It was a historic moment for the Lao American community as it recognized 40 years of their diaspora in Minnesota on April 17-18th. Over 125 educators, artists and community organizations were represented from over 13 states, many coming together for the first time in four decades.
The keynote speech was delivered by Dr. Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy from Massachussetts which put much of the Lao journey into perspective and gave many in the audience hope for the coming years ahead. One of the highlights this year was the international representation, which included the award-winning poet Souvankham Thammavongsa who recently received the prestigious Trillium Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize.
Dean Ketmani Kouanchao from Mendocino College was there, and encouraged everyone to become more engaged with the community as mentors and mentees. Playwright and poet Saymoukda Vongsay shared her experience with the audience and also was part of a new book release at the Soap Factory on Saturday.
Krysada Panusith Phounsiri debuted his very first book of Lao American poetry "Dance Among Elephants" from Sahtu Press and thrilled the audience with a demonstration of his b-boy skills as well. Nor Sanavongsay, the founder of Sahtu Press, had first shown the audience his plans for his first children's book in 2010 at the firt National Lao American Writers Summit. 5 years later, he was at last able to read the finished version, "A Sticky Mess," retelling the classic Xieng Mieng folktale that he spent over 14 years developing.
This was Bryan Thao Worra's first reading in Minnesota since winning the Elgin Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. His book DEMONSTRA received the distinction of Book of the Year from the organization. The singer Ketsana wowed the audiences with a performance of classic Lao songs, while film-maker Kulap Vilaysack shared footage from her forthcoming documentary, "Origin Story". Champion bodybuilder Ko Chandetka was also in attendance.
This gathering also recognized the 20th anniversary of the SatJaDham Lao literary project and the deep and profound influence it has had on the community such as planting the seeds for the Center for Lao Studies and the Lao Heritage Foundation.
This year there were many Lao American visual artists gathered including Chantala Kommanivanh, Sayon Syprasoueth, and Mali Kouanchao. Aloun Phoulavan was able to exhibit many of his paintings for the community at Co Exhibitions which was selected as the site for the closing reception. It was standing room only by the end of the evening at CO Exhibitions. The evening opened up with a performance by the acclaimed Kinnaly dance troupe from Seattle, which had sent a delegation of 11 participants. Throughout the weekend they shared their stories and perspectives on maintaining the Lao heritage and tradition.
Because of the overwhelming excitement and energy built up from this weekend, San Diego was selected as the next site the community would convene at in 2016.
The event was made possible by extensive support from numerous agencies and community organizations, including the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, the The University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center and many others.