Bryan Thao Worra is a Lao American writer who primarily writes poetry. He has been an APALA member since 2006. He is the first Laotian American to receive a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Thao Worra’s most recent poetry collection, “Demonstra,” was released in December 2013.
Jaena Rae Cabrera (JRC): Please introduce yourself and briefly describe your literary work and career path to date.
Bryan Thao Worra (BTW): Well, hello, everyone. My name is Bryan Thao Worra, and I’m a Lao American writer, primarily a poet with work appearing in over 100 journals and publications internationally. My work has been a part of the London Summer Games, the Smithsonian’s “I Want The Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story,” and at least one stop on the Minnesota light rail system. I’ve also done numerous articles on the Lao and Asian American community for community newspapers such as the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Asian American Press and lately Little Laos on the Prairie.
My career path, like any writer’s, has been filled with many different stops along the way. I began with Hmong National Development in Washington D.C., tried my hand at a community newspaper for a while, then worked with other non-profit organizations such as Asian Media Access, the Hmong American Institute for Learning, the Lao Assistance Center and the National Youth Leadership Council, to name a few. These days I do a lot of work as a freelance grant writer.
Growing up, I often don’t think I’ve ever been as comfortable in my home as I was in a library or a bookstore. Many of my books were written in libraries and archives where I could have so many vital works at my fingertips.
JRC: How does your own personal diversity influence your writing and/or the diversity of your readership?
BTW: I often wonder about that myself. Hermann Hesse once wrote that a person’s true profession was finding their way to the center of themselves, and I took that to heart. My writing has often been about taking a journey amid so many things that could be an influence on you, and then trying to decide, what will you keep, what will you let define you, what will you redefine. In my own life, when I couldn’t find things that could tell me who I was for certain, it required me to respond to those things that were ‘outside’ of who I was. “Or were they?” as I asked in my first full-length collection, On The Other Side Of The Eye.
I’d been having an interesting conversation lately with some friends that many of my first readers were from outside of my communities. International audiences in London, Singapore, Hong Kong, and France, for example, who were interested in how I was grappling with the issues of the world. What I was seeing, and how I was responding to that. Then, slowly, over time, more and more readers of mine emerged in Minnesota and the rest of the U.S.
It’s been interesting to see so many different corners of the world my readers come from. Italians living in Vientiane, Parisians who love poetry, community activists in Egypt and Washington D.C., fans of science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, Lao American torch singers in Tennessee, and a prisoner or two in Reno, etc. I’m thankful it was an early lesson I’d learned: That you can never really be quite certain where your readers will come from in your life, who you’ll have an influence on. In many ways, I liken it to the arc of Japanese American artist Larry Hama, who created the backstory for the G.I. Joe toyline in the 1980s. Few knew he was Asian American during those years, yet what an influence he had on so many!
The right words in the hands of the right person in the right place can change worlds.
JRC: What drew you to poetry?
BTW: Having grown up as a transcultural adoptee, I didn’t have much access to the full details of my birth family’s story. As an adoptee from Laos in the 1970s and 80s, I also didn’t have many resources to turn to about Laos, especially books in our own words. Much of our history had been classified, obfuscated or utterly destroyed in the course of the Secret War for Laos that trying to tell a conventional linear narrative became an exercise in futility for me for many years. Poetry gave me a way to respond to what I -COULD- learn in those years and there were elements of poetry to address many of the ambiguous elements of our story that proved helpful in moving forward as a writer.
JRC: How long have you been an APALA member? What benefits does APALA provide to you? What do you feel you bring to APALA, and have you had the opportunity to actively participate in the organization?
BTW: I’ve been a member of APALA since at least 2006, I believe, and I’ve enjoyed keeping abreast of the many different issues my fellow APALA members have faced. As I work with so many archives and other teams building libraries and exhibits that include the Lao American perspective, I’ve been able to network with some amazing figures who inspire me and remind me of our deep potential together. These last few years have been particularly busy for me, but I’m looking forward to the next APALA convening!
JRC: Please describe an instance when libraries and/or archives played a beneficial role in your work.
