An interview with Lao American writer Catzie Vilayphonh
By Bryan Thao Worra
AAP staff writer
Catzie Vilayphonh is a Lao American writer and performer based in Philadelphia, who is a regular visitor to Minnesota. She will return in August for the national Lao American Writers Summit on August 13-15th at the Loft Literary Center.
A member of the acclaimed spoken word duo Yellow Rage, Vilayphonh appeared on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam in 2001. She performs at various venues across the country with some of the biggest names in spoken word today including Sarah Jones, Beau Sia and I Was Born with Two Tongues. She also writes for magazines and literary journals including a column Catz Out The Bag with two.one.five magazine.
Through poetry, she and her partner Michelle Meyers hope to provide awareness of a rarely heard perspective. She explores topics from fetishes to cultural appropriation and ethnic pride, challenging mainstream misconceptions of “Asianness.”
We had a chance to catch up with her recently to discuss her work and future directions:
Asian American Press: So, what do you do when you’re not writing?
Catzie Vilayphonh: I hang out with my 13-month old daughter, who inspires me everyday in unexpected ways. I try to brush up on my reading by visiting the library, and keep myself inspirationally challenged by going to see other artists. I’m also a foodie so you can also find me at restaurants asking the waitstaff for stuff that might not be on the menu.
AAP: How did you get started writing?
CV: After high school I joined an Asian American writing/performance workshop called Something to Say facilitated by Gary San Angel and Dan Kwong who had been doing similar workshops in LA called “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Asian Men But Didn’t Give A Shit Enough To Ask” and “Peeling the Banana” in NYC. I was really young, but I was so blown away by the talent that could come out of ordinary people when nurtured by progressive and daring artists like Gary and Dan.
AAP: Do you find other women supportive of your work?
CV: Yes, especially because my group Yellow Rage is an all-female and our [email protected]#$ attitude wins over audiences everytime. Even in situations where people want to criticize our poetry by insinuating it’s or challenging it’s authenticity, we are able to handle the commentary with assertion because we really believe in our work and take pride in the attention we’ve received, positive or negative. At the end of the day, if what we do gets people talking and thinking then we have achieved our goal.
AAP: What’s one of the best things someone has said to you about your writing?
CV: Once at a college event a student told me “I’ve been following you since I was 11”. It was awesome to know that 1) my career has spanned that long of a time for someone to say they grew up with it and 2) my writing is exciting to 11-year-old.
AAP: How do you find time to write?
CV: Between my daughter and the internet, I ask myself that question everyday.
AAP: Why are you excited by the Lao American Writers Summit?
CV: We are making history. For so long Asian Americans have tried to make a name for themselves in America, now that we’re at this point where we can specifically serve the Lao American community it shows progress. I’m excited to meet my peers and work with Lao writers whom I’ve looked up to. The simple convening of minds will be inspiring, and I feel proud to be a part of something that will shift the way in which our children will remember, celebrate and continue our legacy as Lao Americans.
AAP: What’s a personal project you’re really looking forward to?
CV: Well, this November marks the 10th Anniversary of Yellow Rage and we’re hoping to record another CD with all new work on it. I’m also trying to work on a series of short stories, that may be the basis for a future novel about the Lao American refugee experience, the ways in which one struggles to make a new life while trying holding on to the past, in the relocation process and figuring out where one really belongs. Yeah, it’s the story of all of our lives.
AAP: Do you have any advice for younger writers?
CV: I always write the way I talk, and start from a first person narrative. Even if I have to mix Lao words with English ebonics, it makes sense to me, while giving my writing flavor and mystique, plus it gives me a chance to decide whether I want explain or let the reader hypothesize. Also writing from a personal perspective makes it easier to express because it’s all coming from your own experiences. Once it’s all down, you can decide what to elaborate on, what’s too much information or just not necessary. Lastly, always think of your art as writing in progress, creativity doesn’t run on a schedule so neither should your process. It’s important to exercise your craft, but you can choose to work on something different so that your mind is always challenged but not distracted.