Mai Neng Moua.
Starting a Hmong Literary Tradition
By Chuck Haga
The Associated Press
Mai Neng Moua has always wanted to speak for herself. When her kidneys began to fail seven years ago, before her final year at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., she told her family that traditional herbs and balms would not make her well. She wanted and needed a life-saving transplant.
At the same time, she asked her doctors to understand and respect the Hmong beliefs that made her extended family so skeptical of Western medicine.
But the decision was hers.
Moua, 28, wrote about that cultural conflict in prose and poetry, both as a way to understand it herself and to explain it to others. She has been writing and speaking since, trying to understand and help others understand what it means to be Hmong in America.
She is cofounder and editor of Paj Ntaub Voice, a Hmong literary journal that started as 12 unstapled pages while she was still in college and has grown into a glossy periodical. Now she is also editor of Bamboo Among the Oaks, a new anthology of contemporary writing in English by Hmong Americans.
It is an exciting time to be Hmong in America, Moua writes in the anthologys introduction. We have written and are writing our own stories ... Although the Hmong have not had a tradition of written literature, we are building one. We are the creators of our own history from this point on.
The stories in Bamboo Among the Oaks are of memories and dreams, achievement and failure. They are about relationships, often strained, with parents and grandparents whose hearts are forever crossing the Mekong River. The collection reflects sadness for what has been lost in the old culture, the struggle with what must be learned in the new culture, and the intense conflict between the two, says Lillian Faderman, editor of I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience. The stories are poignant and stirring.
Most of the writers are young, still in their 20s. Some, like Moua, were born in Laos, some in America and others in between in the refugee camps in Thailand where their families fled at the end of the Vietnam War after fighting alongside U.S. forces.
Most of the writers live in the Midwest, reflecting the large Hmong presence in Minnesota, home to nearly a quarter of the estimated 169,000 Hmong in the United States.
But the writers dont pretend to speak for anyone else, Moua said. Theyre not writing for all Hmong women or all Hmong men. This is my story, theyre saying.
She wonders how Hmong elders will react to some of the darker stories.
I always get the sense that the elders want happy stories, she said. They dont want stories about problems. They worry about us airing dirty laundry this way.
What I say to them is that we need to honor our voices. These are things young Hmong people are dealing with, things theyre trying to work out and understand. The writing process is healing for them. It allows them to laugh and cry and talk about the day-to-day things, and it allows them to feel they arent alone.
For young Hmong readers, too, these are stories that are so familiar, she said. For once, they are at the center of things these are Hmong American stories and they feel like they exist after all.
Moua, public policy coordinator for the Institute for New Americans in Minneapolis, wants to reach out to Hmong elders, too.
I think theyre dying to tell their stories, and not just the stories of war and the camps, she said. What we need to do is ask them to tell not just to honor and acknowledge them, but to learn from them. What do they want their great-grandchildren to know?
In this culture, the written word seems to have more legitimacy, Moua said. The challenge for us is to create a written tradition that doesnt supersede the oral. We cant let it die out, and we have to be deliberate about that. We have to get the whole community to care about it.
So when young Hmong students need help researching their cultural history, she encourages them to go beyond libraries and the Internet.
Ask your parents, she tells them. Ask grandparents.
Moua remembers learning things by osmosis as a child in the refugee camps. We were so much closer physically to our parents, she said. My mother sometimes seems baffled and looks at me and asks, Why dont you know that? And that hurts the elders because it can seem to them that we dont care.
But it is the main question that our writers raise: How do we be Hmong in America?