Krysada Panusith Phounsiri, better known as “Binly” is a Lao-American artist and engineer. He was born in Laos in 1988 and came to America with his family in 1989. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 2010 with a Physics and Astrophysics Double Major and a Minor in Poetry.
His debut collection is “Dance Among Elephants,” published by Sahtu Press. His work has been featured in the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement and the Smithsonian’s “A Day In The Life Of Asian America” digital exhibit. He’s also an accomplished dancer and photographer, traveling to various regions of the world to compete in competitions and teach workshops.
Loy Photisane caught up with him recently to discuss his art and hopes for the Lao community in diaspora:
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Was the 2015 National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit your first visit to Minnesota? What were you expecting, and what was your favorite part of your visit?
The National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit was my first visit to Minnesota. I did not expect much because I wanted to walk in the gathering with an open mind. The energy there gave me hope on where we as Lao Americans can go in terms of community building and artistry. My favorite part of my visit was being able to meet many folks for the first time and opening dialogue on future projects.
In Minnesota, like the rest of the US, Lao have statistically had difficulty graduating from college. You graduated with a degree in Physics and Astrophysics as well as a minor in Creative Writing. What kept you motivated? What do you think has been the biggest challenge for Lao students today and how might we help them stay in college?
I had to keep myself motivated for the most part. I truly don’t know what kept me going other than knowing that I needed to find the best means to help out my family. My family has gone through many challenges. Growing up, I experienced and lived through a lot of my parent’s troubles. It sparked something inside of me to try something different; to attempt to better myself and everyone I love with what I was given. The environment I was raised in almost forced the youth to steer towards the harsh realities given – gangs, drugs, violence, trauma, and lack of resources. We didn’t have much, but that taught me a lesson in creating what is not there. I had some folks that I looked up, but none that I could look to for guidance in education. It was just a fact I internalized. So I took the opportunity to explore that realm in hopes that I could lead that way. That in itself was motivating me to help out the others around me. It was a lonely journey when it came to pursuing what I wanted to do; in and out of school. My family and my drive to support them was what kept me going. I enjoyed the idea of Physics and Astrophysics so I decided to pursue it. I didn’t know where it will take me, I didn’t care. With writing, I sort of fell upon it and then fell in love with it so I didn’t need to force myself to stay motivated there. I knew I wanted to write regardless of my career path.
The biggest challenge for Lao students today is lack of support. We are few in numbers, even fewer in College. I experienced the lack of tutoring, mentoring, and resources that could support Lao students in college. There were less than a handful of us even at UC Berkeley, and we all had different majors. Not that we should solely rely on each other to succeed, but there’s something to be said about a group of folks who may be the first in the family to even try college. Many of us are definitely the first, if not, probably not too far behind from siblings. Everything becomes foreign, and the things surrounding college outside of academics can also be overwhelming. It’s a lot to take in, and with Lao Students, a lot of us don’t have a place, or a person to go to for help. Much of the weight is on our shoulders to succeed, most of us don’t know what for except to “live a better life” than what our parents gone through. Since our generation is still new to this, we have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to setting up a support network for all majors, departments, etc.
We just have to be in the constant presence of others in academia. We have to motivate and provide any past materials, resources, and knowledge about the experience to incoming students. We must provide and share methods of studying, techniques in retaining information, and create a space where Lao students learn how to learn. Once we realize we are not so much alone in this journey, it will do a lot in boosting confidence and bringing hope into the college space. It can be so daunting and demoralizing at times, that’s why creating a structure or a network may be a first step. Bottom line is we need more folks in the university space.
Your first book of poetry, “Dance Among Elephants” was released by Sahtu Press. How long were you working on your book? What inspired you to start it?
My oldest poem in the book was written in 2007. The thought of putting my work together though, began around the 2009-2010 timeframe. I submitted my work to multiple presses with no success. Working with Sahtu Press in making the reality of a book took a little over a year; from the signing of the contract to the physical release of the book.
I always wanted to put my work out there. It’s a message, a form of resistance, and an attempt to be visible in spaces that historically were denied to us. I love the arts. I practice many different forms of art from writing to dancing. Each medium satisfies something that the other does not, but they all speak the same language. Their wavelengths may be different in terms of energy, but I truly feel something when I create something. With writing, I can be the most vulnerable. It’s a scary act, but I was taught to be fierce and to love fearlessly. Just writing and keeping the poems in my notebook were not enough. I wanted to tap into publishing because that would be a marker of legitimacy. I do not believe being published makes me a legitimate and an amazing poet by any means. What publishing does is recognize the need for a missing voice. If my voice can represent an experience that many share common themes with, I’m glad that it I can write. It captures the Lao American experience as much as it captures my personal experiences with love, living, and a search for a world I don’t know much about. I’m inspired to write about my personal because it can also be a political act to break down stereotypes, misconceived notions of our history, and a means to write without having an outside voice dictate what is and is not my experience. I guess many things inspired me to write.
