Most of the Hmong who live in the United States immigrated here from Laos after it fell to the communists in 1975. By spring of that year, America had withdrawn its support of military operations in Southeast Asia, including the secret war it had been conducting in Laos using Hmong and Lao soldiers under the command of General Vang Pao.
Without the West’s support, the Hmong who had fought on behalf of America were labeled “traitors” by the new government and were to be exterminated. Between 1975 and 1980, thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand seeking political asylum. There they lived in refugee camps until host governments around the world accepted their applications for immigration.
Besides the United States, today’s Hmong live in France, Australia, Canada, French Guiana, and South America. Many more live in southwest China, which is considered to be homeland to the Hmong. Worldwide, the Hmong population is estimated to be four to five million. The largest concentrations of Hmong-Americans are in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.
When I was nineteen, I spent two years living in Hmong communities in California, learning their language, and performing religious service. Since then, I have continued to study the language and culture. I often translate English texts into Hmong for clients across the country.
OK, so why do I write fiction about them?
The Hmong have a long history of oral narrative. They tell stories, mostly folktales, but all the elements of storytelling are there: action, dialogue, humor, suspense, and so on. Many of these folktales inform the culture, so much so that just by mentioning Nkauj Zuag Paj (Gao Zhoua Pa) to a Hmong, s/he knows you mean the heavenly woman who helps the orphan make something of his life. And the culture in turn can inform the stories I and other Hmong writers create.
The following themes that come out of the Hmong experience in America attract me and show up in my Hmong-themed fiction:
- The idea of the orphan and his/her redemption in, and re-connection with, society
- The generational divide between elders and youth, those who still have one foot in Laos and those who only know life in America
- The plight of some Hmong women in a traditionally patriarchal society
- The tension between Hmong Christians and Hmong animists
- The futility of resisting assimilation into American society and the despair that may come to some middle-aged and elderly Hmong who miss the simple life
- The rise of Hmong youth gangs
I have long seen my Hmong-themed fiction as a way for those unfamiliar with the Hmong to learn more about them, and for those Hmong who are interested to think about their culture in new ways. I mourn the loss of Paj Ntaub Voice, the Hmong literary magazine that ran for several years out of Minnesota, but with the advent of indie publishing, I have perhaps found a niche and a means of distributing my stories.
Speaking of stories, click here to download .epub or .mobi versions of my short story “Shee Yee’s Leap,” published in Paj Ntaub Voice long ago. I have since made some tweaks to it, but otherwise, it stands as it was published, bumps and all.
Read, Write, Execute!
Photo credit: John Pavelka, flickr.com