Category Archives: Hmong American

How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Anthology edited by the Hmong American Writers’ Circle

How Do I Begin“For any serious artist, it is a terrible feeling of surrender when you realize there is no place in the world for your voice, when all that you express seems marginalized or in vain … But this isn’t a story about defeat. This is about survival.” So begins Burlee Vang‘s compelling introduction to this dynamic anthology of Hmong American prose, poetry, and art.

Founder of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC) which, since 2004,”has served as a forum to discover and foster creative writing within the Hmong community,” Vang explains that artists of Hmong descent are “born into a people whose written language has long been substituted by an oral tradition.” In spite of a substantial cultural history, “there are no novels, plays, or collections of poems, essays, or short stories. There is no account of Hmong life preserved in writing by a Hmong hand and passed down through the centuries.” As newer Asian Pacific Americans whose initial immigration wave happened in the late 1970s into the 1990s, Hmong Americans used English to begin the shift from oral to written literary traditions. “It is exciting to be Hmong these days,” Vang celebrates, “and to finally write. But as pioneers, these are challenging times.”

Vang and 16 other HAWC members explore their Hmong American heritage, each defining his or her own identity as artist, Hmong American, both, neither, other – embracing and eschewing labels and expectations. One writer, Anthony Cody, stands out as the lone non-Hmong (at least not ethnically); a self-defined Mexican American, Cody “attempts to echo the tragedies, routines, and reality of the life I share” among the Hmong American community in their co-hometown of Fresno, California.

Of the 13 prose and poetry writers, Vang – as the leading ‘pioneer’ – has the indisputable standout piece: his short story, “Mrs. Saichue,” about a childless woman who helps her husband find a younger, fertile second wife, elicits comparisons to Ha Jin’s Waiting, in its sharp, spare evocations of small details amidst a difficult situation that create poignant depth and understanding.

Other notable prose pieces include Ka Vang‘s “Pao Dreams of Bodyslams, André the Giant, and Hulk Hogan” about a filial son with untraditional ambitions, and Ying Thao’s “The Art of Fishing,” about the distant relationship between two brothers, one of whom is gay.

Among the poets, Soul Choj Vang‘s works open the collection, giving it its title from “Here I Am,” about a new generation of American poets: “Now, here I am, adopted citizen, / not rooted in this land … How do I begin my song / Where do I enter the chorus / when my part is not yet written …” While many here ponder leaving and belonging, explore history and identity, May Lee-Yang plays with language, as she writes for “Hmong Americans who are bilingual”; her poem, “Endings,” warns of the importance of endings in Hmong words, how a single last letter can turn “Fish … into salt / Horse into human / Sour into penis.”

In addition to text, two fine artists (including Seexeng Lee whose “Hmong Woman Sewing a Paj Ntaub” graces the cover) and a photographer take center page in full color.

As is often the verdict in diverse collections, How Do I Begin is important more as significant literary history than for the quality of its uneven contents. Not surprisingly, the accomplished contributions are mingled with as many amateur pieces. But as the title implies, this is still a beginning, as Hmong American voices continue to develop, intensify, and multiply into this new century.

“There are no infrangible boundaries here. We have persevered through war, persecution, and exile. Through ethnical, cultural, and language barriers,” Vang bears witness. “We have survived the elements, the invisible. We have overcome ourselves. Our writing attests to this. Legitimizes us. After all these centuries, we are still standing.” Dreaming, producing, thriving, too.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, .Short Stories, Hmong American

Soul Calling: A Photographic Journey through the Hmong Diaspora by Joel Pickford, foreword by Kao Kalia Yang

Joel Pickford‘s titular journey took him through an 8,000-mile trek to some of the most remote villages in Laos, five years of interviewing Hmong refugees, and five years of reading Hmong history and ethnography. The result is a gorgeous, startling, intimate portrait of an ethnic community on opposite sides of the world, connected by centuries of culture and history, scattered by decades of conflict and war.

“The story Joel Pickford tells,” notes Hmong American author Kao Kalia Yang (The Latecomers: A Hmong Family Memoir) in her foreword, ” … is a story of how a people starved by war search for food in a nation whose history has never included them.” That ‘nation’ is multiple nations: centuries ago, China pushed out the Hmong south to Laos; during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military recruited and trained Hmong in Laos to fight the North Vietnamese Army, then virtually erased them as part of a so-called “Secret War” which the U.S. government denied for decades; post-war communist Laos persecuted and further displaced the Hmong; Thailand mistreated then expelled Hmong refugees. Today, the U.S. is home to the largest diasporic Hmong population in the West, yet their migration here has been challenging at best, sometimes tragic at worst.

“This is a document of human experience across blue oceans and the expanse of generations,” Yang continues. “The time for neglect and forgetting is through; may the Hmong spirit find its way on the long journey home to the places where our bodies are seen and our souls’ cries are heard.”

Pickford’s camera sees with acuity, records with empathy. His testimony begins with “The New Arrivals, 2004-2006” in Fresno, California, which already has an established Hmong American community that began with the first refugee influx in the mid-1970s  following the 1975 Communist takeover of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Pickford captures their uncertainty and their hope, their survivor scars and their future dreams, their traditional ceremonies and adaptive improvisations. Ironically, tragically, as his photographic journey moves from recent refugees to established Hmong Americans, Pickford comes to realize that the Hmong who have been in the U.S. longer actually “practice a purer form of Hmong culture” because the majority of the newer arrivals have survived the last two decades trapped in Thai camps, denied access to what was once their familiar, familial village lives.

From Hmong America, Pickford travels to Laos, visiting various mountain villages, often accessible only on foot. At 6’4″ and carrying some 45 pounds of photographic equipment, Pickford certainly stands out. In one especially remote area, he is the first falang (foreigner) whom the villagers have ever seen. Time seems to have stopped in many of these rural destinations, untouched by electricity, machinery, even roads. As he considers his Hmong American friends back in California, Pickford contemplates the vast differences between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ He “seriously consider[s] spending the next year of [his] life in [one] remote village,” in order to “really figure out what life in this village is all about.” No longer sure how much he “really understand[s],” he offers these complex, story-filled images as guides …

In addition to this magnificent book, Pickford’s photographs will be featured in a major exhibition: “Soul Calling” opens at the Fresno Art Museum this Friday, September 28, and runs through January 6, 2013. If you’re anywhere near, don’t miss it. “I have a vision of photography as an imperfect two-way mirror, through which people from different cultures attempt to look at one another but, to a large extent, see only themselves,” Pickford writes. Indeed, this is not someone else’s story, this is all our stories.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Hmong, Hmong American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

Grandfather’s Story Cloth by Linda Gerdner and Sarah Langford, illustrated by Stuart Loughridge

grandfathers-story-clothChersheng, a young Hmong American boy, feels helpless and frustrated as his Alzheimer’s-challenged  grandfather begins to forget more and more. His mother shows him his grandfather’s story cloth, a traditional Hmong art form that captures some of the terrifying experiences of war that his grandfather lived through in his native Laos. Chersheng is deeply inspired by his grandfather’s story, as well as the aging story cloth, and decides to make his own art project that captures the family’s new American life.

Review: “TBR’s Editors’ Favorites of 2008,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2008

Readers: Children

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, Hmong, Hmong American

Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans edited by Mai Neng Moua

Bamboo Among the OaksA landmark collection of vibrant prose and haunting poetry from a not-so-well-known, relatively new segment of the country’s growing APA community.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, March 28, 2003

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Hmong American