[In Part 1 of a 3-part post series that will feature excerpts, imagery, music, & musings from Dao Strom/The Sea and The Mother’s EP-book project, Dao Strom, herself, gives us a deep insight about her new project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (East EP). More at Dao’s website.]
We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (East EP) is a hybrid music-literary project, by author/songwriter Dao Strom, a 6-song EP album accompanied by a book of prose and poetry fragments, images, lyrics, and text arrangements on Vietnam – as a late-century mythology, a war, a word, an exodus, an inheritance/disinheritance. Although written and sung in English, tonally and contextually these “songs” and “fragments” allude to the sung-poetry tradition of ca-dao. The project culls elements from personal and collective experience, playing also with threads of folk mythology. Author/songwriter Dao Strom (who makes music as The Sea and The Mother) talks below about the concept and process behind this unique project.
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These songs cross countries and cultures. They are sung from one shore to the other, messages sent east to west and back west to east. The narrator of these songs is a lone woman traveler, a traveler who has been traveling a long while now. She travels through memory as well as through history. On the road behind her unwind ribbons of forgetting: a lost country, forgotten fathers, forgotten poetry, reverberations of past wars. She has been a child of circumstance, a witness. The woman sees history and she questions it, sometimes laments it, asks why we do not sing of it. She sings to break the silence – and in hopes the messages she has harbored out of distant places might now be heard in the new places she passes through.
. . .
My process statement for this project goes something like this:
Akin to the way the sea constantly erases and “re-draws” the demarcation between water and land, and you cannot follow the shore without acknowledging it is a line perpetually shifting, in the course of writing, arranging, and voicing these words and songs I also erased and “re-drew” many, many times, & finally came to realize that the space in which the hybrid form (and self) rests is intrinsically not a stable world. Hence the fragmented nature of this work. But it is nonetheless a real place, a world of the moment.
This is what I’ve tried to convey, and to allow, through this somewhat unconventional assemblage of words, images, songs, and typography elements. The songs were written mostly in Alaska and Oregon; some of the words were taken from earlier drafts of a so-called “novel” (which I have by now abandoned, or at least have abandoned trying to conform under the label of “a novel”).
The book is available in a limited number of print copies at this time – a few of which are hand-bound, hand-sewn, lovingly made objects. The music is available as a CD and as digital downloads. (Available exclusively from my Bandcamp music page.)
There are a few thematic threads I preoccupy myself with in this project. They are, to a degree, responses to some of the few, popular “myths” I have gleaned about being Vietnamese over the last thirty-odd years. I’ll re-cap them simply here: 1) how we have fought over a thousand years of war against invading forces; how we have known war like it was nothing, no big deal, we have known more war than peace; and how most other people do not seem to really fathom this about us; 2) how there were some bad-ass women warriors in our past; how the Vietnamese woman is something of a force to be reckoned with; 3) how water is an oft-recurring motif for the Vietnamese people, both literally and figuratively—the water of our monsoons, our rice-nurturing rivers, of the sea from which sprung our dragon-father of legend; the water, symbolically, of our tears and sorrows; and 4) how we are all aware there was a war our exodus evolved out of, and it is a circumstance that some of us still recognize the trauma of and some of us don’t – thus leaving varying degrees of gratitude and guilt, apathy and sentimentality, intermingled amidst us still now.
I have no neat conclusions or revisions to any of these “myths.” As a writer and as an artist, I have often just followed what I felt, in my gut, and have tried to be as honest as possible in rendering what came to me. I have felt at times capable and, more often, questing. I’ve written prose and I’ve written songs. So far, I’ve not told any story or sung any song as perfectly or profoundly as I dream myself able to. Structures defies me; virtuosity and a clean technique constantly elude me. But I keep going. There are forms of storytelling I have learned from the outside, and there are other techniques and ideas that feel more instinctual, like inklings from deep within, percolating, trying to surface. The latter are the impulses I’ve tried to heed in my most recent work.
I could also put it this way: Because I could not (and did not want to) tell a straightforward narrative, because words alone were not enough; because I could not effectively separate the personal from the historical, and because I did not adequately know the historical (and neither want to be just a recounter of events); because I grew up in the West with the luxury of detachment and the perspective it affords, and because that too was not enough… Because I was fed by the past storylines but my own story was not, and could not be, contained by the old story… so this new form evolved: one that occupies a hybridity of form and content, for myself at least, in attempting to broach the subject matter of that elusive state we refer to as Vietnam, be it identity, self-mythology, point of departure or juncture, be it both past and loss, or loss and opportunity.
Recently, someone asked me to describe my project and I briefly said something about it consisting of “fragments” that were “thematically linked.” She slightly challenged me on this, “So it’s fragmented but it’s thematically linked?” as if these two things could not coincide and she doubted my authority on my own work. I think about that response now, and it occurs to me that the expectation of linearity is an obstacle of perception—and certainly an obstacle in attempting to perceive and understand the real story, and the culminated identity, of a people whose very sense of history and self contains the confluence and divergence of so many streams. We are fragmented, and yet we still are. And this are-ness is our complicated wholeness.
We are capable of seeing so much in this space.
[A note to grow on: My concept for this project is that it will eventually contain two “geographies”: “East” and “West.” We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (East EP) is the first of these two journeys.]
Dao Strom is the Oregon-based author of the the novel Grass Roof, Tin Roof and the short story collection The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She is also a musician with two albums, Everything that Blooms Wrecks Meand Send Me Home. More info here.
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