It’s been a busy year for artist and activist Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, who will be celebrating her birthday this December. Since January, it’s been almost non-stop schedule for her as she and other members of the Lao Minnesotan community take note of numerous key anniversaries for the community such as the 40th anniversary of the Lao Diaspora, the 20th anniversary of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project, and the fifth anniversary of the first National Lao American Writers Summit and the United Nations Convention on Cluster Munitions.
She’s traveled across the country from California to Philadelphia this year assisting various non-profit organizations and colleges to discuss the continuing legacy of the Vietnam War and the efforts of Lao Americans to rebuild and redefine themselves as a global culture.
Over the years, her writing has appeared in Poetry City USA Vol. 4, The Saint Paul Almanac, Lessons For Our Time, Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, Asian American Press, the Hmong Women Write Now! Anthology, and The Asian American Literary Review among many others. She was recently accepted into the international Horror Writers Association as a professional member. Her first chapbook of poetry, No Regrets, debuted in 2008, and she’s been steadily moving her artistic focus to live theater with numerous successful productions under her belt, ranging from Yellowtail Sashimi to the award-winning Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals. You can visit her online at: http://www.saymoukdatherefugenius.com/
Little Laos on the Prairie had a chance to catch up with her to reflect on the Lao Diaspora and her recent adventures.
The year’s almost over, and you’ve had a very busy year, from the National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit, the Laos in the House exhibition, induction into the Horror Writers Association and the debut of Hmong-Lao Friendship Play OR Lao-Hmong Friendship Play. What’s coming up for you in December?
Yes, it’s been a fruitful year of playwriting — this year alone I received two play commissions and will have churned out four full-length plays by the end of the year. I’m hustling. I keep working on my craft. I’m learning as I go. I was a poet before I was a playwright and I’m surprised that I’ve written less than ten new poems this year.
At the tip of the year I had a stage reading of my play, YELLOWTAIL SASHIMI through Mu Performing Arts’ New Eyes Theater Festival.
In October I closed production of the HLFP/LHFP (commission, Lazy Hmong Woman Productions) and closed production on another play that commemorated Title IX (commission, Theater Unbound). HLFP/LHPF is headed to the University of California-Merced for the Southeast Asian American Legacies: 40 Years After the End of the Vietnam War Conference early December.
Thanks to a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board for theater, I’ve been working on KUNG FU ZOMBIES VS SHAMAN WARRIOR which is the second installment from the Kung Fu Zombieverse anthology of stage works. KFZSW addresses how mental illness is often perceived and treated as demonic possession within the Lao community. The stage reading of KFZSW will be in late December in Minneapolis.
This year has been observing the 40th anniversary of the Lao Diaspora across the country. What has that meant for you personally, as an artist and community activist?
Recognizing the 40 years of Lao migration to the US has been super important to me. Thanks to a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board for arts access, I co-developed the HLFP/LHFP with my best friend, May Lee-Yang, who is Hmong-American, to commemorate this milestone.
Even in the 40 years of cohabiting Minnesota, there is such a disconnect between the Lao and Hmong communities here that we needed to address the complex histories of our communities’ relationship.
The Asian American Literary Review published a special topics issue, (Re)Collecting the Vietnam War, that has an excerpt from my play KUNG FU ZOMBIES VS CANNIBALS. My selection explicitly addresses how Laos became the most bombed country per capita in history and that is because of the United States’ clandestine war in Laos. Many Americans do not know this fact.
I’m interested in using my plays to make commentaries on the histories and issues that affect my communities.
We’ve seen a significant increase in the artistic production within the Lao American community in the last five years, but what are some of the remaining frontiers our emerging artists need to address?
I think that Minnesota’s Lao artists have been instrumental in clearing the roads for newer artists like myself. I think Minnesota’s Lao artists have been leaders in the arts movement. We have two National Endowment for the Arts fellows and a Bush Artist fellow in Minnesota. The Lao American Writers Summit was birthed in Minnesota. A proclamation from the Governor of Minnesota recognizing the contributions of Minnesota’s Lao artists is now celebrated every August by Lao people nationally.
I believe that what Minnesota has done well is creating community multipliers – Lao artists who connect others to resources, access to knowledge, and funding streams. I think that what Lao artists need to do more of is to be multipliers and not be gate keepers or hoarders of resources. It is not enough to just be doing well yourself. When you don’t have a hand in creating spaces and opportunities for others to thrive, everyone loses.
I also want to see Lao artists creating politicized work. As an artist, I am in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. I am against state-sanctioned violence against civilians. My family escaped a communist regime and sought political asylum in the U.S. Artists and intellectuals were killed and placed in “reeducation” camps during the Khmer Rouge and the Pathet Lao communist regime. Art and social justice is confluent for me. I cannot detach myself. That would be an embarrassment, an insult to my refugee legacy.
I’m not asking Lao artists to be extreme because in some ways, many ARE challenging policies and the dominant narratives by simply telling their refugee stories.
As an artist you’ve run into many different ideas and approaches over the years. What’s a lesson that’s lingered with you?
I’m fortunate to have a mentor who has been a source of encouragement, knowledge, and inspiration. I can’t say enough how thankful I am for Bryan Thao Worra. It’s why I mentor new and emerging artists today. From this, I learned that not everyone is ready for mentorship.
You can pass along opportunities and create access as many times as you can but if the person is not willing to take chances, you have to wish them luck and let them go. I have plays to write and grants to chase. I don’t have time to sit with someone every other week trying to convince them to stick it through.
What’s a Lao value or tradition you hope our community successfully passes on to the next generation?
I think that we as Lao people are quite sensitive and poetic – everything is about our hearts, our jai. Jai is literally and figuratively the heart of many of our expressions. To understand is to khao jai — to let something into the heart. A person whose jai dum means that they have a dark heart. People who lack empathy for others have jai khap, narrow heart. And so on.
Lao language is beautiful. I think we need to pass on our language.
What’s your advice to emerging artists who want to do work similar to yours?
Put in the work. I’m fortunate to have a mentor who has guided my trajectory but at some point, I had to venture out on my own. A great a mentor will have equipped you with the critical tools you need to confidently move forward. Mentorship isn’t enough. There are systems in place that determine just how much you can thrive in your career — funders, institutions, and individuals to support your artmaking and livelihood.
Educate yourself on what impact those factors can have on your artmaking. Plant yourself in decision-making roles, especially in institutions that can benefit from your perspective, gifts, and talents. Take chances. If I had never jumped into playwriting, I wouldn’t be the number one Lao American playwright today.