Portland artist Dao Strom wants to turn the frame, change the perspective and destabilize the familiar American narrative of Vietnam.
“I think about the war as being a big part of my inheritance; the fact of war in my background and in my family’s background and in my culture’s background influences a lot of my art and what motivates my practice,” she said.
She does this by means of her many art forms — through song, poetry, prose, photography and recently through her memoir “We Were Meant to be a Gentle People.” It is a book of essays, poems, photographs and graphic typography that asks the reader to reconsider familiar narrative conventions and interpretive habits; to slow down and participate in a process of decoding and reconnecting the stories she tells in a new way.
“There are things that are hard to write about and there are things that have just taken years of thinking about and living with to get to a place where I can write about it in some useful fashion that’s not just angry or just sad or too sentimental also,” Strom said.
Dao Strom’s life began in a war-torn country, the daughter of two urban intellectuals in what was referred to as an “unsanctioned” relationship. Before Strom could form memories or learn the language of her native land, Saigon fell and the Americans pulled out. Her mother gathered her up and, along with her brother, left Vietnam — and the past — behind. She grew up in northern California with a Danish-American stepfather, from whom she received the surname “Strom.”
“My mother made the choice to leave and really to reinvent herself, which is very American also,” she said. “My father made the decision to stay. He’s somebody that very much was attached to the past and felt a duty and a responsibility to it.”
That dedication extracted a heavy toll from her father, a writer whose political views apparently required a decade of “re-education” after the communists took over in 1975. Strom first met him when she was 23.
“I guess I’ve always felt a little bit poised between those two choices of how to be in this world and there’s a lot of emotional weight connected to trying to take care of both stories,” she said.
That weight is apparent in Strom’s work. Her songs tell stories of burning monks and de-winged goddesses in haunting, dissonant melodies that envelop and stay with listener. Her filmmaking unfolds in fragmented images that evolve quickly and defy easy understanding. Her photography is composed of or inscribed with triangles, often perched on their unstable, pointy ends and challenging the viewer’s ability to come up with a straightforward interpretation of the content.
“Rather than a conventional square, which is just like a window or a very familiar shape, it’s a way of creating a window on the page that fragments it in a certain way that obscures part of the picture, and I think that process of obscuring things is also integral to some of the themes,” she said.
“In creating something that has multiple dimensions or multiple voices and forms to it, maybe also some ambiguity, there’s a recognition that these multiple things exist simultaneously.”
Her work requires your work, but invites the viewer inside some of the vast complexities of being a refugee of war, an immigrant or a woman of color in American society, with an unflinching and undeniable authority.