August Artist Spotlight: Multifaceted Writer, May Lee-Yang

* Hi May, can you tell me what your art form is?              

I’m a writer—I write creative non-fiction, poetry, and dabble in fiction. I also do theater. In addition to playwriting, I sometimes play versions of myself on stage, produce shows, and have worked collaboratively to create shows from the ground up.  

* Will you share a piece of advice for aspiring writers?        

One of my favorite pieces of advice comes from a William Stafford quote: “If at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards.” By no means do I encourage low standards, but I often observe that people want to write the perfect thing. This sometimes means writing nothing. I encourage people to write, even if they write badly because it is easier to edit a page of mediocre writing than to edit a blank page. 

* How does teaching your craft to youth affect your own art?                              

Teaching has influenced my artmaking a lot. It has forced me to be more conscious of my artistic process, so that I can teach it to others. For me, teaching is also about inspiring others to create. I find myself often inspired by the stories and ideas of students, and as I go through my own writing exercises with students, I sometimes even discover new things about my own writing.

* By the end of a week with you, what are three things you hope most students have learned?     

  1. A technical skill. This could include learning a new term, a structure for a poem, or an artistic process.
  2. An avenue for accessing inspiration. We can’t always wait for inspiration to hit us, so being able to identify multiple ways to get in the creative zone is important.               
  3. More confidence in the stories they have within them. Students need to know that embracing and honing their unique voices will make them stand out from other artists.

* What does being a COMPAS artist mean to you?   

It’s a great honor to be part of this community. I’ve appreciated the organizational support, in not just being a mediator between the artist and schools, but also the professional development opportunities.  Through COMPAS, I’ve been able to shadow other artists, glean insights from Daniel Gabriel’s experience in this field, and get connected to other organizations. 

* Why do you think arts education is needed in our community?

Arts education fosters creativity and nurtures people’s voices. This translates to the larger world in multiple ways: Many of the leadership programs I’ve participated in challenge us to understand ourselves better, so that we can impact our world more. Through creative fiction, I’ve spent a lot of time doing self-reflection and trying to make sense of the world around me. The arts are also an engaging way to discuss tough topics. Within my work at COMPAS, I’ve seen students use poetry as a way to talk about death, adoption, racism, diversity, and community healing. By sharing their own work, they invited others to write about their own struggles. Lastly, I don’t think every artist needs to be socially conscious. However, regardless of what you create, I believe the arts challenge us to think about our own voices: What do you believe in?  Why do you believe this? And how will you address this issue?

* Do you remember how you first became interested in the arts?          

When I was in junior high school, my parents were paranoid that my siblings and I would join gangs. This was the early 90s, and Hmong gangs were pretty rampant then. So, we were stuck at home. With nothing to do, I watched a lot of TV, played a lot of videogames, and I read a lot of books. Eventually, I felt inspired to write my own versions of the books I read, and I’ve also since then incorporated videogames and other pop culture references from that time into my art.

* You recently completed a Bush Fellowship. What kind of work did you complete for the fellowship? How did it go?       

In 2011, I received a Bush Leadership Fellowship. As the foundation has just discontinued their artist fellowship, people were surprised I was funded, but I always have to explain to people my work within the leadership context. My project was this: to create a theater that tells Hmong stories. My work as an artist is influenced by being Hmong. My art forms—writing and theater—did not have a place in the Hmong world, and each form was developed as I was growing up. This translated to living in a world where Hmong American stories were mediated by others.  This is a large reason why I don’t believe in “being a voice for the voiceless.” Rather, I want to not only develop my voice but create the tools, resources, and space to nurture other people’s stories. During the course of my fellowship, I started Lazy Hmong Woman Productions—named after my play Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman. In 2012, we produced the Hmong-language version of Confessions and provided  theater and language training to Hmong artists. We implemented a comprehensive marketing and audience engagement plan, which resulted in over 1,400 people coming to see the show. This often included three generations within one family, first-time theater-goers, New Americans, and people with limited or no-English comprehension. During my fellowship, I also developed a new play, a comedy about the evolution of divorce in the traditionally nuclear Hmong family, which will be produced later this year.  

* Can you tell me a little about the other interesting projects you’re working on?

As part of my interest in creating more opportunities for other people to tell their own stories, I created and co-lead Letters to Our Grandchildren, a theater/documentary project designed to help Hmong elders tell their own stories, in their own words. This has been a good challenge and opportunity for me to improve my Hmong-speaking skills, work across generations, learn more about my heritage, and think about doing work with folks of different physical and mental abilities. 

I also recently launched a teen theater program at the Arlington Hills Library. The goal is that, over the next four months, teens will not only learn about theater but also create and perform a show about issues affecting their own communities.