I’ve known Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay for many years now. I’ve always been impressed with her journey and the way she has grown over time into an acclaimed, award-winning writer and community builder.
This year is the fifth anniversary of her first chapbook of poetry, No Regrets. Many of her poems, essays, plays, and short stories have been presented nationally. For the last year, Saymoukda was a fellow of the Lao Assistance Center’s Lao Minnesotan Storytelling Fellowship Program to study traditional storytelling and build our community’s capacity for success in the arts and education.
As she gains more recognition for her work and inspires a new generation of Lao writers, she has managed to keep grounded and constantly open to learning new things.
Among the first awards she ever received was the Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word Poetry created by the late Brandon Lacy Campos in honor of his grandfather. She was the very first person ever selected for this honor. Saymoukda was named a 2011 Change Maker by Intermedia Arts, and won an Alliance of Artist Communities/Joyce Foundation Scholarship in arts administration.
As a playwright, she has set some amazing precedents for Lao Minnesotans. Her play, Yellowtail Sashimi, was part of the 2010 MN Fringe Festival. Saymoukda received a 2011 and 2012 Jerome Foundation/Mu Performing Arts’ New Eyes Theater Fellowship. One key outcome of the fellowship is that in October, 2013, Minneapolis will debut her play Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals. Since she started playwrighting, over a dozen of her other short plays have been staged at The Playwrights’ Center, Pillsbury House Theatre, Dreamland Arts, and Rarig Center at the University of Minnesota as part of The Unit collective’s Madness series.
She opens doors not just for herself but for others. Saymoukda is a founder of the National Lao American Writers Summit and worked with the Minnesota Historical Society collecting oral histories of Asian Pacific Minnesotans. Her Asian American Press column Pushing the Pen has been an important instrument in promoting APIA artists.
Although Minnesota is the third largest state of Lao refugees, very few Lao Americans serve on the board of directors of non-profit organizations. Saymoukda is a very visible exception. She serves on the board of Intermedia Arts, the Dispute Resolution Center, and the Saint Paul Foundation’s Asian Pacific Endowment Fund.
You could spend all day discussing the impact of her work in building community locally and nationally, but I wanted to talk with her more about what happened behind the scenes to set her on this road in the first place. Where will it take her next, and what might other members of our community do who want to follow her example:
Who were some of your role models for you when you were growing up?
Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay: The role models I had were the people who were in my life, people who were there in-real-time. Our parents raised us in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural home and encouraged healthy imagination. So early on, I knew I was going to be an artist. Our childhood was a juxtaposition of things like working alongside my parents at cucumber fields and trips to the zoo and arts/cultural events. Our money wasn’t always on point and it took awhile for it to be, but I’m so thankful that my parents valued the arts and culture enough to make sure we were exposed to it.
You’ve been writing a lot more since the Lao American Writers Summit. What’s been the most satisfying thing you’ve written so far, and what would you really like to write?
SDV: I transitioned into playwriting quite easily. In the short amount of time that I got into theater, I’ve been really fortunate to have my first full-length play, Kung Fu Zombies Versus Cannibals picked up by Mu Performing Arts.
I’m also amazed by how my poem, When Everything Was Everything has changed my career. It was awarded the 2010 Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word Poetry, was published in The Saint Paul Almanac anthology that included work by Garrison Keillor and Carol Connolly, who is St. Paul’s poet laureate. It’s also being taught by literary arts educators as part of a curriculum for Saint Paul Public Schools. An excerpt from WEWE was published in the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ Winter Book, Lessons for Our Time with work by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the Nobel Prize winner Tomas Transtromer. The books are all handmade masterpieces and the deluxe edition is almost $600. If you’ve got the paper, you should cop one.
I want to continue studying and researching Jataka, Pali, and Theravada Buddhist stories so that I can reinterpret and re-conceptualize them for the American stage. I recently received an invitation from the University of California, Santa Cruz’s theater arts department to conduct study and research on these narratives. I’m looking forward to visiting with them this fall.
What keeps you going with the Lao Minnesotan community? What’s a habit you loathe in the Lao Minnesotan community?
SDV: Thanks to the initiative by Lao American writer Bryan Thao Worra, Governor Dayton presented the Lao American artists of Minnesota with a certificate of recognition for the work that the community has done to preserve and share Lao arts and culture globally in 2012. Minnesota is home to both emerging and established award-winning artists, making for a pretty cohesive and supportive community. But I celebrate every accomplishment – big and small – they are all stepping stones, re-energizing our efforts to continue creating and telling our narratives through our art.
I don’t necessarily loathe this, but one of the barriers I’ve faced is that the Lao community tends to support more accessible and popular Lao cultural artists, such as singers. It’s been challenging to find support for those of us who work in more Western genres like literature and theater. But the paradigm is shifting.
When do you feel most successful?
