Wednesday, June 08, 2016

2016 National Lao American Writers Summit Keynote highlights and notes

There’s always a lot of information we try to convey in a short amount of time during a National Lao American Writers Summit, since our very first one in 2010. As one of this year’s keynote speakers, what follows is NOT the verbatim transcript, but my primary notes to my conversation with everyone, in addition to relevant parts of additional one-on-one discussions I had with many of you throughout the weekend.

It can often feel as if there’s a significant culture of non-expectation for our creators and artists. I feel it is important for our younger emerging writers and artists to see that there is indeed a space for a Lao American voice in MANY spaces of creative endeavors. I am but one voice among many Lao writers and artists in today’s world. But I hope my path thus far has demonstrated there is opportunity for the Lao American imagination to contribute meaningfully to the global world of arts and letters, not only in the U.S.

 This is not to say the road is easy, or without challenge. We can not take any progress for granted. But for any of my young students, past or present, who’ve ever felt diminished or discouraged, who’ve felt a sense of impossibility or marginalization at the prospect of sharing their voices with the world, I hope you’ll all see: It’s possible.

Persevere. Dare. Reach for the best within yourself, and all living beings.

I hope throughout this Summit that you’ll see, in a very real application, the wonders that are possible when we allow ourselves to encourage and treasure the many different possibilities of being Lao in the world. That a Lao identity is NOT a binary “yes/no”, “pure/impure” proposition, but a continuum of approaches: Some days we’ll do things in a very “traditional” style, but another time, our traditions are a starting compass by which we might determine our next path in otherwise uncharted territory.

 If we do not find ways to celebrate an inclusive model that allows for many different possibilities and ideas to be discussed, we shall not thrive for long as a culture in the centuries ahead.

My own story is a complicated one, but it has been a journey made stronger by an unrelenting commitment to the arts. One that stems from an enduring belief that the arts can change worlds, especially for the Lao. That idea drives me. That the Lao have a story worth telling.

Ours is NOT the only story, but it is still one with meaning, with lessons for this generation and the next. It is my belief that there are many ways to be Lao and that we will all grow stronger by finding a space in our lives for many of each other’s stories, our ideas, our hopes and dreams.

For me, growing up in the 1970s and 80s, there were nearly no books about the Lao experience. Even forty years later, there have been fewer than 40 books in our own words, on our own terms. For a community of nearly 260,000+, I rejected the idea it had to stay this way.

So I began to write.

I began to add my voice to the great tapestry of words, images, and ideas. This was a tremendous moment because people started to listen. But more importantly, I also learned that I was not alone. There were others, such as the members of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project, and others who heard the call of the artists path. Many of them are gathering here with you today. They also sought to share their stories. I’m one of many who’ve been asked, “who are you, to tell your story?” to which I ask you: “who are you, NOT to tell your story?”

We need our artists and culture builders to have the courage to give our children a future they can see themselves in. And not just one path, but many.

San Diego was selected as the site for the very first Lao American Writers Summit held outside of Minnesota for many reasons. It is a city with a deep history for the Lao community in its resettlement, with a growing body of emerging writers and artists in many disciplines, including a recent cohort of Lao American playwrights representing a wide range of backgrounds and artistic priorities. Some want to address education, others health, others social justice and women’s issues. And we all grow stronger for these many stories being created and shared with one another.

I think it’s important to be clear, that as we all began writing, this was not a perfect process. No one was born an expert in the arts or in community building.There were mistakes, missed lessons and opportunities but it was still something. It was a very real seed of hope. Sometimes this feels like the Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” So now, that we’ve come together, what next?

At the heart of my work has been a desire to honor the memory of those who came before, and to imagine and share our inner lives with each other. But more importantly, I have felt it necessary for us to avoid the trap of monolithic thinking, that urge to create lockstep uniformity of opinion. There was nothing I hated more than people speaking of Lao culture in abstract, absolute terms. How can our next generation connect to that? We all need to be in a deeper conversation with this premise.

We must appreciate that culture changes. Culture is dynamic. And culture is something we all contribute to. I think it’s important to appreciate that for 600 years we have had many opportunities to not “be Lao.” We faced civil war, occupation, Lao flung to the farthest corners of the world, yet time and time again, we chose to remain a people.

Our food is one thing, as is our language, or our beliefs and traditions. But ask yourselves: How will your children truly know each other? I often think long and hard on this matter. Much of my writing came in part from a concern that if I don’t write the stories of my family down, then one day my children, my nieces and nephews would have to learn the stories of who they were from strangers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Often, however, in the US, a certain toxic mindset has taken hold among refugee families who’ve been conditioned to think their stories aren’t of interest, or their English isn’t good enough, or they don’t speak Lao well enough or understand all of the Lao traditions. We have to reject that thinking, that somehow, we do not have permission to try and tell our stories if we do not have “perfect” English or an encyclopedic knowledge of Lao culture.

We need to see the importance of trying, of daring to risk, to create something, anything. Give yourselves permission to make “mistakes” and to learn from those, to move forward from those. Contrary to what many of us are often told, if you expect only perfection from yourself with every piece of art, every moment on stage, you will not endure long in the arts, and our culture will lose far too many voices in exchange for the few “perfect” pieces that come forward from such a mindset.

In our rebuilding, we need a culture that dares to risk, to give voice to our true opinions, to dare to say our memories, our dreams, too, matter.

For our youth in attendance engaged with our classical arts, I ask you to start thinking ahead now. Ask yourselves not only which songs, which dances will you preserve and share with your own children and grandchildren, but what might your generation add to the Lao American repertoire? How will you continue this great conversation we’ve all been a part of in the decades yet to come?

I want to take a brief pause for a moment of silence, however, to recognize those who’ve been a part of our journey but who have passed along the way, including many of our strongest supporters of this gathering and our community. Pom Outama Khampradith, Joy Elliot, Allan Kornblum, Keon Enoy Munedouang, Fred Branfman, and many others we hold in our memory.

As a writer, it’s not easy to say this, but it should still be said, so that you all understand that an artist’s journey is never without challenges. Over the years, I’ve been bullied, insulted, dismissed, criticized, and ignored. But I still wrote. I persisted, even when I was told by others not to call myself Lao, when I was informed that I would end up in a literary ghetto at best, and no one would even be interested in the Lao story.

There were those who told me that our time as a people with anything to say was done. Tragically, some of the people who told me these sorts of things were Lao.

Standing here today among my fellow writers, artists and community builders, I assure you, it’s ok to reject such negativity. I assure you: There is more work yet to be done. Expect great things of yourself. Persist. Add you voice. Hold the door for those who share your journey. Hold the door, transform worlds.

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