holding on to laughter like a shield

Souvankham Thammavongsa: Laughter is very important to me. The cornerstone of all these stories is laughter. To me, laughter isn’t frivolous. It is a way of surviving. Laughter when things are horribly unbearable. Laughter when things are uncomfortable. Laughter when there is nothing else to feel. Also when there is joy, too. You have to laugh because that’s how you take back your power. Deriving humor from pain, and allowing the two to coexist within a single moment, has been integral to my experience of being an immigrant. 

Cornelia Channing: In “Edge of the World,” a Lao man describes how, whenever he is told to do something at work, he responds, “Yes, sir!” but he says it with the tone and force of a “Fuck you!” It’s a really funny little moment. In this instance, the humor seems to be unlocking something—a kind of reclaimed power or space for resistance, perhaps. 

Thammavongsa: Yes, yes, exactly. So that moment is meant to be funny but it’s also an inversion. He has taken his position of subservience and flipped it on its head. A phrase that is an expression of polite obedience becomes a private expression of defiance. The laughter is almost like a weapon or a tool. 

Channing: Can you say more about that? 

Thammavongsa: You know, I’m a huge fan of Richard Pryor and if you watch the way he talks about his family, about the way he grew up and about his mother and some very difficult subjects, the way he frames them in humor is really interesting and powerful. He makes the audience laugh and then he holds onto that laughter like a shield so that the experiences he’s talking about can’t destroy him. I think I’m trying to do something similar.

- Souvankham Thammavongsa, in conversation with Cornelia Channing over at The Paris Review. You can read the whole thing here.

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