Thursday, July 06, 2017

Beyond the Lao American Writers Summit

What do you dare?

We’re now a a little past a week since the 4th National Lao American Writers Summit convened in Seattle thanks to the tireless organizing efforts of the Kinnaly Lao Traditional Music and Dance Troupe, the Pom Foundation, Highline College, ANNAPISI, and the Lao Community Service Center of WA, among many other wonderful elders, youth, and community organizations. I’m delighted to see many reflections from our panelists, participants and community organizers starting to come online, and I look forward to many more from everyone.

As one of the co-founding chairs of the original National Lao American Writers Summit held in 2010, it’s been wonderful to see the process grow and challenge all of us in the seven years since. It’s not a gathering we take for granted.

It took five years before we all felt ready to convene a second summit in 2015 in Minneapolis, followed by the 2016 summit in San Diego, and the 4th summit in Seattle this year. It will now be several years before we formally convene again, but you can rest assured our artists, writers, and community builders will continue to build upon the personal and collective commitments we made to one another in previous years and this year in Seattle.

Personally, I am taking on an additional seven mentees from Seattle throughout the years ahead whose work and journeys I found exceptionally promising. They are each at various points in their journey as artists exploring their paths as Lao Americans in the world. Additionally, I reaffirm my commitment to several other students of mine from previous years: Some who could attend, and some who could not but were there in spirit.

One area that has repeatedly come up time and again throughout my conversations with many of you is a question of what lessons might our organizing process hold for our fellow Southeast Asian Americans in diaspora. Many have found little place for their journey in the literary arts among either mainstream institutions or even programs ostensibly for Asian Americans and writers of color.

Might there one day be a joint literary summit, or at least affinity rooms made available for Hmong, Khmer, Tai Dam, Iu Mien, Akha, Tai Lue, Khmu, Vietnamese, Burmese, Karen, and other communities who don’t yet have the full community capacity to convene a literary gathering?

For many of our communities who share nearly 45 years in diaspora in the aftermath of the Southeast Asian conflicts of the 20th century, as 2020 approaches, who will they become? What will be the literary, artistic and cultural legacy they can pass on to the next generation?

Even as we see many wonderful achievements including recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, and other institutions, just the same, will there be community spaces created for them, for all of us? Will there be opportunities that are community driven, that come into being because we genuinely want them, regardless of whether we have the approval or support of major institutions, entities and various personalities of acclaim?

What might a Hmong American Writers Conference look like? What might a Khmer American Literary Society feature? How might they support both emerging and established writers while navigating the difficulties of interstate, intercultural community building? Can communities such as the Iu Mien, Khmu, Tai Dam, and Tai Lue preserve their heritage and develop a distinctive literary tradition and approach to the arts that meets their cultural needs and gives them the means to succeed in their lives personally, professionally, and academically?

I absolutely believe it’s possible, even as I also believe there is a deep urgency as the last of their elders began to pass from the Earth, and with it their stories, their dreams, their memories and skills, and as we see a generation of youth emerging into their own who’ve never been taught their family journey or the struggles of their community, even in the US.

As a writer, I personally began my journey back to my roots and heritage over twenty years ago because I did not want to come empty-handed to my grandchildren or great-grandchildren one day who might well ask: “Who are we? You had the greatest chance to discover who our family was, but why didn’t you look for them?” Of course, along that journey, I also found the important question: “Who might we become? What might we imagine, and what might we dare to accomplish in this time we have upon the Earth?”

I believe as human beings we thrive not from a unity of stories, but a diversity of stories. There are so many narratives, so many untold tales, some that show us at our best, some that show us where we have room to grow. Each adds to a vibrant tapestry of the human experience. It is my enduring hope that many of you will challenge yourselves, push yourselves harder than ever before to add your voice and to fight your erasure so many others would find convenient. There is room in this vast cosmos for far more than one story. Let yourselves be heard.

And who knows, you might just change the world. Reach for it, and build your community.

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