BTW: Growing up, I often don’t think I’ve ever been as comfortable in my home as I was in a library or a bookstore. Many of my books were written in libraries and archives where I could have so many vital works at my fingertips. When you look for books on the Lao experience, you can’t really walk into a big box bookstore and find much except for a travel guide if you’re lucky, a footnote from a book on the Vietnam War, etc. But the libraries in Minnesota and the archives at UC Irvine or Dallas-Fort Worth were indispensable. Almost a decade later, I’m still using some of the notes I took from the old CAT/Air-America archives in Texas about the daily life in Laos as the old U.S. pilots flying there saw it.
We must not let bookshelves without our stories become symbols of exclusion.
JRC: What advice would you give librarians and information professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds who work with diverse populations, to promote literacy and readership?
BTW: This probably goes against the grain of many professionals I know who are making a big push to create books featuring characters and stories from diverse backgrounds, but I think we can’t be afraid to show where the gaps are, or what we see in great books outside of our youths’ immediate culture.
As an example I look back at the roots of the Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong Literary Journal, that emerged from a question nearly 20 years ago: “Where were our stories?” The founders were reading and reading voraciously, trying to find themselves. And they could handle good stories from non-Hmong, non-Asian perspectives, but when they saw that gulf, that absence of materials, it stunned them. We can consider ourselves fortunate that they didn’t just accept that, but opted to fill in the gaps themselves if no one else would.
We encourage literacy and readership by developing programming that shows our diverse audiences that they can add their voices to the great body of world arts and letters. Indeed, we expect them to. We must not let bookshelves without our stories become symbols of exclusion. Of course, this can be a daunting dilemma to overcome, but we will all grow from being a part of that journey to solve it.
My writing has often been about taking a journey amid so many things that could be an influence on you, and then trying to decide, what will you keep, what will you let define you, what will you redefine.
JRC: What message would you give to librarians/archivists/writers/artists regarding their value in the field you work in?
BTW: Over the years, as a poet, I’ve learned that my best advice tends to come one-on-one with my students and colleagues. Despite how often the systems seem monolithic, there’s rarely any one-size-fits all advice that I, or anyone, can really offer given the many different unique contexts everyone has. But perhaps one exception might simply be one about the humanity of our fields. To remember to see our work not about gathering, organizing and curating books as so many words on a page, but to get back to the essential core of it all: Souls talking to souls.
The right words in the hands of the right person in the right place can change worlds.
JRC: What current trends in publishing, reading habits, and distribution of library materials concern you the most? What thoughts do you have on these trends?
BTW: Of course, I’m as appalled as anyone by the trend to have more publishers focusing on marketing than editing. We’re seeing far too many badly edited books filled with typos, grammar errors and the like making their way into the market. But even worse than that is just a surfeit of bland ideas. I think that’s corrosive. But we’ve been saying that for centuries. A particular concern for me as a writer, however, is seeing a trend for young readers of color to primarily seek out ‘practical’ books and ‘self-help’ books. While there’s certainly a need and space for them I’d always be concerned they encourage our youth to keep the world as it is, not as it can be.
I’ve also become a little dismayed at a somewhat unspoken trend emerging in archives and collections serving newer American communities where library/archive materials are being vandalized by readers who take umbrage at particular terms or political positions expressed by the authors. It’s been frustrating to find a copy of a particular book I’d been looking for only to find it filled with words crossed out, pages missing, etc. But that’s part of the journey towards democracy, and finding ways to encourage more responsible use of libraries.
I’m thankful it was an early lesson I’d learned: That you can never really be quite certain where your readers will come from in your life, who you’ll have an influence on.
JRC: What are your thoughts on libraries (all types: academic, public, special, etc.) and your thoughts on the role/significance of poetry in a publishing/reading world dominated by prose and audiovisual media (film, television, videos, even social media, etc.)?
BTW: I’m part of a generation that was fortunate to see such a wide variety of information mediums available and how they came and went. So I tend to be more philosophical about it all. I wouldn’t ask most libraries to keep ancient cuneiform regularly on hand, or 8-tracks or Beta tapes or large stacks of VHS tapes. Space considerations and all. But libraries and poets are still essential to democracy. Spaces where one might improve themselves without having to worry, have I bought this or that, do I believe this or that, and so on.
