AAP staff report
MINNEAPOLIS (August 15, 2010) – It was a weekend to remember as over 120 people gathered at the historic Loft Literary Center from August 13th to 15th for the first national Lao American Writers Summit. Over 16 award-winning Lao American artists spoke and worked closely with Lao and non-Lao community members including African American, Thai, Cambodians, South Asians, European Americans and Tongans to discuss the importance of art and building a people’s future through art.
“We really needed this meeting,” said Bryan Thao Worra, a Lao writer, NEA Literature Fellow and a conference organizer. “I think it defined many of our relationships to one another for decades to come.”
Among those present were Oscar and Emmy-nominated writer Thavisouk Phrasavath. Another leading figure in the summit was Bounheng Inversin from Washington D.C. A prominent activist, she has been instrumental in the growth of Lao culture and the advancement of Lao women’s roles for decades.
Phrasavath, best known for his award-winning film, Nerakhoon: The Betrayal, told participants to not only be dream chasers, “but dream makers.” It was a sentiment echoed by many of the leading artists attending the summit, including actors and writers Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan from Los Angeles. Saopeng and Chan are best known for their play, Refugee Nation, drawn from the oral histories and accounts of Lao Americans, particularly Lao Minnesotans.
Summit Chair Saymoukda Vongsay was moved to tears in her opening welcome to the community as the weight of the occasion struck her. Many of the artists were meeting for the very first time in 30 years, people she’d known often only through words on a page, or from their books and films.
“I’ve been here all of my life, and this was one of the biggest events I’ve seen where everyone pitched in because this was an event we’d all decided we’d wanted, together,” Vongsay said. The summit was free for students and elders thanks to support from several foundations.
The Lao youth voice was an important part of the summit.
“We’re building this not just for ourselves, but for today’s children, and tomorrow’s,” said Vongsay.
The University of Minnesota’s Lao Student Association was instrumental to the success of the Summit. The students were organized in large part by Chanida Phaengdara, a local activist, and Danny Khomsombath of the University of Minnesota.
Young women from the Lao Womens Association performed a traditional welcome dance to begin the public performance on Saturday night. The summit was often filled with laughter and a deep sense of history and a future.
Sunny Chanthanouvong, executive director, Lao Assistance Center welcomed the guests who came from as far away as Fresno and Providence. Over ten states were represented including Washington D.C., New York, California, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois, Vermont and Minnesota.
“When we first came to America, we did not recognize the role art plays in creating social justice and social change,” Chanthanouvong said.
He noted Lao refugees are celebrating 30 years in America this year.
Thao Worra remarked that Laos was the size of Great Britain, with traditions that extend back more than 600 years, uniting over 160 ethnic communities.
Thao Worra noted that the outpour of support for the event caught even the organizers by surprise.
“At first, we only received support from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and the Lao Assistance Center,” Thao Worra said. “But soon we had national and local sponsors, including the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and the national Association for Asian American Studies. That means a lot to us.”
Vongsay added, “We were grateful for the support of the Jerome Foundation and the University of Minnesota Asian American Studies program, but I’m really happy so many within our own community saw what we were doing was so important they donated to our efforts personally. That’s so meaningful, especially from our elders, and I hope we validated their trust.”
Catzie Vilayphonh, a Philadelphia-based spoken word artist, was a conference speaker, performer and co-chair. She was also celebrating her birthday that week and participants sang her happy birthday and gave her a warm welcome back to the Twin Cities.
Her spoken word group Yellow Rage celebrates their 10th year in November and they recently developed the Family Style Open Mic in Philadelphia with the Asian Arts Initiative. They will perform in Minnesota for the first time this October.
Vilayphonh has been a regular visitor to Minnesota for social justice issues in recent months and was impressed with the talent of Lao youth she worked with during the summit.
“It took us years to plan the summit,” Vilayphonh said, “but now that the community has seen what we’re trying to do, we hope it won’t take another 30 years to bring us all together.”
A highlight of the summit was a performance by Adisack Nhouyvanisvong, one of the early Lao American writers in Minnesota who discussed some of the early history of Lao American art. Participants also spoke with the award-winning Lao American visual artist Mali Kouanchao, recently featured in the childrens book, “Mali Under the Night Sky” by acclaimed author Youme Landowne.
Legendary Lao American rock star Ketsana came from Nashville, and shared her perspective as a musician. Ketsana has been performing since she was 11 when her family first arrived during an April night blizzard in Illinois in the 1980s.
Nor Sanavongsay of Illinois demonstrated the arduous process of creation during the summit as he showcased a project to animate the traditional Lao children’s story of Xieng Mieng.
Thao Worra introduced Allan Kornblum, publisher of Coffee House Press, as “a deep personal influence,” adding that Coffee House Press is instrumental in publishing significant books of Southeast Asian American literature, including U Sam Ouer’s Sacred Vows and the writing of Frank Chin.
Kornblum discussed many issues for writers from diverse communities, and anecdotes from his own journey through the literary scene of the 20th century.
Founded in 1975, the Loft Literary Center is the nation’s largest independent literary center, and a key part of emerging literary traditions, including Lao writers.
Lao American writers held numerous readings, especially for their first books. Over the last 10 years, The Loft has served as a gathering place for Lao and Asian American writers to hone their craft.
Some of the Asian American writers that have spoken at The Loft include Maxine Hong Kingston, Li Young Lee, Ha Jin, Ed Lin, U Sam Ouer, Gene Yang, Barbara Jane Reyes and many more.
“I hope we get many more years to keep helping our artists find their voice, especially youth from underprivileged backgrounds, which is where many of us also started,” said Vongsay. “I want them to see it’s possible to achieve their dreams.”
While plans for next year have not been finalized, more information is available at www.laowriters.org.