Next week, Seattle gears up to host the 4th Lao American Writers Summit. I sat down to have a candid conversation with my friends and summit keynote speakers, Saint Paul-based playwright Saymoukda Douangphouxay Vongsay and San Diego-based bboy poet Krysada Binly Panusith Phounsiri. When it comes to honing their craft and building community through art, there are very few Lao Americans I know who hold the level of badassery as much as these two. We talk about the state of Lao America, building a community of artists and what’s next on their project plate.
Chanida: What are you both looking forward to the most in Seattle?
Krysada: Meeting new people and having conversations. Live chats with people will be my highlight.
Saymoukda: Learning about other artists whom I haven’t met and learning about their work. I want to find possibilities to grow together and collaborate if it makes sense. And to amplify each other’s work. We don’t amplify each other’s work enough.
C: Give us a teaser about your keynote speeches.
S: There’s not a lot to time to cover everything. I want to talk about focusing on storytelling. I want people to be reminded of what carries our culture forward.
K: I’m honored. Not everything I talk about is Lao, but it intrinsically is. I’ll talk about what I’ve done that’s Lao’d and Clear. I’m gonna talk about areas we can brainstorm together and how writing is the core foundation of that. There are other mediums to express yourself but it’s about how I see us moving forward.
C: The theme this year is about being “Lao’d and clear”. What does that mean to you?
S: Speak boldly and don’t fear consequences. Be aware of your history.
K: We can’t walk away from who we are. There are ways in how we came up. How are we defining ourselves? Set the blueprint and make it diverse. Being Lao’d is sharing our experiences and the clarity in the medium one uses. How we culturally think is important and how do we intertwine that into the summit. We have to think about future aspects of culture too—not just repeating the same thing every year.
S: A lot of people are so afraid of what our elders created for us. It makes people uncomfortable. Times are changing. By doing the same thing over and over like Binly says, we’re not able to discover what we’re capable of.
K: Right. A lot of new stuff is in already in front of us. Look at folk heroes who are making it into comic books. How do we incorporate our own representation of myths and folklore to be creative? We gotta break a little bit from tradition. We just have to be bold enough to do that.
S: It’s OK to create work that’s not just Lao. There are other ways to express oneself. And don’t wait for permission.
K: Yep. It’s about understanding the foundations. There’s language of traditional dance, theater, etc. Once you know and understand it, you can play around with it.
C: Do you make art for art sake? How do your identities reflect that?
S: I’m cultivating art for art sake. My target audience isn’t Lao Americans. I wasn’t thinking we needed Lao Americans in the audience. I wanted nerds who appreciated the genre. We’re artists but it’s about getting people interested in our work. As artists, how do people access your work in different ways? It’s hard. I hate thinking about it. Boundaries can be constricted. You don’t have freedom to create the work you want to create.
K: I’m fine with working in between. You need to emphasize both making art for the love of it and getting paid. The audience is the last thing on my mind. My goal is just to express myself as honestly as possible—with conviction. Art has given me that voice and language. You have to deliver it in a way that’s enticing. Worry about what you believe in and how you think about. But yes, gotta have both game and a narrative.
C: Arts and activism go hand in hand in your work. Why?
S: My identity as a woman of color and refugee. From various marginalized communities. My work can’t be separated. It’s naturally me. I don’t have to research to write poetry. To boldly say you’re Lao and refugee—it erases negativity of their labels. Because a lot of people will say they’re Thai because it’s comfortable and easy. They don’t’ have the luxury to say who we are. There aren’t a lot of dancers, artists, etc. To claim you’re Lao is a politicized identity. It’s confluent with us.
K: You’re right. Our problem is we’re not visible. It downplays who we truly are. Whether you like it or not, you can’t separate it. How you express yourself is a political act. Who we are is politicized. You have to be proud of who you are, it’s about not being ashamed to say I’m a Lao artist. It’s a good thing now, where people want to know who we are to point where we’re being appropriated too.
S: It’s very political. I’d argue it’s radical to be Lao American and an artist as well. We come from a history of intellectuals and literary legends. It’s defiant. You’re saying I’m not afraid of authority. There’s so much creative freedom as an artist.