I think we will see more and more libraries making a shift towards becoming presentation and discussion spaces. I don’t think many communities will tolerate moves like some libraries to become ALL e-readers and computer terminals, but we will see a push for greater community engagement. We’re going to have to get imaginative to push through all of this together, but I’m an old-fashioned optimist. I think it can be done, and we’ll have a better society for it.
There are a number of countries in Asia where my work would be considered touchy, or sensitive. Or the work of many other authors. A pdf, or some form of an e-book is much easier to secret away than a physical copy of such a work. So I keep open-minded about them, although I know many who are afraid of seeing their work in electronic form. I think the interesting and emerging challenge I’d like to see for libraries is how they can encourage more local books and texts to come forward. Oral histories, photographic archives, etc. that get regularly curated and organized for students and community members to access. There would certainly be a good many files submitted for consideration that might lack historic or literary merit, but I personally think we could benefit from having greater spaces to store and present the better works that deepen the human dialogue.
JRC: What advice would you give young professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds, who are interested in a career in poetry or writing in general?
BTW: There are folks who will tell you there’s no money in poetry or writing. But they’ve been saying that for centuries, and people still write. You have to be open-minded, resilient, and prepared for a journey that often meanders because a writer’s career isn’t linear or certain by any means. Whenever possible, write from the heart, but don’t get burned at the stake for it, unless it’s REALLY worth it.
JRC: With grants and financial assistance being very limited, how do you make your work so readily available to download online for free? What are some financial resources that you use to support your writing?
There’s a classical maxim from Asia, “toss out a brick to attract jade.” I’ve found that to be true. There are a great many poets and writers who’ve been locked into models that teach them “if you’re good at something, never do it for free.” “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Samuel Johnson once sneered. But in the world today, I think successful writers and artists understand that a certain fraction of your work NEEDS to be out there for free. Readers need to be able to sample some of your work before seeking it out. Fortunately, over the years, my readers have also come to see that having a physical copy of my work on hand is also deeply satisfying, and a physical book is more interesting to have signed, than an e-reader.
I’ve been in the fortunate position that poetry and grant-writing for non-profits or writing marketing materials for small businesses often dovetail nicely. One isn’t obliged to overwrite a subject. You need an economy of words and as a poet, you’re trained to use a minimum word count effectively and persuasively.
JRC: How can more authors work with their publishers to release their work in an e-book format?
That’s going to vary from publisher to publisher and what they’ve got set up. Smaller presses will often be more inclined to work with you on it. But you also have to do due diligence and have very clear understanding on your rights. Some larger publishers try to claim that your book is not out of print once it’s in e-book format, so you don’t get your rights back to a book even if the physical version has been out of print for over a decade or so. Or your rights might get sold off in a buy-out, etc. But I think the careful author can make a great go at e-books and try to do it in a way that becomes a win-win-win for the author, the publisher and their readers. Who can ask for anything more?
Editing assistance provided by Melissa Cardenas-Dow and Raymond Wang.
by Jaena Rae Cabrera
Annie Pho is an Academic Resident Librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where she works in reference and instruction. At UIC, she actively builds campus partnerships with the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, the Asian American Studies Department, and the Gender and Women Studies Department, where she works with faculty and staff to investigate ways the library may best support their students. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Art History from San Francisco State University and graduated from Indiana University, Indianapolis with her MLS. Her research interests include diversity and stereotypes in librarianship, playful design, and critical pedagogy in information literacy instruction.
Annie was selected as an ALA Emerging Leader for 2014 and her team’s project is to assist ALCTS (Association for Library Collections & Technical Services) in determining best practices for the division’s social media presence. The ALA Emerging Leaders program is intended to be a leadership development program for new library workers who have less than 5 years of experience working at a professional or paraprofessional level in a library.
On her time with APALA, Annie writes:
I’ve been an APALA member since 2013, so not very long! I joined because I wanted to be connected to other Asian and Pacific Islander American librarians. I attended the JCLC conference in 2012 and met many APALA members. Once I found my first full-time librarian position, I joined APALA! It’s been a great experience so far.
At the last ALA in Chicago, I attended the What’s Your Normal discussion and found it very valuable. I’m looking forward to attending more APALA events in the future.