Writing can impact and change how we view our world. I might as well try to share what is in my head in the most artistic way possible; with much feeling.
What was the hardest poem for you to write, and when are you most satisfied with a poem?
I write a lot about my parents struggle with love and how I grew up experiencing that. I’d say it affects me greatly on many levels of affection, love, and understanding my own emotions. It’s tough to write about their business, but my aim is not to glorify the depressing moment. My purpose is to write about it in search for hope as they both persevered. I also write about my personal experiences which I’m still not comfortable sharing. But again, I felt like I had to do it and allow myself to be vulnerable. It’s a howl for someone to hear, and the act of writing poetry soothes me.
Like my other art endeavors, I’m usually never satisfied with my work. In the act of dancing, taking / editing a photo, or writing a poem, I am confident in owning the moment. I put a lot of conviction in all my work and I strive to let that energy flow through. But in reflection, things can always be edited. Things can always be fixed or improved. I’ll never stop internalizing the feeling that I’m satisfied with all that I do. A poem is never finished, but I also must understand to let things be. There are things were obsession leads to a cycle of editing and I rather bring it out rather than let it live without light.
I get to that point of releasing my work when I truly believe it has presented its purpose in solid, artful fashion.
There was a LOT going on at the 2015 National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit. What were some of the parts that stood out for you the most being with so many Lao American academics and artists at once? What surprised you the most?
We laugh a lot. We joke a lot. We are subversive in our ways. There’s always a way to do something standard, but we create our own standards. We create our own methods. What I saw at the Symposium were a bunch of folks who found creative ways to tell their story, present their projects, and deliver. I really enjoyed the lineage panel with SatJaDham to the birth of other projects like Sahtu Press. That lineage really shows the power of these conferences and what can be created.
What surprised me the most was how smooth everything went. Remember we are a complicated group of folks, with many passions and many methods of dealing with our history. To integrate that all within two days of presentations, artwork, and workshops is an amazing feat. I hope that continues.
How would you describe your family’s support of you as you were growing up and beginning to take an interest in the arts?
It’s one of those things that drove me to do what I had to do in terms of getting what I want. In order for me to pursue anything I wanted in the arts, I had to reassure my family that I was still focused in my education. There was a fear, one that goes through many families, and their youth going astray and getting influenced by things that can harm the family rather than support it. I had to make sure to my family that I was still on a path to support them when it came time to. I did this for myself as well because I felt that if I can cover all grounds of life – be it school, exploring different arts, and exploring other parts of life – that no one could take anything away from me. I made sure I did the best I could do in everything to ensure that the arts were not a factor in my performance in education.
When my dance career was really catching fire and riding a lot momentum, it became undeniable that my art meant something to me. They realized it from that moment. When my poetry was being published in magazines and literary journals along with them seeing me read my poetry to groups, they saw how much it meant to be. They’ve always been supportive. They did it in good faith, with some concerns in the beginning. I feel that now with everything happening, there are no doubts.
How do you balance it all?
I wish I knew.
I stay grounded in wondering why. It’s because I love it all. I have to live, I have to feel, I have to act. The arts that I pursue allow me to express all of that. It’s tough to make time for all of it. I don’t get to sleep as much. I don’t find methods to balance it all; I find methods to make time to commit to it all.
My schedule is quite chaotic but it can be orchestrated in such a way that works on a day-to-day basis. I remind myself that I love what I do, so I can’t give it half the attention. This does lead to a lot of conflicts and that will lead to me having to decline certain gigs or opportunities for others.
I also try to plan ahead and set my time structure to accommodate as much as I can with the least amount of resistance. Any work that can be done early, I attempt to get the task done. Things do slip through the cracks from time to time.
It’s really about staying disciplined and keeping focused on the Why. Once that is clear, you’ll find a way to make it all work.
What’s your advice for emerging artists who want to follow in your footsteps?
Conviction. Always practice your craft to the point of conviction. You must know why you are expressing yourself in that art medium and you must learn to be fearless in the act of performing it. Never stop learning. Be open to experimenting with different techniques to help you deliver whatever energy it is you want to deliver in whatever space that is. Be ready to fail, but know that there is no failure in the sole act of existence. You must put in work in a way that makes it undeniably alive. Hone your skills so the world cannot avoid who you are and what you do. Stay grounded in feeling. I don’t believe I have done all that I needed to do, there are countless possibilities in the chase to be timeless. I’m in love with the process, not the result. Don’t let social media be a true marker of your success. If your work is as beautiful as you believe it to be, all it takes is one person to be inspired by it to make it all worth it.
Good Luck and do not give up.