1st National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit Starts Tomorrow!

Dr. Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy, keynote speaker of the first National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit.
Dr. Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy, keynote speaker of the first national Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit.

The national Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit — titled “Our Shared Journey” — is being held this year, marking the first-ever national Lao American symposium, and the second meeting of the national Lao American Writers Summit five years after it took place in 2010.

Asian American Press reports that over a hundred Lao American artists, writers and community leaders will gather tomorrow in Minneapolis, Minnesota to explore Lao American history and identity, on the 40th anniversary of the first arrival of Lao Americans to the United States in 1975. Lao Americans arrived as refugees from Laos and other wartorn parts of Southeast Asia heavily disrupted by the violence of the Vietnam War, a civil war strongly influenced by US military intervention. Heavily bombed by US military forces between 1964 and 1974, Laos remains the most bombed country per capita in the history of the world. This violence led to the displacement of over 700,000 Lao refugees, including 400,000 who relocated to the United States. Today, Minnesota is home to the third largest community of Lao Americans in the country.

The conference is the first time many prominent Lao American writers, scholars, artists and advocates will be able to congregate in a single place to discuss the Lao American experience and Lao Diaspora. It also falls upon the 20th anniversary of the creation of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project, which the organizers say was responsible for “creating some of the very first collections of Lao literature since the end of the war in [their] own words”.

Poster for “Our Shared Journey: A Symposium on 40 Years of Lao in the United States”.

This year’s conference is the product of a collaboration between the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center and the Lao American Writer’s Summit. It also includes sponsorship by the University of Minnesota’s Asian American Studies Program, Lao Student Association, and Urban Research, Outreach and Engagement Center, as well as the Center for Lao Studies, the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, the Mines Advisory Group, and Legacies of War.

The two-day event includes a keynote speech by Dr. Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell whose work focuses on education and Southeast Asian American immigrant students. Dr. Uy is the first Lao American to receive a Doctorate in Education from Harvard University, and her keynote talk is titled “State of Lao(tian) Americans: A reflection on 40 Years of Resettlement and Community Development in the United States”.

The conference — which is broken into a symposium day and a summit day — includes panels and workshops focusing on documenting Lao American history, creating Lao American literature, and exploring Lao American representation in the arts and blogging. Asian American Press reports:

“Many of the participants are emerging writers,” said [Catsie] Vilayphonh [member of spoken word group Yellow Rage who chaired the first National Lao American Writers Summit in 2010]. “This is important to us as organizers because we want all of our community members to treasure their stories and to share them again. You don’t become an expert at it overnight, but to get closer to it, you have to be committed to telling what you can as well as you can. But as our recent experiences have shown, there are many ways to tell a story.”

Attendees will include Vilayphonh, who after her time with Yellow Rage went on to found Laos In the House, Lao Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa who was recently awarded the CBC Book of the Year Award and the Trillium Award, writer Krysada Panusith Phounsiri, filmmaker Xaisongkham Induangchanthy, artist Sayon Syprasoueth, scholar Dr. Ketmani Kouanchao, actress Kulap Vilaysack, blogger Chanida Phaengdara Potter who founded Little Laos On The Prarie and more. The conference is co-organized by one of my favourite Asian American bloggers in the world, Bryan Thao Worra (@thaoworra), writer and founder of On The Other Side of the Eye.

I gotta say, y’all, this event looks super cool, and a necessary opportunity to spotlight an important, thriving and dynamic — yet too often also frustratingly overlooked — ethnic community within the larger AAPI identity. Moreover, this conference is free and open to the public. You have no idea how badly I wish I could attend just so I might be able to listen and learn.

Registration is currently closed due to the conference being at capacity for attendance, however, people in the Minneapolis area who really want to attend are encouraged to email Saengmany Ratsabout of the Immigration History and Research Center immediately at ratsa001 [at] umn.edu to see if last-minute registration is possible.

For more information on the conference, check out its website here! If you are not available to attend the conference physically, several of the events will also be available as live streaming events online.

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