APALA helped me feel connected to some of my fellow ELs, although we did not have much time as a larger group to talk to each other. Also, Melissa Cardenas-Dow, a former Emerging Leader and active APALA member, wrote my letter of recommendation for the EL program. Without her input and assistance, I wouldn’t have been able to participate. She’s a fantastic librarian and someone I look up to. Many of the APALA members I have been fortunate enough to work with or meet also serve as inspiration to me.
On being an ALA Emerging Leader, she writes:
I was inspired to apply because so many cool librarians that I look up to were former ELs. I didn’t think I’d be accepted but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to apply. I’m a new librarian and haven’t gotten involved with leadership on the ALA level. I hoped the EL program would shed some light on the process and also help me understand how ALA is organized. It’s a large, bureaucratic organization, and can be hard to understand the hierarchies that exist. The EL program did help me understand that. I was also hoping to meet with and work with other new professionals, and that definitely has happened.
The ALA-EL application process was pretty straight-forward but I still asked a lot of former ELs for help on my application. In particular, these two blog posts really helped me, Sarah Bryce Kozla’s post So You Want to be an ALA Emerging Leader and Anita Dryden’s post Emerging Leaders and Professional Involvement. I also emailed them both to ask for advice on my application. The hardest part of the application is telling a compelling story about yourself and understanding what you would have to gain from the program. I struggle to write about myself but the people reading the applications need to know what leadership potential you have, so the application is not the time to be humble. I was not sponsored by any groups but when you turn your application in, you check off the divisions you are a member of. It’s a good way to get support to be an Emerging Leader.
I am working on a project for ALCTS on helping them revamp their social media presence. What is funny is that none of my EL Team members are ALCTS members but we were all drawn to this project because it’s very applicable in our everyday work. We sent out a survey to all technical services library staff to get a sense of what they like or don’t like about ALCTS, and how they use social media for professional development.
So far I’ve really enjoyed the program. I love my Team! I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with. They are funny, smart, and dedicated professionals. Additionally, the ELs get to participate in webinars through the months between ALA MW and ALA Annual. The last one was on microaggressions in LIS, which I thought was a great topic. The best part about EL is meeting other new professionals, and that it gives you a leg up in becoming more involved with ALA. If there is a committee you want to join, or a division you aspire to be a leader in, being an EL really helps you get your name out.
To learn more about Annie’s 2014 ALA Emerging Leader project, please see ALA-EL 2014 Team C’s project website.
Editing assistance by Melissa Cardenas-Dow and Alyssa Jocson.
Tricia Sung is a new APALA member and has only been part of our association for about a year. She currently works as a research analyst at the office of institutional research in the state of Georgia. She has done considerable work in civil rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, and civic engagement and advocacy in the Deep South with the OCA-Georgia (Organization of Chinese Americans-Georgia Chapter), League of Women Voters of Georgia, and the Asian American Peace Officers of Georgia (AAPOG), organizations in which she has held (or continues to hold) upper administrative and leadership positions.
Tricia’s background is in psychology and oral history research. In addition to her institutional research duties, she works as the executive director of the Asian Pacific American Historical Society (APAHS). Of APAHS, Tricia writes:
[APAHS was] founded in 2010 with the mission of documenting, preserving and educating the public about Asian Pacific American history and heritage in the U.S. South. Since 2010, we have been holding an annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Symposium at the National Archives in Atlanta and working with StoryCorps to document over 100 diverse APA life experiences which are archived at the U.S. Library of Congress. This past year, we began working with APALA on heritage programs with an APALA member chairing a session on APA LGBTQ stories at the 2014 May APA Heritage Month Symposium. APAHS is also very pleased to be a recipient of the APALA Talk Story Grant that will allow us to present an Autumn Moon Festival celebration in partnership with the Chamblee Library, part of the Dekalb County Public Library system. APAHS has worked in partnership with local, state, and federal agencies to celebrate APA heritage in the South.
