It’s a been a little over a month now since the Lao American community converged on Minnesota for the national symposium and writers summit “Our Shared Journey” at the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center in North Minneapolis on April 17-18th. Over 125 artists, academics and community organizations and community members were in attendance from at least 13 states and three countries. As you can imagine, that’s a lot to process and take in.
The event was called together as a way for the Lao American community to reflect and consider the 40th anniversary of the Lao diaspora that began with the end of the Lao civil war in 1975. For many of the participants it was the first time for them to meet each other. Some hadn’t seen each other in over 40 years. Others had a chance to reconnect with relatives they hadn’t been able to visit in years during the informal hours of the gathering.
This event was made possible through a partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center and the Lao American Writers Summit. It was also an opportunity to recognized the legacy of the SatJaDham Lao Literary project which began 20 years ago in 1995. The SatJaDham Lao Literary project was credited with planting the seeds for institutions such as the Center for Lao Studies and the Lao Heritage Foundation.
Organizers and community members were overjoyed and grateful for the support from numerous agencies and community organizations, including the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, the The University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center, the Canadian Arts Council, Legacies of War, the Center for Lao Studies, the Mines Advisory Group, Lao Assistance Center, the Lao Student Association of the University of Minnesota, Co Exhibitions and others, who provided space, time, support and advice throughout the process.
“Our Shared Journey” began with a welcome and a brief overview of the history of Laos by Saengmany Ratsbout who spoke about the conflicts of the 20th century that has led to over 230,000 Lao and 260,000 Hmong to reside in the US today. “We come here not only to look back on the past 40 years, but to connect our past, present and future,” said Ratsabout.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy, an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who discussed the current state of Lao America and the implications for our community. “We need to know the language of the youth in order to engage them,” she said.
The event was divided into two intense days, ending with a performance by internationally recognized Lao American writers and artists, such as the Kinnaly Music and Dance Troupe from Seattle, who sent a delegation of 11 youth and adult artists in a show of support for the community.
The international award-winning writer Souvankham Thammavongsa came from Canada for the very first time to Minnesota to share her experience. She was the recent recipient of the prestigious Trillium Award a well as the CBC Book of the Year Award for her latest collection, Light from Pedlar Press. Audience members were amazed and stunned by her touching story, her sense of humor and her depth as she shared her powerful experience.
The first day included a discussion on current efforts to collect oral histories within the community and the challenges that has presented. Four projects that were reflected were the Lao Oral History Archive, the Lao Diaspora Project, Laos in the House, and the Immigrant Stories and Digital Archives. How did a community go about getting elders to share their experience while remaining sensitive to the ongoing challenges of Lao history?
Little Laos on the Prairie founder Chanida Phaengdara Potter led a workshop on blogging and social media as empowerment tools, drawing upon her extensive experience since founding Little Laos on the Prairie nearly half a decade ago.
Phon Khampradith of the Kinnaly Music and Dance Troupe offered an encouraging message to participants. “”What story do you want to tell?” “If there are no story, create them,” he said. He encouraged everyone to become a mentor to others, and to seek mentorship. “It does not matter how old or young you are, you can always be a mentor.”
Dr. Ketmani Kouanchao, the Dean of Student Services at Mendocino College agreed, and hoped that many of the participants would take the idea of mentorship to heart in the coming years. “I’m glad to see so many people have the inspiration, the creativity, and the energy to bring us all together to make a difference,” Kouanchao said.
The event was a challenging one for many who generously set aside their schedules to make time for one another, such as Catzie Vilayphonh from the acclaimed spoken-word duo Yellow Rage. In less than 2 weeks, she was coordinating the final capstone event for the Laos in the House interdisciplinary art exhibition in Philadelphia bringing nationally recognized Lao artists to the community for the first time at the Asian Arts Initiative. It was a massive undertaking, but she made time for everyone in Minnesota to share her techniques and vision.
It was the first time poet and artist Krysada Panusith Phounsiri had a chance to connect with all of the other Lao writers, artists and thinkers from across the country. His debut book Dance Among Elephants from Sahtu Press was well received, as was his demonstration of his formidable b-boy skills. “This was an incredible experience, and I feel like I’ve made some amazing connections and come away with a renewed understanding of who we’ve been and where we’re going as a community,” he said.
Participants also had a chance to visit many of the famous Minnesotan landmarks and institutions that have played a role in the growth of Lao arts and culture, such as the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the Walker Art Center. And at least one or two made a trek out to the Mall of America to see what was up with that.
Lao American actress and comedian Kulap Vilaysack was a phenomenal hit for aspiring artists. She came up from Los Angeles to show footage from her documentary “Origin Story” that took a fascinating look at her search for her identity and heritage. Sahtu Press founder Nor Sanavongsay showed his finished book “A Sticky Mess,” which he’d demonstrated in part back in 2010 at the first Lao American Writers Summit. He’d been working on it for over 14 years and now it was finally here.
For Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan from TeAda productions, they were welcomed back again with open arms. They helped the participants tap into their creative sides and many Minnesotans still remembered when their play “Refugee Nation” came to Minnesota in 2010 to Intermedia Arts. TeAda Productions is building up steam for their new play, “Global Taxi Driver.”
Channapha Khamvongsa, the executive director for Legacies of War helped to facilitate many of the formal and informal discussions throughout the weekend. Ever the multitasker, she also managed to meet with Minnesota congressional staffers to discuss current directions in UXO clearance shortly after the end of the gathering. Nang Nonnarath Dunn, from the VillageRun Foundation came out from Oregon to meet everyone. It was an inspiring gathering that reminded one another of the generosity and joy in the community despite the complexity of our journey.
Playwright and poet Saymoukda Vongsay not only had to present at the convening, but also had to attend a book release featuring her work at the nearby Soap Factory that weekend. It was a chance for participants to meet many emerging writers in the community such as Bidone Salima, Kanya Lai, and Linda Pharathikoune. Ko Chandetka, a champion Lao American bodybuilder was deeply inspired by the gathering and is now at work on his memoir in the hopes that it will be useful for the next generation.
Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong and Alisak Sanavongsay led much of the discussions on the journey of the SatJaDham Lao literary project and were able to distribute some of the last surviving copies of the classic anthologies to the participants, in addition to reading from some of the classic pieces from the volumes. A moment of silence was held for the memory of Pom Outama Khampradith, an early member of SatJaDham and a founder of the Kinnaly Music and Dance Troupe who passed away in April, 2014.
“Our Shared Journey” also brought together Lao American visual artists from the across the country, such as Chantala Kommanivanh, Sayon Syprasoueth, Aloun Phoulavan, animator Peter Chanthanakone, film-maker Xaisongkham Induangchanthy, and Mali Kouanchao.
It was standing room only by the end of “Our Shared Journey,” which concluded with a rousing song by singer and community builder Ketsana Vilaylack. Although the initial plan was not to convene the Lao American Writers Summit again until 2020, overwhelming demand and interest has led to plans to convene again next year in 2016 in San Diego, in addition to other exhibitions and gatherings across the country as possible. More is definitely coming!