A San Francisco Bay Area native, Praveena loves slam poetry and cold cliffy beaches. Her belief in the power of storytelling feeds her daily practice. She is a maker of higgledy-piggledy to-do lists, vegan cuisine, and the occasional scrapbook.
Atticus Finch was born in 1960 with Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mocking Bird. But, he was really conceived on December 25th, 1956. That morning, Michael and Joy Brown gifted Lee a Christmas miracle: a modest note that read, "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” Stupefied, Lee thought it was a gag gift but the Browns insisted that they were feeling financially comfortable and assured here this investment, “was not a risk. It’s a sure thing.” She immediately left her job as an airline reservation receptionist and became absorbed in her passion: writing.
I feel like the time I have in Thailand is a gift from the Browns; I have space and time (four months down, six to go) to explore a research topic I care deeply about, experiment in the art world while curating a show in May, and invest in my personal growth by simply living in a new country/culture/language.
I resonated with Haper Lee’s sheer disbelief in receiving this magical opportunity, but wonder if she too struggled with creating structure in a year where there is not much of a distinction between "personal life" and "professional life"-- when do you put your work away? At its core, my "job" is to build relationships with researchers, artists, and community members. My “methods” have included extending dinner to drink whiskey with villagers, biking along the Mun river with NGO liaisons, and pitching my art exhibit with potential artist collaborators in settings I least expect it (while at a cafe, at a music festival, on public transportation).
Dome (Atithep Chanthet) is a photojournalist for Isaan Record, student at Khon Kaen University, and friend from Columbo Craft Village. We first connected over our shared interest in land rights in Isaan and belief in the power of storytelling while he roasted coffee at a friend's cafe/home (pictured above).
I spent my 23rd birthday weekend at Isaan Kiow with friends. During the final hours of the music festival, I started chatting on the top of this truck with Naliwan (pictured on the right), the brilliant curator and activist behind “Trucker Daughter.” She shared a range of stories spanning the hardships Isaan truck drivers face from the sugar cane industry to the artist truckers who build furniture out of metal scraps they are left with. As the sun set, I was left ruminating on trucker culture, waste management, and what it takes to deem someone an “artist”?
Sharing a giddy moment with P’Jon (pictured above). He has served as an excellent community liaison for my research, connecting me to village leaders from the five zones where I plan to conduct walks. Here, he surprised me with a spare bike for a sunset ride along the Mun River after a long day of recruitment and planning.
In a departure from eating three meals a day, some choose to eat when hunger approaches; I apply this gut check to my work too— if I feel like I need to spend a few days cafe hopping to catch up on IRB protocol and survey design/documentation, I lean into that desire and get into my paperwork groove. Such gut checks have also inspired intentional time plugging into different pockets of communities in Khon Kaen: agriculture students, teachers at the faculty of fine arts, jazz musicians and baristas, Isaan Record, study abroad students, a young Thai law student activist group (Dao Din), etc. I feel proud of the progress I’ve made in these relationship-building efforts, yet eager to deepen them and explore further. More time, increased language acquisition, and a hungry attitude are the tools I need to forge on.
I closed 2019 in Khon Kaen with a collection of homey niceties that evoke the same satisfaction I’ve felt in American metropolises. Akin to the warm fuzzy feeling I float in when a barista at my neighborhood cafe knows my name and order, my morning runs by Kavi Garden, charmingly overgrown plants at Sri Brown Cafe, and the buzz of hipster students scooting between classes brings me relaxation and regimen. As my project picked up, my dreamy Khon Kaen honeymoon simmered and I sprinkled in weeks of living out of my duffel bag, long bus rides to Ubon Ravchathani, and late night IRB paperwork. Shaking up my routine has made room for interesting couch surfing stories, a dose of stress, and moments of spontaneity that make me savor the independence and autonomy I have been gifted this year.
On my most recent trip to the Mun River, I reflected on the ways in which connecting in ordinary settings can actually be excellent ecosystems for grassroots activism, art, and change. Rooting my work in connecting people and ideas has meant prioritizing building and nurturing my relationships here.
“However, political mobility continued but in creatively smarter ways. Exercising, informal tea gatherings, sitting around, reading books, standing still, and other forms of trivial activities were turned into political symbols to glue the structure of their sentiment, while other types of activism were prohibited. I am more interested in how people try to mobilize their political or social critiques than what was censored in an art gallery” - from On Socially Engaged Art In Thailand: A Conversation
Thailand’s October sky has been the optimal canvas for atmospheric art: sunrises and sunsets. I have made time for “stillness"— practicing being steady amidst the chaos— during these dates with the sun.
