Here’s my conversation with adoptee Bryan Thao Worra, the first Lao American to receive an NEA Fellowship in Literature. Not much more needs to be said. (Seriously, it’s crazy how many great adoptee writers we have in the state…)
Land of Gazillion Adoptees: You have a very unique adoption story. Would you mind sharing?
Bryan: Some lives can never be written in ink, only pencil, because everything we know about ourselves can change in an instant. That’s the life of transcultural adoptee. But in my case, I learned that even a single inch of ink can make all of the difference in a life.
During the course of the Laotian civil war (1954-1975) between the US-backed Royal Lao Government and the Communist Pathet Lao, I was adopted by an American civilian pilot flying for Royal Air Lao at 3 days old and came to the US in 1973.
By the end of the war, nearly half a million Laotians and our allies would be killed, including CIA paramilitary advisors and children as young as 11 years old who were on the battlefields of Northern Laos, fighting for a nation just a little bigger than Minnesota. More tons of bombs would be dropped on Laos than on all of Europe during World War 2.
It’s been 36 years since the “official” end of the fighting. This year, new documents are finally being declassified about those sanguine years, and we’re starting to see the first serious films about our experience, such as the Oscar-nominated Nerakhoon (The Betrayal). Nearly 400,000 of us are rebuilding our lives in the US, but now, more Lao live outside of Laos than within it, scattered around the world.
I understood at a very early age I was adopted. My parents tried to tell the story as best as they could.
They explained an Australian furniture dealer living in Laos had a housekeeper whose friend was an unmarried, pregnant widow of a soldier. Even by 1972, the writing was on the wall and she wanted to place her child in the protection of an American family. It was a decision anyone would have made, given the desperation of the times.
The furniture dealer knew the American pilot and his wife were looking to adopt a child, and called them.
“If you want to adopt a child, come to my house in three days,” he said, after I had been born on January 1st, 1973. The pilot and his wife agreed, and I was placed into their arms, with only a bag of diapers, some formula, and an envelope containing a small black and white picture of my mother and my hospital birth papers, which read: Thao Somnouk, son of Mitthalinh Silosot (widow) and Thao Souphanh (deceased), from the village of Inpaeng.
It wasn’t much. Little more than an inch of ink, really, to give me any hint of who my biological parents were.
Growing up in America during the 1980s, there were almost no books or articles about Laos, my former “Land of a Million Elephants,” except for an occasional National Geographic issue or two. I learned to treasure any story I came across, even if it was no more than a small paragraph in the newspapers.
The 1980s were filled with TV shows about adoptees. Different Strokes, Silver Spoons, Webster, even a recurring character on Family Ties and Superman and Star Wars.
I suppose my story was supposed to fit somewhere in between all of those different stories because I certainly didn’t see similar experiences among others in my quiet Michigan neighborhood.
It wasn’t until I went to college in Ohio that I would meet the first Lao people in my life. In those years, I began my search in earnest for my biological family.
I felt the need to search for my biological family because I didn’t want to one day have to answer my grandchildren if they asked ‘who are we really?’ or ‘why didn’t you search for our relatives, when you had the closest opportunity for success?’
My journey would take over 12 years, traveling to Laotian refugee enclaves across the US and around the world, based on little more than a story, an old photo, and two names in ink.
In 2003, I finally had the means to return to Laos after 30 years. I found myself in a hotel in Vientiane telling my story in the Lane Xang Hotel made famous by the spy novelist John Le Carre. With a nod, the kind concierge took out a pen and wrote a few sentences in Lao: “Do you know Mitthalinh Silosot or the family of Thao Souphanh?” and gently pointed down the street.
“There’s your old neighborhood temple, start by asking there,” he said.
At the temple, I met a monk who had indeed been an old childhood friend of my mother’s. He guided me to another friend, who lived down the street. Looking at my question on that flimsy scrap of paper, she informed me my mother left for the United States a long time ago. But I was in luck. Her daughter, my sister, came to visit Laos a year earlier, and left behind a phone number.
12 digits on a wrinkled sheet of notebook paper. I could barely read them as we dialed overseas. And for the first time, I heard the voice of the woman who gave birth to me.
Her first words to me were, “Hi, honey. How do you like our country?”
“It’s beautiful, mom. It’s beautiful,” I said.
When I finally met her back in the United States in Modesto, there was so much to catch up on, so much to try and explain.
“You and I are a lot alike,” she said.
“Well, we ARE mother and son,” I said.
“No, I mean I’m like you. Adopted too,” and she told me a story of the first time she learned she was adopted, raised by a family of Indian merchants. The story was completely different from what I had grown up with.
But after so many years of different people trying to tell me stories of who my parents might or might not have been, one last story was not so terrible.
“What do you do,” mom asked me. “What do you do for work?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Oh, you make a living by words?” she laughed. “How can you do that?”
“You’d be surprised how much even a single word can change, if it’s the right word,” I answered.
With a laugh, she smiled, looking at those tiny scraps of paper with those tiny words that brought us together again after 30 years, putting them on her mantle.
Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Wow… I understand that you’re very involved in the MN literary community. Could you talk about your involvement? You have some publications, right?
Bryan: I’m the first Lao American to receive an NEA Fellowship in Literature and the author of several books, including On The Other Side Of The Eye, BARROW, Winter Ink, and the Tuk Tuk Diaries: My Dinner With Cluster Bombs. My work appears around the world and is frequently anthologized including Outsiders Within, an anthology of Transracial Adoptees writing about their experiences.
I keep my output pretty varied. For example, I have work in Bamboo Among the Oaks and How Do I Begin, two Hmong literary anthologies, and Historical Lovecraft, an anthology of alternate history horror stories. It’s even been featured in the journal of the Godzilla Society of North America. Much of my work has been written in Minnesota, and I’ve served on the board of the acclaimed Loft Literary Center, which is the nation’s largest independent literary center.
But at the heart of it all I like working with grassroots writers and people with a passion for the do-it-yourself approach. That’s why I’ve happily volunteered and contributed to publications like Whistling Shade, Northography, Unarmed and Urban Pioneer, who all had their start in Minnesota.
Land of Gazillion Adoptees: What advice would you give young writers?
Bryan: Everyone always says to read widely and try to write every day, don’t quit your day job, and revise, revise, revise, revise.
I’d say: Seek your own voice. When you’re starting out, you can spend a lot of time trying to write like your literary heroes, but the point is to add your own unique voice to the great body of literary voices and world thinkers. There’s room for so many voices in the world and young writers should take heart that as long as they are committed to the very best stories they can tell others, a road of infinite opportunities is ahead of them.