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Across the Phayvanh-verse
My name is Phayvanh Luekhamhan. I come from a line of Luekhamhans I do not know. My origin story has always included the war. The war is a canon event of my story. So is crossing the Mekong. So is my coming to America. And as in many coming to America stories, arrival is where the story stops.
Or rather, this canon event is a point of infinite divergence such that the commonly understood outcome is one of “assimilation”. The “happily ever after”.
My name is Phayvanh Luekhamhan. My other names have been (translated): Little Ox, Rotten Pussy, and Paitoon’s daughter. My origin story has always included navigating the old and new cultures. Seems like every person of non-white heritage in America has this throughline. As in mainstream stories, there are points of difference, misunderstanding, pride, and eventual acceptance. Self-acceptance is a canon event that should occur in everyone’s life, provided they live long enough.
Self actualization, a feature in stories that follow the hero’s journey script, is a concept I’ve come to know through American stories. Alluring and seductive to be sure. To actualize requires a sense of self, of identity. It requires a name. A history. A story.
In Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales’s story changes and evolves depending on who is telling it and what they want to hear. The school counselor, his parents, the infinite other Spider-People. In one, he’s a smart student (true) from a struggling family (not true). In another, he’s unpredictable and secretive (true), in another, he’s an imposter (debatable). But who is he really?
While this is the heart of many a teenage coming of age story, what makes this one stand out from the rest is the artfulness of the cinematic storytelling devices. The animation draws on different styles and techniques to infuse the screen with undertones of feeling and nuance, like the heavy dark brush strokes in the Stacy household that soften once the reconciliation happens. And the hectic collage squiggles when a Spidey out-of-time glitches. And the scene-stealing Spider-Punk, whose very presence is a chaotic portrait of London underground, rock-n-roll, and punkish anarchy.
These effects so well depict a growing teenager who is straddling the life of a normie and a superhero, who’s future he’s too busy to figure out, someone for whom society doesn’t make room for. Just as Miles has come to accept himself and understand that his future is his to paint, he faces what he might have become in a world without a hero.
It’s a predictable cliffhanger that reminds me of what Dr. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes writes in Dangerous Old Woman: that the true main character of the Snow White story is the magic mirror. The mirror tells us what we want to see, what we must see, and what is undeniably true. The truths it depicts are what compels the story forward.
I think about my alternate realities all the time. What if the war had never come? What if we never crossed? What if we landed in Buenos Aires? Or Los Angeles? What if all these canon events in my life simply never happened? I could have been simple and unplagued by big words. I could have lived in squalor. I could have died young.
This kind of imagining could be pointless if it wasn’t useful. Useful to help me understand what I am not. Also helps me to appreciate where I am in my life, especially if I’m in a funky mood. At least I can entertain myself and don’t look to others for my entertainment. At least I have control of my surroundings, I think to myself. There’s at least something to be grateful for. What a privilege to be alive. Breathe.
My name is Phayvanh Luekhamhan; I’ll forgive you if you mispronounce it. I wrote my story once. Someone tacked it to a tree on Putney Mountain. It might still be there. I wrote about that too .
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