At the time of this writing, Tricia does not work as a librarian nor has a degree in librarianship. However, she wants to support our efforts, the continuing outreach to increase APA representation in the library and information professions, and the advocacy and educational work we do through ALA and APALA. Of becoming a librarian, she states:
This year, I attended an ALA Knowledge Alliance program in Atlanta (http://knowledgealliance.org), an initiative to diversify the library profession. After learning at the ALA Knowledge Alliance workshop about the broad range of careers in libraries, research and knowledge management, and meeting so many supportive professionals, I’ve decided to pursue my lifelong dream of working in the library profession and will be applying for programs specializing in digital archives & media and the Asian Pacific American experience. Suggestions for programs are welcomed & appreciated! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
As we do of all of our MHS participants, we asked Tricia about her own ethnic and racial background. She told us her immigrant journey story that is both intensely familiar and personal:
I am Taiwanese American and my family lived in South America before coming to the U.S., so I like to embrace my Latina roots as well. I grew up, like many other kids, going to the public library after school to do homework and have a safe place to be while my parents were working. I remember reading so many books, and being so thankful for the opportunity to be transported to different lands and experiences through the books I was able to read. And since it was New York, they had so many books in Chinese, so that I borrowed a whole bunch for my grandmother. As a youngster, I promised myself that if I ever made a million dollars, that I would donate it to the public library in appreciation for the love of reading they instilled in me. Being a parent myself now, I am always looking for library materials that reflect the multicultural realities of children today and work through the Asian Pacific American Historical Society in partnership with local public libraries and APA cultural organizations to hold programs which highlight APA heritage and culture.
Tricia dreams of one day establishing a museum in Atlanta, Ga., one dedicated to the diversity of APA lived experiences in the U.S. South.
Please give Tricia a warm welcome to the APALA fold. Tricia, we are very fortunate to have you as a fellow APALA member, ally, and colleague.
Article written by Melissa Cardenas-Dow, with editing assistance by Raymond Wang.
The office of the Governor of California, Edmund “Jerry” Brown, Jr., released a statement announcing the appointments of members to the California Library Services Board. Former APALA President Florante Peter Ibanez (2010-2011) is among the new appointees. The appointment will last for four years.
The statement released by the California Governor’s office states the following about Ibanez:
Florante Ibanez, 62, of Carson, has been appointed to the California Library Services Board. Ibanez has served in several positions at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles since 1992, including manager of library computer services and computer resources center assistant. He was an adjunct professor for the Loyola Marymount University, Asian Pacific American Studies Program from 2007 to 2014 and was a communications and hardware support specialist at Ashton Tate – Borland International from 1990 to 1992. Ibanez was a personal computer support specialist at Citizen American Inc. from 1988 to 1990 and project staff at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees from 1982 to 1984. He was assistant director of the early outreach program at the University of California, Irvine Educational Opportunity Program from 1979 to 1982 and a coordinator of resource development and publication at the University of California, Los Angeles Asian American Studies Center from 1971 to 1972. Ibanez is a member of the Filipino American Library Board of Directors, the L.A. as Subject board, the California Library Association, American Library Association and was a member of the 2nd National Joint Conference of Librarians of Color Steering Committee in 2012. He is a member of the City of Carson Historical Committee, the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, where he was president from 2010 to 2011, and the University of California, Irvine Alumni Association. Ibanez earned a Master of Arts degree in Asian American studies and a Master of Library Science degree in information and library science from the University of California, Los Angeles. This position does not require Senate confirmation and there is no compensation. Ibanez is a Democrat.
For more on the California Library Services Board appointments, please refer to the statement released by the California Governor’s office.
The California Library Services Board is an organizing body that functions within the California State Library:
The California Library Services Board consists of nine members appointed by the Governor and four by the Legislature. The state board determines policy for and authorizes allocation of funds from programs of the California Library Services Act. Members serve for four years, representing various constituencies, and also comprise the State Advisory Council on Libraries for the federal Library Services and Technology Act. The State Librarian serves as Chief Executive Officer of the California Library Services Board.
APALA extends congratulations to Florante. You will be an invaluable asset to the Board!
The latest issue of the APALA newsletter is now available. See what APALA has planned for ALA Annual 2014. A schedule of events is included. This issue also has articles that recap APALA events at ALA Midwinter 2014 in Philadelphia. It also includes very important amendments to APALA’s constitution and bylaws, which will be discussed at the Membership Meeting at ALA Annual 2014 (Sunday, June 29, 2014, 8:30 am to 10 am in LVCC-N119). Download your copy!