch my foot for a couple of seconds and then an aunt whisked me away and my mom thought she’d never see me again.”

Making connections

In 2011, Worra moved to California to be closer to the family – mom, stepfather, three half sisters and a half brother. He settled initially in Hemet, then split time between Ukiah and Dublin while trying to help a friend establish one of the first Lao American publishing companies, Sahtu Press.

His December 2015 participation in a symposium marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the wars in Southeast Asia led to his selection as an artist in residence at UC Merced this month.

At the symposium, “he talked about poetry in general but also about expanding the horizons of what poetry can mean,” said Ignacio López-Calvo, UC Merced professor of Latin American literature. “... We all thought he was very engaging, and when we asked for nominations for artists in residence, he was one of them.”

In 2012, the university received a $2 million anonymous gift being used to expand its Center for the Humanities, of which López-Calvo now is director. The expansion includes more ambitious outreach to the community through the arts, and the artists in residence are part of that.

With the region having the nation’s second-largest Hmong community after Minnesota, the professor said, one of the goals for Worra is that he engage the Laotian and Hmong community.

The university has a plan to digitize documents from the community on a wide range of topics, from water to cultural history, López-Calvo said. Among proposals is encouraging Latino, Hmong and other Asian-American writers – like Japanese-American author David Mas Masumoto, who farms in the Fresno area – to contribute works for the archives.

On science-fiction and fantasy poetry: “It’s a fairly new phenomenon in the U.S. and Europe to have poetry so far removed from science fiction, fantasy and horror. If you go back, most of us know ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘Iliad,’ ‘Beowulf,’ ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ the works of Poe, ‘Jabberwocky,’ ‘Gilgamesh.’ The world of poetry is so deeply intertwined with the things we know today as fantasy and science fiction.

Bryan Thao Worra

With the broader community, Worra wants to help residents explore their roots and culture “through the lens of poetry, and my specialty of science-fiction poetry, which leads to questions of where science fiction, technology and envisioning the future come in to play, particularly for communities who have historically underrepresented voices, like refugees and immigrants.”

Worra expects to work with any and all people – Latinos, European-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Amerians – “but will be drawing heavily from the experience of the Laotian refugees in diaspora,” he said. “Because there was a lot from our experience that we found applicable to many of the other communities’ experiences. After 40 years here in the United States, we’re trying to share the best lessons we’ve learned from that – particularly in reclaiming lost histories.”

Next stop, Tatooine

The newly elected president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, Worra said he was asked a few times by people who learned he was moving to the Modesto area: Why?

“And I’m just going, ‘Really? Look, George Lucas got his start here.’ You should have seen their eyes light up when they realized the whole story of ‘Star Wars,’ one of the great science-fiction epics, has its roots in the Central Valley.”

And Lucas’ coming of age mirrors that of protagonist Luke Skywalker. Just as Luke longed to get off his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine to attend the Imperial Academy, Lucas wanted a future in film rather than his father’s office supply business.

“I was telling students, in that opening sequence when you see young Luke Skywalker standing on that lonely desert planet watching the sunset ... that’s not just Luke, this is totally George’s story.”

He added, “As much as Modesto has been a part of my literary trek, I think it’s time to really meet the artists who are on the ground here.”

On the “Lao-American approach” in his writing: “We all agree, you see the ghost, you run from the ghost – that is not distinctly a Lao-American approach. But on the other hand, where do you run for help from the ghost? A Lao-American would probably run to the Buddhist temple before he runs to the Catholic priest. So that’s where it takes us.

Bryan Thao Worra

Also while preparing to move here, Worra looked into his association’s Central Valley membership – and was alarmed to find it nonexistent. “Next year, our association is marking 40 years and in our records I cannot find any members in the Central Valley,” he said. The biggest chunk of the group’s membership comes from California, but it’s places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and wine country. But the Valley is “a big black hole, like terra incognita. There’s this part of me that just says, no, that’s ridiculous, we must have someone out there, someone working with these mutual interests.”

Worra’s own works go beyond the meeting of poetry and sci-fi/fantasy to add what he calls the Lao-American perspective.

His aim, he said, is to make the incorporation of Lao terms, customs and traditions as organic as possible and, ultimately, as natural “as it is to read about any of the other things you would find in what we consider mainstream society. ... Sushi, tacos, anime, ninjas, we have all these terms running around in the English language now. Aloha, ‘Hasta la vista, baby.’ If you can learn all those, there’s no reason I can’t put out a Lao phrase.”

He said he’s been asked: What about all these monsters you use that come from the Lao traditions, like the naga?

“There was a time,” he said, “when people didn’t know what a vampire was, a werewolf, a ghoul, a zombie.” Consider also the yeti and bigfoot, More recently, the chupacabra and the legend of La Llorona have entered the mainstream.

“We have to keep playful with our language, and open to new experiences,” Worra said.

For more on Worra’s appearances during his artist in residency, go to http://centerforhumanities.ucmerced.edu, call 209-228-2453, or email humanities@ucmerced.edu.

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

‘Bryan, I am your father’

Worra shares this “science-fictiony, strange, Darth Vaderesque” side story from his trip to Laos:

He went back to thank the monk who steered him to an old friend of his mother’s. The monk asked, “Well, are you going to look for your father?”

“At the time, I was being philosophical: If the cosmos wants me to find my father, then I’ll find my father,” Worra recalled saying.

“Well,” the monk replied, “you don’t have to look any further.”

The meaning didn’t immediately hit Worra. “The people with me said, ‘He’s saying he’s your father.’ 

Stunned, Worra remembers saying, “What? I’ve got to leave on a flight to Cambodia in literally 20 minutes.”

There was a quick exchange and a “Come back and visit” from the monk.

When Worra got to Modesto and met his mother, one thing she asked was if he met the monk. As he was saying he had, she added “I have something to tell you.”

And a friend accompanying Worra quickly interjected, “Oh, we already know – he’s Bryan’s father!”

“What?” his mother exclaimed. “No, I was just going to tell you he was my best gay friend in high school and we went to movies all the time.” After a moment, she asked, “You didn’t give him any money, did you?”

Worra bowed his head sheepishly and replied, “I gave him $500.”

“Look,” his mother said, “he’s 5 foot tall, you’re 5 foot 9, he doesn’t look anything like you. Why would you think he’s your father?”

“Well,” Worra answered, “at the time, when people tell you something like that, and its a Buddhist monk, you kind of take it at face value.”

Lao New Year

When: Saturday-Sunday, April 23-24, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Where: Wat Lao Buddharangsy, 3819 E. Service Road, Ceres

Info: Wat Lao Buddharangsy and the Lao New Year 2016 Committee present the cultural celebration. $10 parking. To learn more, call 209-538-1600. Worra will be present and “always open to talking to fellow poets, emerging writers anyone with a question.”

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