Minnesota Playwright and Poet Saymoukda Vongsay Is the Refugenius You're Looking For
It is tricky to think of qualifiers in which to present Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. It isn't that there aren't many exceptional things about her to point out (there are), and it isn't that her résumé couldn't trigger a midlife crisis for some of the most accomplished on the arts scene (it could). The tricky part is figuring out an order in which to present them. How about we start with sparkly stuff first—the attention grabbers, the “oooh-ahhh” stuff? Like, say, oh, that Saymoukda Vongsay's work has been presented by the Smithsonian, or the various awards she's won? Then again, maybe it's better to focus on the attributes that got her there—that Saymoukda Vongsay is a brilliant poet and a playwright who wields a sharp sense of humor balanced by the ability to steer it into poignant places. Or perhaps it's best to emphasize her narrative—that Saymoukda Vongsay is a refugee; a Lao American; a cultural producer; a leader. A changemaker. But really, no matter their order, these things are as inseparable as the soul and the mind and are all part of what makes this amazing Minnesotan artist worth our attention. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Saymoukda about her work, her life, and her relationship with the geek community. Ansley Grams (TCG): You call yourself and your work “Refugenius.” Can you tell me about this name? Saymoukda Vongsay: "Refugenius" is a portmanteau of "refugee" and "genius." I was born in Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand and migrated to the United States when I was three. Being my kind of American, I was reminded regularly of my refugee identity. These reminders took on forms as obligatory English as a Second Language classes, my polysyllabic name, the non-English languages I spoke at home, and microaggressions I experience daily: "Where are you from?" "Your English is really good." "Can you eat cheese?" As for "genius," it's self-proclaimed—an identifier I've put out into the cosmos so that it'll be true one day. TCG: On the subject of wordplay, why do you personally write poetry, and how does being a poet factor into your other works? Saymoukda: Poetry has always been the most accessible form of literary art for me. I only write free form. I hate rhyming because I'm bad at those kinds of poems. I'm dyslexic and speak multiple languages. I'm writing in these languages, under the guise of “creative.” For example, in English we'd typically write, "It's raining hard," but in Lao you would write, "The sky is crying." See! Poetic from birth. When I received a commission from Theater Mu to write my first stage play, I went in as a poet. Mu wanted to give non-playwrights the opportunity to explore their poetic voice in script form, and that's what I did. For two years, I worked with my dramaturgs to bake poetry into my script. So even though I was writing a spoken-word poem for my character, traditional theater audiences will understand it as a monologue or soliloquy. TCG: A lot of geeks point to geek culture as a refuge from being thought of or treated as an “outsider.” How does being an actual refugee factor into your relationship with geeky media and culture? Saymoukda: I definitely found a community with geeky folks whenever I was at the Source or Shinders looking at comics. Our dad took us just about every time we asked to go, but it was rare that my brother and I got to buy one. Comics were luxury items for us then. At least we were able to keep up with the latest issues because the clerks never shooed us away. When dad got a sweet designer job at Smart Cart, he bought us a used Sega Master System from his coworker. It came with 40 games or so. I honestly thought we reached the American Dream when that happened. I was also a beast at Shinobi. We never got into board games or card games, though. People assume that I'd feel a connection with Superman because he's literally an alien, but I didn't. It's mostly because I was introduced to Superman when I was seven, and back then, I didn't know what a refugee literally meant. I didn't know about the Vietnam War or the Fall of Saigon or the bombings. I knew that I was a refugee, but I didn't know the concrete push factors. I knew that I was born in a refugee camp, but I've never heard my parents tell me their escape story. I knew that my extended family was scattered all over the world, but I didn't know that as refugees, they didn't get to decide where they could resettle. So, it was always this half knowing, half imagining with me growing up. TCG: What is it like being a woman of color in spaces where an often predominantly white demographic embraces the identity of "outsider”? What sorts of advantages or challenges does this pose for you personally and professionally? Saymoukda: I feel two ways about that. One, when I'm in those spaces, I don't pay attention to white people's struggles because I'm too occupied navigating spaces because my skin and my body aren't passing for whatever. Two, it's like that meme: be kind, because everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. When I am invited to speak or engage as a woman artist of color in predominantly white-filled spaces, I'm appreciative that non-Lao/refugee folk make space for me to tell my stories. When folks are nodding their heads in agreement to what I've said, I just assume that they're making a personal connection to an event or interaction that was similar to mine. But sometimes, I'm invited in those spaces to meet a quota. I've never felt bullied or unwanted in Geek spaces. I definitely think that as geeks, we're in a struggle together. But, I've been questioned about my geekness before. I'm not a superfan of any one thing. I don't study up. I don't know the details on Western-centric geekness. (That includes Eastern-imported geek stuff.) I don't know all the names of the Time Lords, for instance. What I know are Jataka tales and Southeast Asian science fiction and fantasy. TCG: Why are you attracted to speculative fiction in particular? Saymoukda: Because my history is largely unknown to me. My parents have yet to talk about what they went through during the war; I didn't [learn] that my dad was in a "re-education" camp until I was nineteen. I guess it took that long for the wound to start scabbing. I still imagine him, a young man in the labor camp digging holes one day then filling those holes back up again the next day, and finally something breaks, his mutant powers are fully realized, and he goes full revenge on the communists. So that's why I like speculative fiction. Revenge fantasies. Empowering. Sets up your self-esteem for the next time someone comes at you incorrectly. That's what I live for. TCG: How is writing and producing plays different from other forms of writing, and what attracted you to live theater? Saymoukda: To be honest, I got into theater because my poetry manuscript wasn't getting attention. No one wanted to publish it. Poetry didn't want me, but theater did. I've grown to love the collaborative nature of theater. It takes a squad to take a story from concept to implementation. I