K: It’s about controlling your path. Being resistant. The very act of doing art is resistance. And when the younger generation sees what we’ve been able to do— they’ll see it’s possible too. It’s not just about the next greatest series of Harry Potter books. It’s about knowing there’s room for me too. You have to be visible for others to make it happen.
C: Describe the future Lao America.
K: I want to see more people in college. Ending the poor statistics we’re in. I hope the community is aware that there’s a community of artists and they, too, become interested in art. Let’s support our work and not depend on any more crowdfundraisers. We have to think outside of cultural preservation. Just like the summit, for example —people now know it’s going on.
S: I hope we will become better stewards of our community. When we do events and any kind of cultural production, it’s intentional. There should be clear structure and outcomes and impact from it. Just like the summit, we have to ask ourselves: is it cultivating new and emerging artists? Is it questioning us as a community? Even in other sectors, we should all be stewards of our community.
K: I feel like that would be for the next generation after us, because the older generation still carries it. It’s our job to have these stewards who get involved and care, so we don’t get burnt out.
S: But the older generation are gatekeepers. If you don’t do it the right way, they tell you it’s wrong. We need to trust people. And each other.
K: We need to create a stronger bond together. A collective group of strong minded folks. We need to strengthen it. That it’s a national presence and a state of national mind.
C: Tell everyone your personal brand.
S: I’m refugenius. It’s about claiming courage and persistence, and with minimal baggage. I believe in myself and my work. People say I’m funny and I don’t give a shit and I guess I do interesting work.
K: What was the question?
S: Binly’s brand is Hot Asian Man.
K: I have a million personas. Binly the Naughty Boy is one of them. I use that because I want to defy the status quo and society. It means I get to do things my way. There’s a message to who I am and it carries down. It’s the same energy—being honest and not giving a fuck. There’s so many things about me but the core of my technique is that what I do, I do it so well so no one can take it away from me.
C: What’s next on your project plate?
K: I just finished my crew’s anniversary. I’m writing a second book of poems and working on a portrait project on past scars. Photography makes people vulnerable and it helps them tell their story so that’s my job the rest of the year. I’m also competing in more dance competitions and bringing it back to the community. I do all of this and bring it back to the community, so people know what I’m capable of.
S: I have three major projects. First is a Lao Survivors Poetry Project, where I interview Lao survivors of the war and turn their stories into video poetry, so it’s accessible to my elders. Second, I got a fellowship from the Playwright Center on Kung Fu Zombies vs Shaman Warriors. I sought out more money to do it. Third, I’m a Payne Ave Poet, on East Side of Saint Paul. It’s being revitalized so I’m going to be up and down the street and talking to people about creating poetry. It’ll be a block party and their poetry will be on the walls and with their portraits.
C: People say making art is a luxury. What do you say to that?
S: This is my work and my profession. I’m getting paid as an artist. I’m hustling and getting gigs and commissions. Think about the work in terms of how you do anything. Putting in the work and taking risks. Learn how to be an administrator of your life.
K: If you love it, you’ll make time for it. The joy and energy of falling in love with that process is important in the arts. If you want to make it a career out of it, you have to be real with yourself. It’s exhausting but it’s what keeps you going.
C: What would you say to the next generation of artists?
K: Follow your curiosity with conviction all the way through. Explore it to the fullest and not be afraid of starting young. I overcame people’s doubts and things that brought me down. Throw that shit out the window.
S: When you follow your passion, you become excellent in that work. No matter the sector, people recognize it. Find a mentor and a community that supports the work you do. You’ll be drained—mentally, spiritually and physically, so find the people to lift you back up.
C: So are you taking autographs from the audience after your keynote?
S: Nobody wants my autograph. Everyone’s gonna love Binly and I’ll come off as an asshole.
K: We’re like Yin and Yang. I feel unworthy to be asked to speak.
S: No, I’m unworthy. Hey, will you do a Hot Lao Am Calendar? We need to make money for the next summit.
Meet them at Seattle’s Lao American Writers Summit this June 23-24th, 2017. More on the summit: www.laowriters.org. Check out Saymoukda’s work: www.saymoukdatherefugenius.com and Krysada’s work: www.instagram.com/bboylancer.
-Chanida Phaengdara Potter, email@example.com