Poetry bridges generation gap in Vermont’s Laotian community

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(Host) In Brattleboro’s tightly knit Laotian community, untold stories are coming to light. A young poet, born in Laos and “resettled” in Vermont 25 years ago, is forging new links between her two cultures.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Phayvanh Luekhamhan) “I grew up pretty traditionally. My parents definitely wanted us to observe the rules of our culture and we would always join with the other Laotians in the community for house blessings and marriages and stuff. But it was always part of the Laotian culture, which I seemed to leave every time I left the house to hang out with my friends.”

(Keese) Twenty-nine year old Phayvanh Luekehamhan is known around Brattleboro as a serious young poet. She works in a bookstore and lives and writes in a tiny cluttered downtown apartment. She doesn’t even have a phone.

(Luekhamhan) “I definitely see myself as a sort of gypsy wanderer in my own world.”

(Keese) Leukehamhan’s independent ways have been hard for the Laotians to understand. She was a baby when her family fled their country for the refugee camps of Thailand. She never became fluent in the language her Laotian elders use to preserve their stories in the traditional ballads of their culture.

Growing up, she was more into Michael Jackson’s dance music than the songs of her former home. She wasn’t allowed to go to dances at her high school. She couldn’t even ask why. Children don’t ask for explanations in the old Lao culture. Questioning her parents about the past was also taboo.

And so she turned to writing as a refuge. When she was old enough she moved out on her own.

(Luekhamhan) “And it took me a long time to get to writing about the culture.”

(Keese) But a few years back, the floodgates opened. She started with a snapshot of her family, newly arrived and bundled against the strange Vermont winter. She wrote about the war her parents wouldn’t talk about. She wrote of her father’s debilitating memories.

(Luekhamhan, reading) “I did not care that your nightmares were your own and you’d rather give them to strangers and not to me. I wanted them. I walked inside them and became them….”

(Keese) Leslie Turpin is a Vermonter who’s worked extensively with the Laotian community. Last spring, she arranged for Luekehaman to read her work in Boston at a gathering of Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian refugees.

Turpin knew that Americanized southeast Asian children were struggling with their families over the issue of communication.

(Turpin) “And I felt like she had a way of expressing what a lot of the younger generation was experiencing in a way I thought the older generation might be able to hear.”

(Keese) Turpin says the reading drew an emotional response.

(Turpin) “And then one of the men said something like, you know Phayvanh, I have a daughter about your age and it never occurred to me that she could feel with the depth that you feel because I’ve never told her about my experiences.”

(Keese) To show the Brattleboro Laotians what Luekehaman was up to, Turpin asked a friend to translate her poems into Lao. She gave them to Souphine Pathsoungneune, a local elder who was a famous musician in the old country. Pathsoungneune has turned one of Luekehaman’s poems into a traditional Laotian song.

(Luekhamhan, reading) “Through the night we walked, paddled through brown swollen river. Three months more we hiked, we hid and tried to sleep. Three years we camped as refugees, the sprawling war a thieving slut….”

(Keese) Pathsoungneune says through a translator that he was surprised to learn that Luekehaman has a gift, maybe not so different from his own.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

A joint performance of the two Laotians’ work, sponsored by the Vermont Folklife Center, will be held in Middlebury on Saturday afternoon.


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