On the Verge of a Hmong-American Literary Movement

Thursday, August 28, 2008

New America Media, Commentary, Mai Der Vang, Posted: Aug 19, 2008

Editor's Note: A member of a Hmong-American writers' group reflects on the importance of the written word in a culture that did not have a written language until the 1950s. Mai Der Vang writes from Fresno, Calif.

FRESNO, Calif. — As a young girl, I collected books, magazines and newspapers. On Sundays, I watched my uncle read the Fresno Bee. After he was done, I saved the newspaper with the idea that it would be useful somehow in the future. Even then, I was aware of the importance of the written word.

These memories came back to me as I performed poetry and prose with other Hmong American writers at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium on July 26. Several people in the audience cried. Others said coming to our event was like discovering a hidden gem.

The flyer for the event portrayed a young Hmong girl speaking words that floated across the page and landed on the pages of a book, transferring the verbal into the written.

For generations, the Hmong passed on traditions and folktales through oral transmission. There is little if any written documentation that they had a literate culture.

But on that evening, a crowd of more than 150 Hmong and non-Hmong felt the energy of what we were communicating, as if an entire community was rediscovering its literary voice.

This was the first convening of its kind and caliber in Fresno. Until that night, many people were not aware that the Central Valley harbored a small group of dedicated Hmong writers.

We touched on topics from genocide in Laos, to the time it snowed in Fresno in 1998; from learning to speak Hmong to the custom of marrying young; from our cultural history to our memories of joyriding as adolescents; from serene images to social critiques.

The event, titled “New Threads,” was organized by our group, the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC), a small cohort of established and emerging Hmong creative writers in California’s Central Valley. Other art forms, such as theater, film and photography, added to the evening’s impact.

One of the performers that evening was Burlee Vang, HAWC’s founder and a young up-and-coming writer. Vang read two poems: one about a humorous experience during a visit to the post office, and another about his father confronting the onset of aging and death.

I wonder if similar literary events took place centuries ago in Hmong villages.

To my knowledge, the Hmong have no official history of written literature. If it ever existed, it is likely that those writings may have perished during the many cycles of migration and wars that the Hmong endured through the centuries.

It was not until the early 1950s while living in the hilltribes of Laos, that they were visited by missionaries who not only brought Christianity but also a new tool for communicating with the western world: writing. These missionaries developed the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA) script, which has become the most widely-used system of writing for the Hmong language.

In 1959, another script, Pahawh, was developed by a Hmong man named Shong Lue Yang who claimed he received this character-based writing from his dreams, perhaps given to him by a “spirit.” In 1971, Yang was murdered by government officials afraid of his spreading influence.

Today, few people know the Pahawh script, and most of us are more comfortable writing in English than using the Hmong RPA system developed by the missionaries.

History has shown us that writing has been vulnerable and transient for the Hmong people, whether it was created for us by outsiders, or something we once had but lost.

As I far as I know, there is no such thing as a “Hmong” William Shakespeare, Robert Frost or Virginia Woolf. The lack of a legacy in our writing leads some of us to feel out of place compared to writers of other cultures.

But this also challenges us to work harder, knowing that our efforts today will lay the foundation for our future legacy.

At our event, we handed out a book of the readings presented that evening. Performing our pieces was one goal, but it was also important to us to preserve the writings in print.

When HAWC convenes for its bi-monthly workshops, we read, critique and dissect one another’s pieces. Since 2004, our goal has been to provide a space for the social, professional and creative support every emerging writer needs.

After that July evening, many of us walked away feeling as though we were on the verge of something momentous.

As young Hmong writers, we belong to a new generation of refugee children raised and educated in this country. Documenting how our cultural past connects to the present – as we are straddling dual identities, and rediscovering our roots – allows us to do something our ancestors long ago could not: preserve this moment in history for the next generation to read.


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