Writingness Episode 5 – Saymoukda “Mooks” Vongsay and May Lee-Yang
For the first time ever, I had two guests on the show! Saymoukda Vongsay and May Lee-Yang both came by to talk about their upcoming show, Hmong-Lao Friendship Play, as well as the countless other writing projects they have going on. Fun fact: They’re also my first-ever guests who are already on Wikipedia. Both of them! They’ve made it.
I met these two when I stumbled into playing a mean girl in the trailer for the Hmong-Lao Friendship play, and immediately wanted to know more about them. We had tons of fun chatting and hung out afterward with play director Scotty Gunderson finishing off a box of wine. Classy I know. I plan to have these two back soon for a podcast focusing on how to apply for arts grants.
Get to know these two better by reading about them with your eyes, and then listen to them talk with your ears! Then get your tickets for the play, which runs from Oct. 29-31.
You guys have a lot of projects going on at once. Can you tell us about the full landscape of your creative careers? (In other words, what do you do?)
May: I’m a full-time artist but that means that, throughout the year, I am either writing (a play, a book, a poem), teaching (creative writing and theater), performing, producing, or consulting around an arts project. I also instinctively support/nurture/collaborate with other artists. To make it more formal, Mooks and I collaborated with two other ladies this year to form Community Artist Leadership Initiative (CALI), an initiative to help marginalized artists thrive.
Mooks: I’m also a poet and cultural producer, which basically means I create the arts and cultural experiences that I see missing or needed in the community. This is why I take my role as a board member on several arts organizations to heart. I’ve written articles, essays, and interviews for newspapers, magazines, academic and literary journals. My poems have been taught in St.Paul public schools as part of a language arts curriculum and my play Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals is part of a women’s cultural work curriculum at the U of MN and an Asian lit and drama curriculum at UC Berkley.
I’ve been a spoken word poet for over a decade and I continue to do that. I also mentor new and emerging artists in poetry, theater, and storytelling. I’m presently mentoring a young writer through a program with Public Radio International. I received a Folk and Traditional Arts grant from the MN State Arts Board to mentor two apprentices who will gather Lao folktales, rewrite them, and publish an anthology in 2016. I get asked to serve as an Artistic or Creative Director on various community projects, events, and programs. I’m currently working as a consultant for the Ordway Center’s World Music and Dance program. I’m very passionate about the arts and I’m working to elevate the standards that our community (refugee, Southeast Asian, etc.) has become comfortable with in terms of process and product.
How did you start writing? How did you take your writing from a hobby to a profession?
May: I knew I wanted to be a writer in junior high school. At twelve, I began reading lots of books and fell in love with their ability to transport me to another world. My first bio actually read, “May Lee is a writer aspiring to get paid for it.” I didn’t need to be validated as a writer. I just needed to finish products and get paid for it. As an adult, I worked full-time jobs and did my art in the evenings or weekends. Then about seven years ago, I experienced burnout. I left my job thinking I’d find new work, but I never did. I just started doing my art for real, and I’ve lived like that ever since. I think if you put an idea out to the Universe, it will answer back. I said I wanted work as an artist, and it answered back.
Mooks: I began writing in junior high. The poem that made all the difference was “A Station in the Metro” by Ezra Pound. I kept composition notebooks which were like my confessional – full of mostly horrible poems by a smart ass pre-teen. A teacher helped me publish my first poem, “Oranges,” in a community paper. I went to open mics and watched older poets and learned from them. I also have a mentor who has provided me with info, resources, and tools to do well. Having a mentor or mentors that are more established than you is very important. Their foresight, experiences, and advices can help cut down “figuring it out” time.
In the podcast you mentioned some videos that people can check out to learn Lao and Hmong from pop culture. Can you share some links?
Here’s an example of a Hmong music video with lyrics, which helps some Hmong people learn to read and write in Hmong. The song is called “Khuv Xim Tsis Tau Deev,” which I translate as “I really regret that we can’t have sex.” My cousin thinks “deev” refers to “love” but many agree that the kind “deev” they’re talking about is sex.
Matt Lauer explores the growth of Lao Pop Culture in a communist country. He talks with one of the country’s first pop stars, Aluna: