Each term, a host of talented performers take center stage at Knox. But not every day does Knox, or Caxton Club, see such a multifaceted performer as Dao Strom — whose performance on the evening of Monday, Jan. 14 at The Box incorporated narrative and poetry with acoustic guitar, song and photographs.
Born in Vietnam in 1973, Strom left Vietnam with her mother and brother in 1975 and was raised in California thereafter.
A writer and musician, recipient of The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award and author of Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, and mother of one son, Strom was also introduced as a lover of “goofy romantic comedies” and “shopping — even in Galesburg” by her friend, Visiting Assistant Professor of English Katya Reno.
Reno, who brought Strom to Caxton Club, offered a warm introduction, relating the tale of her introduction to Strom — the young woman whom she saw as a “beautiful Vietnamese princess,” who defended Reno’s piece in a graduate workshop in Texas offered by writer Barry Hannah with a “spectacular display of subtle strength” in the “Barry-Dao showdown.”
The audience at The Box was privy to Strom’s first presentation of her self-described “hybrid work,” We Were Meant to be a Gentle People — a combination of slides and excerpts from the pages within her book and original songs from its accompanying CD.
Strom offered the audience “prose fragments” in conjunction with photographs of the fall of Saigon, her family and more to help tell her story, taking the audience on a trip through the war, Vietnamese mythology and tales of family and migration with her revelatory and personal mode of expression.
Freshman Carly Taylor viewed the interplay between the music and the readings as “seamless,” noting “I felt like I understood her spoken stories better because of the music and I understood her music better because of the stories.”
In the performance, Strom cited her mother, a well-known writer for the Vietnamese newspaper Tidal Wave, as a source of inspiration for her writing.
“I really am just trying to make art … I want to ultimately do more than retell events,” Strom said. “If I can’t get at it with words, then maybe I’ll try pictures, music.”
Associate Professor of English Chad Simpson said that he “really appreciated the hybrid nature [of the performance]. I liked seeing photographs and … hearing the beautiful prose.”
Of the location, he said it was “a great place to have this, especially with this kind of gallery space here, being able to see the photographs up on the wall … I thought the acoustics were pretty good; my feet got a little cold — but I didn’t mind. The art warmed me.”
Discussing the piece as a whole, Taylor said, “I loved it … Her voice sounds a lot like Roseanne Cash; she’s very different and it was such an interesting perspective, because I’ve known someone [who was not] raised in the country in which they were born.”
As for the location, Taylor felt that it was a “really cool space. I feel like somehow the unfinishedness makes you want to be more creative.”
Reflecting afterwards on the performance, Strom felt that it was “a fruitful experiment,” and that the Knox community was “very welcoming.”