felt empowered working on my first play. Theater Mu had me there every step of the way. I worked closely with our director and our designers—set, costume, sound, lighting, projection, props—because I needed the audience to see the universe that I've created in my head. It's fun. I'm not a trained playwright. I want to learn playwriting basics, though. I think having the technical skills of playwriting is crucial if I want to survive in a theater world where MFAs matter. It's a blessing to be a practicing artist in Minnesota because we have the Legacy funding. New, emerging, [and] established artists—all have equal footing. Even then, it's a matter of access to resources, still. So I would say that other than poetry and playwriting, another form of writing I take on is grant writing. That shit has its own language. TCG: What were your influences for your plays Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals and Kung Fu Zombies vs. Shaman Warrior? Saymoukda: Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals (Book I) explicitly addressed the CIA’s carpet-bombing campaign on Laos [1964–1973]. Over 270 million tons of bombs were dropped—equal to every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years—making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Forty years later, approximately 80 million tons of unexploded bombs remain buried in Laos’s landscape. Like zombies, these bombs reanimate with every curious child’s touch or every strike of a farmer’s shovel to kill and maim, causing destruction decades after burial. In 2015 I received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant to develop Kung Fu Zombies vs. Shaman Warrior (Book II). KFZSW examines how the Lao perceive mental illness as demonic possession, bad karma, or a curse. Mental illness is a taboo topic, and the community unfairly shames those who live with it or talk openly about their experience with post-traumatic stress or depression. More on the Kung Fu Zombie–verse [is available on my website.] TCG: So, the Smithsonian! Tell me about that journey. Saymoukda: Dr. Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, an editor at the Asian American Literary Review, contacted me about possibly working with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to present my work-in-progress Kung Fu Zombies vs. Shaman Warrior. It was a four-month-long conversation. Back and forth. I had questions. He gave answers. I had more questions. He gave more clarity. So for months we were talking through how Kung Fu Zombies vs. Shaman Warrior could live in a Smithsonian APAC space. It eventually birthed into a multimedia performance as part of a migratory exhibit called CTRL+ALT: Imagined Futures. TCG: With your Kung Fu Zombies works, did you worry that they might be overlooked or dismissed based on first impressions of the title and theme? Zombie everything has been a big trend, and your work is anything but the generic zombie trope! Saymoukda: I'm already dismissed and overlooked as a Lao artist in general. I try not to let it discourage me from trying, and trying your hardest always pays off—you failed but learned some life lessons or you smashed it and made beaucoup money. Theater Mu took a risk when they decided to produce Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals. They've produced science fiction before, but Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals was their first Lao American narrative. Going into it, I didn't see parameters. I had a vision and knew that I wanted a live DJ to be like God and manipulate the beings on stage. I knew that it would have a hip-hop soundtrack and decapitations on stage. Some theater people said it would be a disaster on opening night and that no one will go to such garbage. Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals wasn't for them. The hip-hop community came to support me. Geeks came dressed up as zombies. Mammals in all their differences came and supported that play. It became Mu's highest-grossing world premiere in their 20 years or so of producing. I know that zombies might be old news in the next few years, but at least people will come for the trauma in my plays. Trauma porn. If that is what it takes for the general American to learn something about Laos, Laotians, and the atrocities the US committed, then that's what I'll keep doing. Nothing sells tickets like white guilt. TCG: Can you talk a little bit about the next installment, Kung Fu Zombies vs. Time Travella? Saymoukda: Kung Fu Zombies vs. Time Travellah (Book III) will examine the second generation of diaspora for the Lao. The end of the Vietnam War saw four-million-plus lives lost and a great exodus of peoples from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that ultimately changed the landscape of the world everywhere. What will the second generation of diaspora look like in a postapocalyptic world? What new identities will we hold? What new form will citizenship take? What will we carry with us? What’s worth rebuilding? The current refugee crises in Europe have made these questions urgent for me. TCG: Do you ever feel burdened or exhausted? How do you practice self-care when doing so much and exploring such important subjects? Saymoukda: I drink some wine. I figured if I'm going to be feeling burdened and exhausted, I may as well go down feeling niiiiiice. My form of self-care is sleeping and ignoring everything. When I was researching mental health care practices of the indigenous peoples of Laos, I was overwhelmed emotionally, mentally. I had to sleep. I just slept a lot. Mental illness runs in my family; it's very close to home. I'm responsible for taking care of others. "You can't pour from an empty cup." TCG: Do you have a music playlist or ritual for writing? Saymoukda: When I wrote Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, I would listen to the Lord of the Rings audiobooks and soundtrack. Lots of Wu Tang, Black Star, and Deltron when I write and explore the Kung Fu Zombie–verse, though. TCG: You have been recognized by Intermedia Arts as a “changemaker.” How do you feel about this? Saymoukda: Thrilled when Intermedia Arts announced it. I use that title to rub it in my haters' faces sometimes. Haters: What's your art ever done? Me: CHANGEMAKER, bitch. *send haters the link to my CV* TCG: What is on the horizon for you and your work? Anything people should be checking out soon? Saymoukda: Remember when I said that I went to theater because poetry didn't want me? Well, I guess poetry is feeling salty and wants me back. Last month I received a VERVE Grant for Spoken Word Poets from Intermedia Arts and a Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship from the Loft Literary Center. I also got a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to implement my Payne Avenue Poet Project with the East Side Arts Council. Learn more about Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay and her work on her website, www.saymoukdatherefugenius.com. Head over to the Twin Cities Geeks Facebook group to join our effort to sponsor Saymoukda as a Fan-Featured Guest at CONvergence 2017.
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