SDV: I was told that I was a trailblazer for the Lao American artist community by an emerging Lao American filmmaker based in Los Angeles. It was very encouraging but I don’t consider myself a trailblazer in the literary arts movement. The only reason I’m able to do what I do and feel good about it, is because of artists like those who gave birth to the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project. They’ll be celebrating 18 years this April. I’m just trying to do right by them.
What is your favorite Lao dish?
SDV: Suup mak-thang with snails (wilted cucumber, sesame, and snail salad).
Can you tell us a little about your family, and how you all made your journey to the US?
SDV: I was born in a Thai refugee camp. In the stories I imagine, my mother was pregnant with me when she escaped communist Laos. I like to think that the circumstances leading to my birth was as interesting, but in reality, it was much simpler than that (not to trivialize the hardships we faced in the refugee camp).
When I was 3 years old, our family was sponsored by a Minnesotan Lutheran family. I don’t remember boarding the bus to leave the camp or the plane ride to America. I went to Head Start preschool and my older brother, Bhet, went to St. Mark’s Catholic School. My father took English language courses at Central High School and worked the third shift while my mother was visited by ladies from the church who gave her lessons on how to make quiches. Sometimes I think back about how ridiculous it must’ve been for my parents.
They’re both highly educated with degrees from Laos. But the war disrupted the life they wanted to build with each other. But today, my father is a mechanical designer. You know those Smarte Carte kiosks at the airport? My pops was on the design team and I was even in a Smarte Carte commercial mad long ago. My mother is a brilliant chef, she’s innovative and experiments with food. My older brother is a visual artist.
What was the hardest part of graduate school. What sparked that decision, and what advice would you give to others considering it?
SDV: I’m currently going for a Master in Liberal Studies focusing on public policy, sociology, and creative writing. For the past decade I’ve used poetry and the elements of Hip Hop to promote civic engagement within Southeast Asian refugee/immigrant youth. That’s why my focus is interdisciplinary. In terms of obstacles for graduate school, I would say language. Language is a significant part of a culture and there’s a certain culture within graduate school that you have to observe and operate from if you want to be able to communicate your ideas effectively. My speech has always been very much influenced by the Hip Hop culture. Sometimes I’m hesitant to modify my speech to accommodate academic culture but check, my work is in scholastic journals and anthologies with historically celebrated transcendentalist poets and a Nobel Prize winner. I ain’t mad.
For anyone considering higher education, go for it if you believe you can grow from it. Don’t worry about the cost. At the end of the day, you can always tell them to charge it to your credit report! I’m kidding about the last part.
What’s the most surprising thing about zombies you learned, and what can that teach us about our own growth as Lao Minnesotans?
SDV: The research I did on zombies was exhaustive and it got to the point where I over-dosed on the genre. To refresh my appreciation for it, I started reading children’s books and watching bad Disney movies. But with the play, I wanted to tell a story of two Lao women that would be framed by the Buddhist tenets. Most importantly, though, I wanted Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals to address the fact that historically, Laos is the most bombed country per capita and that over 30 years later, the bombies (Google it) are still killing and maiming people. I was inspired by the work of the D.C.-based organization, Legacies of War. People are capable of committing horrible acts against one another but people are also very capable of compassion. That’s really the heart of Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals. The battles with zombies and cannibals, the love story between the two protagonists, and the video projections are just there to give you some sort of visceral reaction, preferably seizures if you’re paying attention.
What kind of arts or community institutions do you think Lao Minnesotans need in the near future?
SDV: We need to continue the Lao American Writers Summit. It was a convening of Lao artists nationally and it changed the Lao artist movement simply by this sentiment: “These are your cohorts. Celebrate one another. Build together.” Anyone who missed the first summit can plan to join us in 2014 when we plan to convene in August. Planning the summit has been a challenge as the LAWS co-chairs are based in different coasts. We’re all keeping our eyes on funding opportunities and what other Lao writers are doing nationally.
Are there any issues you think should really be on our radar in the Lao community?
SDV: Health disparities, education gaps, and unemployment. These are issues that organizations like the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and Wilder Foundation are researching and addressing. Arti-vists like myself are on deck and want to participate in whatever capacity we can but the greatest power comes from the masses. Everyone, now and then, just needs to be activated and encouraged. Advocacy is important because every single person matters. I think that that truth is something that many in the Lao community should hear. I want everyone to be empowered so that we can beat down punks that jump up.
What’s a project you’d really like to see in happen in Minnesota? What’s a project you’d do if you had a big budget?
SDV: I’d build a multi-disciplinary arts and cultural center/organization from the ground up. It would be a gathering space for elders and youth alike to share stories, find support from one another, and just be around people who look like them. There will be a theater, numerous rooms for the community to use for meetings and workshops, a media/technology center, a library and study area, a cafe, and throughout the space I want to have art – paintings, tapestries, sculptures, etc. I’d like for this center to be an incubator for creativity — artistic and cultural expression — where artists can experiment and develop their work. I would conduct community-based participatory research to understand the community’s wants/needs and expectations for the center. I really believe that a successful organization must be responsive to the community it wants to serve.