By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
Austin Outhavong is a Lao-American writer who was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. He is the author of 50% Falang: 50 Stories from a Half-Breed Abroad in Southeast Asia, which is his first book. His previous published writings were limited to lines of code in medical software subroutines, footnotes in academic urban planning articles, edits to Wikipedia, and revisions to cable television scripts.
Outhavong holds a B.S. in mathematics from Pepperdine University and an M.S. in urban planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and his wife currently reside in Memphis, Tennessee.
Asian American Press had an opportunity to discuss his first book with him.
Asian American Press: What was a significant lesson you learned from writing down your story?
Austin Outhavong: For one, that daily life is more fun as a writer! I’m not sure what it is exactly. The power of intention, perhaps. But life seems to get more interesting when you ask it to. when I approached a day as someone looking for a story, I think that carried with it a dose of engagement and optimism that helped me to find enjoyment in some discomforting circumstances.
AAP: What made you decide to use the episodic/percentage format for 50% Falang?
AO: I was looking for a unique way to package what I had. When I came up with the percentage format, I liked how it fit with the transformation theme of the story. And since the format inserts so many partitions, it gave me a way to play around with different styles of writing without being too disparate. I also thought the small servings might make the work more digestible for travelers.
AAP: Where did you feel most challenged in writing your autobiography?
AO: The most challenging part was deciding how far to go in describing interpersonal relationships. I wanted to be open and honest, but also identify which elements might be unnecesarry or hurtful to people in my story. For a while, this was an obstacle to my completion of the project.
AAP: Are you thinking of writing any other books?
AO: I learned a lot from going through the exercise of completing and launching 50% Falang that I’m looking forward to applying to my next project. But right now, I don’t have a book-sized project in queue. Whatever comes next, though, will likely be very different from 50% Falang. That story was 26 years in the making!
AAP: What do you look for in good writing?
AO: Humor, novelty, honesty, and frequent payoffs come to mind. I don’t mind muddling through imperfect prose or dodging plot holes. I’ll pick out the bones as long as the meat is good.
AAP: Where do you feel your Lao heritage influenced you most in how you developed your writing style?
AO: I think the first step in the development of anybody’s writing style is their initial recognition that they have something to say that isn’t being said. My ethnic heritage is a part of why I feel I have something novel to offer. Being Lao American means getting to see a side of life that most Americans never get a glimpse of.
AAP: What’s the best thing someone’s told you about your writing?
AO: I guess I’m still at a stage where I’m pretty stoked just to hear that someone has taken the time to read my stuff. Beyond that, with 50% Falang, my favorite thing to hear is that it got somebody excited about traveling somewhere new. that was one of my original goals for that particular project.
AAP: What do you see as the biggest opportunity or challenge for Lao American writers today?
AO: Artists need their patrons and writers need their readers. And I suspect that with the relatively small size and geographically scattered nature of the Lao American community, it’s historically been challenging for Lao American writers to connect with Lao American readers. That was part of what motivated me to write 50% Falang. I hadn’t come across a lot to read about Lao America. That said, I see the increasing use of social networking sites as a great opportunity for niche writers to connect with smaller, underserved audiences.
AAP: How would you describe a typical day in your writing process?
AO: When I’m initially trying to put something together, it usually starts with a keyboard dump of what’s running through my head. sometimes that stream of consciousness flows naturally into something coherent that is worth refining. when that doesn’t happen, when the words can’t stand up on their own, i try to determine if there is any thing of value on the screen. a phrase, a small idea, an image. then I tuck it away and toss the rest.
AAP: What advice would you have for emerging writers who are just getting started?
AO: Write often and write soon. Don’t ask too much of your own memory. Maybe you’ll get the facts right, but you might lose a quality of the emotion of the moment that made an incident noteworthy. In 50% Falang, I’m happiest with portions that were initially drafted in the “raw footage” stage and cleaned up later.
I would also advise getting honest feedback from as diverse of a readership as your network will afford. And do as many public readings as you can. I think these exercises can lead to some gut checks and discoveries that will make you better.