In the United States, there are presently an estimated 2,506,000+ who trace their heritage to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Hmong community, as well as Thai, Burmese, Karen, Tai Dam, Iu Mien, Lue, Khmu, Montagnards and others. For many of us, our diaspora began in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and other conflicts of the mid-20th century. In the process of refugee resettlement, our cultural literary output in many of these communities has moved at a glacial pace even as we approach half a century in the US in 8 years in 2025.
There are certainly interesting thought exercises about the matter. MUST every culture have a body of writers who speak for their generation or their elders? Borrowing a concept from the old science fiction show, Star Trek, perhaps we ought to simply observe the Prime Directive and not interfere if we see those who were a part of our lives in Southeast Asia deciding not to nurture the writers and artists in their community.
As a Lao American writer, I know where we have certainly opted to go-that we feel there is a strong benefit in creating a network of writers who are passionate about writing, who keep themselves informed and enjoying sharing the best of those results with the community so that we might collectively grow and succeed as a society. Our colleagues must decide for themselves which routes are the most viable for them to find their own version of the Southeast Asian American Dream.
With seemingly limited resources and support, maybe some Southeast Asian American cultures in diaspora will decide app development, health care services, creating lawyers or building import race culture is where they have the most chance of collective success. This is not necessarily an unrealistic question. What will they advocate for, and how might we best support that one day?
What follows is a question, however, of what a literary center committed to the growth of Southeast Asian American writers might look like in the future.
For a placeholder, we’ll call it SEALIT. Such an institution would nurture the development of writers and their audience, effecting a culture shift for communities who have been historically underserved by mainstream and even other Asian American literary and cultural institutions.
SEALIT will have distinct roots in media justice and social justice, asking what might be a culturally-appropriate, intersectional approach to democratize our interconnected cultures and communications infrastructure. It would be centered on the idea that effective grassroots leadership is more likely to create a stronger set of institutions and programming committed to equality and social benefit for all.
Would such an institute be able to provide comprehensive, professional training and support for local community-engaged artists and developers? Would it see a direct connection between empowering and inspiring artists and enabling wider community empowerment, advocacy and innovation?
How would we ensure the most marginalized of our voices are included? Especially those traditionally excluded from literary settings, including minorities within minorities, GLBTQ, youth voices, and those whose backgrounds have otherwise been kept out of the dominant narratives of who we are, and who we could be?
SEALIT in its best form would facilitate the growth of the community to regularly produce writers valued in their own community and others with roots in the Southeast Asian region. These creators and their voices would also be valued by the global world of arts and letters, even as the possibility exists they will likely be ignored by mainstream America, if history is any indicator. But SEALIT will be greatly interested in audience growth and diversification, prioritizing the Southeast Asian American reader as one of their primary and most-valued audiences, and not merely a pleasant incidental demographic.
SEALIT values would be centered on the idea that modern, traditional AND experimental literature matters, even if several Southeast Asian American cultures may or may not have a large body of literary work until recently. Historically, many of us were cut off from a robust body of work emerging from various barriers that came with our diasporic journeys. But we believe there is a place and a value in cultivating the growth of all of these because it’s essential as many of us transition into life within modern democracies.
Organizers at SEALIT would have a shared consensus that good writing, and good reading can be taught, and that our communities benefit from overcoming internalized racism and classism to appreciate our thinkers and creators. Inclusion and innovation are among our top priorities.
SEALIT values are expressly not centered on hierarchical models that generate ‘gatekeepers’ who create literary and cultural bottlenecks that stifle the distribution of key information and opportunities that should be in our collective social commons. It encourages a plurality of voices and a diversity of perspectives on our collective and personal community histories. In the aftermath of our conflicts in Southeast Asia, it will take many diverse narratives in our own words, on our own terms, to reconstruct a sense of what happened, and how we read those histories in the final summation. That can’t be achieved by encouraging a monolithic voice with unanimous, unchallenged consent.
How many writers at all levels can we engage over the decades ahead? Surely we can find at least 2,500 from the 2,506,000 across the country at many different levels of professionalism. Could such a center host over 52 readings, workshops, exhibits, and conferences a year? How might SEALIT connect readers in person and online to writers who bring out the best in them?
How might SEALIT assist local, regional, national, and international organizations and institutions to create a diverse body of publishers, distributors, bookstores and venues, a literary ecosystem that allows us to fully embrace the potential in a free society?
Can SEALIT ultimately develop itself to provide grants, awards, and other resources that fill in our community needs if key institutions with programs supposedly in place to support Southeast Asian American writers do not in fact meet those needs effectively? What will be necessary to help Southeast Asian American writers to develop courage to create and submit, to share and perform, to push themselves farther and harder to be ahead of the curve?
This becomes a question of particular importance considering a wide variety of MFA programs are out of reach for many Southeast Asian American communities, where 80%-90% are not able to graduate from college. There is of course a debate if many existing MFAs are capable of preparing Southeast Asian American writers for an international readership presently, in terms of feedback, critique and support, but that’s a conversation for a different time.
How can we create institutions that help students improve their writing and to develop a sense of where they would like their literary journeys to take them?
As we face a critical loss of elder voices and perspectives that have not been documented and recorded, the growth of Southeast Asian American writers and improving their access to the most necessary resources and opportunities for them to create and share their work is deeply urgent.
What will it take to get more of us involved whole-heartedly into building the cultural and artistic infrastructure of our collective communities over time? These are essential to cultural development and growth in the wake of the civil wars of Southeast Asia in the 20th century. We need to re-imagine the possibilities.
An intriguing concept has been put forward by UNESCO’s Creative City program. It’s centered on building a network to highlight cities who are accomplishing unique work in several fields such literature, film, music, crafts and folk art, design, the media arts and gastronomy. Because so many Southeast Asians are presently spread out across multiple nations and are so rarely concentrated in a particular city effectively, we need to rethink this somewhat. An entity like SEALIT could prove to be a valuable incubator for these elements of our expressive culture.
I like film and writing, so these are the two areas I’m particularly hoping to see advocacy and growth in because I think they will be particularly essential to growth and maintaining progressive cultural bonds. And I think many of our other Southeast Asian communities who find themselves in diaspora will also benefit from such an approach. The SEALIT concept might well take these into consideration in their strategic efforts.
For writers, the criteria are:
* Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses;
* Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools as well as universities;
* Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;
* Experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature;
* Libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature;
* Active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature;
* Active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.
For film-makers, UNESCO hopes a city would have:
* Notable infrastructure related to filmmaking, i.e. film studios, cultural/movie landscapes, cinematographic memorabilia, etc;
* historic links to the production, distribution and commercialization of films, especially within a native/local and culturally relevant context;
* cinematographic legacy in the form of archives, museums, private collections and/or film schools;
* tradition of hosting film festivals, screenings and cinematographic events;
*birthplace, residence and/or workplace of creators and artists in the film industry;
* depiction of the city in films, preferably realized by native creators and artists;
* existing films about the city.
I think these can be developed, even within a ‘virtual city,’ ‘virtual nation’ context, but to me, transportation, funding and presentation/distribution infrastructure definitely need to be in place. How best to develop and cultivate these over time? Of course, this is a long way ahead, but I imagine it could be done in fifteen to twenty years. Maybe sooner, if we really pull together. But I feel it deserves much stronger conversation.