A few memorable meteoritical moments:
From grinning widely on the edge of a song tau to enjoying the breezy quietude in a treehouse lookout point, all of these moments invite two irreplaceable feelings: the wind dancing in my overgrown pixie cut and the gratifying calm that accompanies “stillness.” Pausing to observe, wonder, and marvel has evolved into a habit that also fuels my work. Ryan Holliday writes, "Stillness is that quiet moment when inspiration hits you. It’s what makes room for gratitude and happiness. It’s one of the most powerful forces on earth."
During this first month in Khon Kaen, I have been honing in on learning Thai and building relationships with researchers, artists, and community members.
To ensure my work is rigorous and reflective of local needs, I am working under the guidance of Dr. Kanokwan Manorom (pictured below) who has focused on participatory impact assessment, Mekong river basin and wetlands environmental health, and indigenous knowledge on sustainable resource governance for over two decades. As the Director of the Mekong Sub-region Social Research Center at Ubon Ratchathani University, her broad network of researchers and activists will help me partner with organizations working to improve the health of rights-holders and their ecosystems. I met my "research mom" in person for the first time last week; I took three buses, two pick-up trucks, and a van to Rasi Salai and back. The fragmented journey was well worth the two days and nights I spent with a multidisciplinary team of five researchers and 70 community activists.
Some Quick Context
The Rasi Salai Dam was built in 1992 on the Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong River, and negatively impacted approximately 17,000 people from the districts of Sisaket, Surin, and Roi Et. The project was part of the Khong-Chi-Mun Project, a large-scale irrigation scheme for Northeast Thailand orchestrated by the Thai government and The World Bank. The dam has led to the destruction of natural resources, biodiversity loss, floods, food insecurity, soil and water contamination, and deforestation. Socio-economic impacts include displacement, unemployment, and human rights violations. For instance, parents are forced to migrate to find work, leaving children to live with grandparents and causing a breakup of traditional Isaan homes. The community is keen on documenting these impacts, so the research team is collaborating to produce a comprehensive report for the Royal Irrigation Department that will ultimately lead to compensation and restoration programming for affected villagers.
The technical terms and long hours were, at times, grueling for me and my translator during the internal research meeting. Besides the few tired yawns and stamina challenge, I felt extremely lucky to witness the professors' decades of expertise in wetlands-related research (e.g., water resource management, social development, public health, economics, etc.). Furthermore, my study's timeline aligns well with theirs- a serendipitous discovery that will allow us to share data, contextualize my research findings, and overall add to the depth and breadth of my project. After the internal research meeting, 70 villagers and representatives of 10 major activist groups from Sisaket, Surin, and Roi Et attended a three-hour community meeting. Given my limited social capital and resources, this meeting was invaluable; attendees heard from each lead researcher, asked excellent questions with useful feedback, and expressed their appreciation and buy-in for this applied research initiative.
Another highlight of the month has been connecting with Thai art critic and curator Thanom Chapakdee. He is the founder of Khon Kaen Manifesto, a native of Sisaket Province (where the Rasi Salai Dam is located), and a leading voice in the contemporary art landscape of Isaan. I was humbled (and slightly shocked) when he agreed to be my advisor for the storytelling exhibit portion of my project, as I’ve been following his work from afar for over a year now (read more about his approach to radical, participatory art here: A talk with Thanom Chapakdee, the curator pushing Isaan’s new art movement). I hope to imbibe Thanom’s philosophy of art as democracy to “abandon the palace” of Thai social institutions; in a departure from traditional gallery and museum settings, the traveling exhibit will be displayed in accessible venues that community members determine to be symbolic of local political ecology. This may include a public park, historic neighborhood cafe, or abandoned rice mill.
My days include post-run WhatsApp calls with friends and family back home, caffeinated mornings dedicated to delving into the literature, demanding and entertaining language lessons, and the occasional Taco Tuesday/Thai movie with old and new friends. These routine happenings, sprinkled with "stillness," have made for a month full of rich experiences, reflection, and joy.
My last post was a Summer 2017 journal entry, an ode to my tote bag, written on the L train in Brooklyn--
While perusing through a funky art market in Khon Kaen, her piercing stare caught my eye and she hasn't left my side since. She's poignant and pungent, graceful and unassuming. I wonder why an accessory or article of cloth can feel so intimate - perhaps it’s because objects can scoff at the idea of a life span. Tote bags survive longer than relationships and outlive its buyer. Vintage items hold memories and moments cherished by strangers- a concept that an entire market of shoppers succumb to.
Since that summer, a lot has transpired both personally and professionally. I became a member of the “grief club” with the loss of my close aunt-mother-friend-mentor, graduated from Tulane, moved to Washington, D.C. to work in healthcare research and then an urban garden nonprofit, and ventured to find joy amongst significant changes in my relationships to people and places. This October morning, I found two August 2019 doodles and journal entries that took me back to the L train: the quiet trepidation that comes just before leaving a place you love, along with its people.
A Self Portrait During Transition
What drives you? Moves you? Scares you?
The Twin Crises of Inequality and Climate Change
My Relationship to People
Loss of a Loved One
For me, August is always heavy with reflection and preparing for change- new school year approaching, summer job and accompanying fling come to a close, lease ending, preparing for a move, a dozen goodbye parties. It was the last decent month I had with Lali. My journal fills up fastest in the summer time.
Tribulations of Transition
Three weeks and change left in DC, journaling on the left side of my bed. Camera in hand, I hesitate taking pictures of my room for the Craigslist listing; should I strip the personal items from my walls? My compact English basement room has accumulated a handful of new objects over the last 8 months.
New doodles and photos splattered, sunscreen for the garden gig, and the seat of my broken orange boyfriend of a bike. Two sheets take up the most space on my walls— both old gifts from people who have shaped me through their presence and loss.
Since that 2017 summer in Brooklyn, I’ve become obsessed with artifact storytelling. From Glenna Gordon’s lyrical approach to photographing objects that depict the “unphotographable” to the Museum of Broken Relationships’ collection of exta[ordinary] mementos, I can’t stop thinking about the power of object-based storytelling. In fact, this fascination led me back to Khon Kaen, the birthplace of my tote bag, where I write from now. In September 2019-July 2020 with the support of a Fulbright Research Grant, I am conducting community-based participatory research in dam-affected wetlands in Rasi Salai in Isaan (Northeast Thailand). While here, I hope to curate an object-based storytelling exhibit.
Since its construction in 1992, the Rasi Salai Dam has led to displacement, health and human rights violations, and the destruction of natural resources. I seek to illuminate villagers’ evolving relationship to the Mekong River and wetlands over the past quarter century through an object-based storytelling exhibit, featuring 20-30 meaningful yet ordinary objects paired with first-person accounts and photography. This collection will provide a fresh look at the political ebb and flow of the Mekong River, grassroots movements, and potential solutions to achieve a planet in balance. The exhibit will travel to two Isaan cities (Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani) followed by select US cities with accompanying local speakers to nurture a dialogue around identity, climate change, and successful grassroots movements in the Global South. This storytelling project provides me with creative ways to engage a larger audience and stakeholder group, elevate community voices, foster indigenous leadership and autonomy, and generate a shared and nuanced understanding of environmental health issues that impact the human condition.
I clutch my bag, and ruminate on how circling back to a person, place, or thing will never be the same as when you left it; even if an artifact remains in tact, the intangible ecosystem around it is constantly evolving. And so am I.
While perusing through a funky art market in Khon Kaen, her piercing stare caught my eye and she hasn't left my side since. She's poignant and pungent, graceful and unassuming.
In the last four months, she's traveled with me from Thailand to Vietnam, India, San Francisco, New York, and Boston. Tonight we head to New Orleans.
I wonder why an accessory or article of cloth can feel so intimate - perhaps it’s because objects can scoff at the idea of a life span. Tote bags survive longer than relationships and outlive its buyer. Vintage items hold memories and moments cherished by strangers- a concept that an entire market of shoppers succumb to.
I scurry through Brooklyn to catch the L train and begin my morning commute. I think about the millions of others who have taken the same path. I feel small. Clutching my bag, I share in the comfort of my lady’s permanence.
The soft-spoken man brushes the ground, and underneath disheveled brown forsaken leaves, lies the faint outline of a rectangle. He bends down solemnly and steadily lifts what now appears to be the entrance to a tunnel.
Other foreigners around me join me in this strange scene of tourism- families and couples are each accompanied by their own local guide. Everyone, as if in a synchronized act, fawns over this magic trick and whips out their camera. The guides demonstrate how to enter the tunnel and tells us to follow.
Besides the claustrophobia accompanied by crawling through the tunnels, it was an awe-inspiring experience for my dad and me.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. relied heavily on aerial bombing, while local troops went underground in order to survive and continue their "guerrilla" tactics against the much better-supplied enemy. The tunnels of Củ Chi are small, but nonetheless a historical part of an immense network underlying much of the country.
I flash back to the highlighted term in a high school world history class: guerrilla warfare. We empathized with American soldiers who wrote letters home about great loss and wartime struggles. But we missed the striking reality of what it means to have war on your own soil.
Even for a progressive California public high school, history was taught to us with bias. Terms were firmly bolded and highlight accompanied by matching definitions to be found in Appendix A. Exams tested our knowledge of these terms, training us to view them as facts of life.
The Trail of Tears was only referred to as an act of genocide if the teacher felt especially obliged to- see Manifest Destiny. Our Eurocentric curriculum downplayed the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity- see Father Junipero Serra. Most of the Indian history I learned dwelled on customs rarely observed today, like sati- widows sacrificing themselves in the flames of their deceased husbands' funeral pyres.
Like all stories, history reflects its teller. And it permeates our books, brains, and bodies.
Small Saigon Moments