Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Building a tradition of Lao American stories

This year, the Living Arts Outreach project is a special capacity-building program for the Harrison, Jordan and Hawthorne neighborhoods where Lao refugees have had a historically significant presence over the last 40 years since the beginning of the Lao Diaspora in 1975.

Art making with Lao American artists is at the center of this project. Almost 8,000 of the 12,000 Lao living in Minnesota are in or near the North Minneapolis neighborhood. This project is necessary because few of their stories are documented. Thankfully, this year we have some wonderful support from CURA's ANPI program and the Lao Assistance Center to try and make a change.

There's an old Lao proverb that says a pretty knife can't cut meat until it's sharpened. That's a deep metaphor for Lao culture overall and building an appreciation for experience and the wisdom of the elders, even as we search for relevance and add to our experiences, that we might share them with the next generation.

There's a great love for the fantastic and the imaginative in world arts and letters today. And there's a deep need for these stories, but we also have a need for well-told stories grounded in reality, even when those stories risk exposing sensitive subjects. Our community cannot take story telling for granted when we have so much at stake. And in our journey to create greater civic engagement we have to remember that life in a demoracy where we have freedom of expression, we have an obligation to write to the very limits of our imagination when so many others can not.

How few of our youth can be bothered today to take the time to listen to our stories and why they matter? When they feel like the adults are dragging them to Boun Phr Weht and other festivals, there's a part of it that comes from kids just being kids, but another part of it falls on us if we're not making an effort to make these events relevant to them, to approach them with an eye for inclusion and social instruction.

It's important for us to tell our children about our roots, and our journey, and for our children to tell their children, and for their children to tell the next generation. We're here not simply to remember but to speak. But what does it mean to remember? There's an urge to shield our youth from a knowledge of the suffering and traumas of war that defies comprehension, but that's not constructive or realistic. Yet how do we  ensure the next generation never forgets, and more importantly never repeats the worst of what has happened to people most of us have never met, an ocean away and over 40 years before they were even born. What is it about the war in Laos that still calls out to us after all of this time?

Honoring the survivors and trying to learn from past mistakes is certainly a part of this, but the war for Laos also highlights growing problems for today's youth.  We need to see that it is a story about human nature, which reminds us that each of us is susceptible, each of us can be othered, each of us can be drawn into conflicts of identity and destiny.

No comments: