This week, Sahtu Press celebrates its one-year anniversary as a Lao American publishing company. Established by author and illustrator Nor Sanavongsay, Sahtu Press is based in Dublin, California, an hour away from San Francisco and the Bay Area. “The publishing industry is a slow moving giant,” Sanavongsay said. “I want to be able to get us into a position where we can help move it quicker especially in regards to books for the Lao Americans by Lao Americans.”
However, to maintain the quality they have going, Sanavongsay said “time is of the essence. It’s been a difficult balance to undertake, and from what we’ve learned this first year, we’ve got a long road ahead of us.”
It’s been a busy year for the press, whose mission was to “publish and promote enduring contemporary Lao American literature and to create academic and grassroots learning opportunities.” That’s a tall order. To that end, Sahtu Press acquires, publishes, and markets high quality, imaginative work from emerging and established Lao American writers. Part of their process was to organize as a non-profit publisher.
Implementing a non-profit model allows a publisher to continue to publish books because they are not relying on profits from the marketplace. It’s been difficult to explain the idea to the community sometimes, but Sanavongsay points to the models of award-winning publishers such as Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, and McSweeney’s among others that gave him the confidence to take the company in this direction. “This way, we can also provide workshops and conferences to the community, to help them get their voices heard,” said Sanavongsay.
“It’s important for a publisher to be able to take risks,” said Bryan Thao Worra, who is helping to identify many of the new books Sahtu Press will publish in the years ahead. “Sahtu Press is the tip of the lance, taking a chance that the Lao American market is growing. But we believe that Lao American voices, when given the freedom and opportunity to express themselves, can change worlds.”
Thao Worra is drawing upon over two decades of experience with publishers, writers and non-profits worldwide, including institutions such as the Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and even the Science Fiction Poetry Association. He is the first Lao American to hold a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the Creative Works Editor for the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement.
The first book the press printed was Nor Sanavongsay’s Lao American folktale, “A Sticky Mess,” inspired by the legendary Lao trickster Xieng Mieng. Originally, the team went through Kickstarter to fund production of the book, but have since decided to turn to other approaches to finance the production of their books in the future.
In early 2014, after intensive negotiations and research, they went into a deal with Lao American poet Krysada Panusith Phounsiri to produce his first book of poetry, “Dance Among Elephants,” which included the young artist’s poems and photography speaking to the Lao Diaspora. First printed on December 31st, 2014, it went into full production in time for the Lao New Year. After less than six months, Phounsiri’s book is almost ready to go into its third edition.
“For this year, it was awesome to gain the kind of energy and momentum we had,” said Panusith Phounsiri. “The potential to create more is so exciting. I want to tap into it all. Poetry, comics, photos, anything that will help us build this universe that we have the chance to create in.”
“We’ve been very happy with Krysada’s success,” said Thao Worra. “He’s an amazing voice in our community exemplifying great character and a strong sense of vision. He’s one of the only books of Lao American poetry to be published this year, which is also the 40th anniversary of the Lao Diaspora.”
Over 230,000 Lao Americans are rebuilding their lives in the US following the end of the Vietnam War. Yet for decades, there have been fewer than 40 books written by Lao Americans in their own words on their own terms.
The artists have since been traveling widely across the United States. Together, their whirlwind tours have taken them to the National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit, the Association for Asian American Studies Conference, the Bay Area Book Festival, the Oakland Book Festival, and the CONvergence science fiction convention, and many others, including a groundbreaking reading in Fresno, California. Often, when visiting communities, young Lao are amazed to see an actual book written by a Lao person in front of them.
This year saw a rapid expansion for the press, which has been helping to sell the books of other writers and artists whose work would be of interest to those who enjoy Southeast Asian subjects. Among those works have been Harvard-educated Henry Holmes’ collection of classic Lao songs, Hmong American poet Soul Vang’s To Live Here, and David Zander and Sunny Chanthanouvong’s Wolf and the Moon, Vietnamese American poet Kevin Minh Allen’s My Proud Sacrifice, and a revised edition of poet Bryan Thao Worra’s Tanon Sai Jai collection. Sanavongsay is also currently at work on the sequel to A Sticky Mess that will explain how the young monk got the name Xieng Mieng and left the wat.
Little Laos on the Prairie