In his introduction to this collection of Hmong American writing, Burlee Vang gives us an idea of why this book is a particularly important one. Given that Hmong history and culture has been passed down mainly through “oral stories, oral poetry, textile art, and the playing of various bamboo instruments,” this anthology heralds the inception of a Hmong literary tradition. Indeed, many of the poems and stories reveal characters (and authors) struggling to find their voice among the homogeneity of American culture.
Given that many readers (this reader included!) will not be familiar with Hmong culture, the editors have chosen their content wisely. The poems and stories within act almost as a primer intended to educate the general population about what is uniquely Hmong. Recurring themes and words surface again and again in all of the collected works. There is even a glossary of Hmong vocabulary at the back of the book. However, I found that the works themselves introduced concepts far more poignantly than the dictionary list. For example, in “Endings,” May Yee-Lang tells us:
A girl may start out as ntxhais
But neglect the s
and she becomes nothing more than
the water left over
from cooking rice.
From one small stanza, we can infer that ntxhais means girl, and that pronouncing it without the ess sound at the end leaves us with a word that means rice water. We might also infer a little bit about male and female dynamics within Hmong culture. In a similar vein, Burlee Vang’s excellent story “Mrs. Saichue” introduces us to a wife who must adjust to a new marriage dynamic when her husband takes a young second wife who will bear them a child, in exchange for the opportunity to come to America.
Family dynamics play a featured role in many of the poems and stories in this collection. A girl watches her older brother struggle with drugs and impending fatherhood while trying to get his life on track in Yia Lee’s story “Broken Chords.” A young, gay Hmong American man attempts to connect with his older brother in Ying Thao’s “The Art of Fishing.” And I particularly loved V. Chachoua Xiong-Gnandt’s poem “Lake Red Rock Iowa,” in which a mother and daughter “quietly scale and gut lake vipers” together at the lakeshore:
I say to her, “Does it seem like the big fish are pretty close to us?” and
she says without looking up, “They eat their own,” as she hurls another
head into the water.
The mother-daughter dynamic feels as familiar to me in Hmong culture as my own culture. I liked that the works in this collection highlight similarities as well as the differences between us.
I read this collection with the feeling that, for these Hmong Americans at least, memory is just as present as the present. Tradition and modernity share an ongoing, often uneasy, relationship. Many characters in this book cling tenaciously to the old culture — often while simultaneously struggling against it — in an attempt to find a balance between the Hmong and the American in their lives. Mai Der Vang, in “To Make a Return,” introduces us to those who “become invisible by turning off [their] voice / like taking off a jacket” and are “swallowed by the language [they] can / hardly speak”. The old language does not necessarily work for them, but neither can they yet successfully wield the new language.
I sensed that the authors themselves are similarly striving for balance in their art (and lives) as well. And, as some of the first Hmong Amercian writers to be anthologized, this balance is one these writers have the opportunity to begin to define.