Writing from the Absence: Voices of Hmong American Poets
We invited 2016 Walt Whitman winner Mai Der Vang to curate a five-part series that highlights a small community of Hmong American poets whose voices enrich and bring greater diversity to the literary landscape of this country. Each month, Vang will feature a poem by and discussion with a Hmong American poet as a way to showcase their work and explore the themes that drive them to write.
This month, we present Soul Vang.
Mai Der Vang: Reading this poem, I’m struck by the speaker’s voice and the creative decision to navigate the subject matter from the perspective of the bomb. The bomb, though it is an inanimate object, can also assume and take on many animating qualities, as we can imagine. What prompted you to write the poem from the view of the bomb?
Soul Vang: Everyone and everything has a story. Some can tell their stories, some can’t. I imagined what story a bomblet would tell if it could. Though it is a created object, it has a life of its own, and its life and death has great impact on others.
MDV: Often, we find that narratives relating to themes of war can be overwrought with masculinity. The language of combat and warfare typically assumes a male persona that often overshadows any female presence. It seems to me that what you’ve pursued in this poem, however, is the opposite. Here, you ascribe more feminine qualities to the language of the situation, such as when you refer to “mother’s steel womb,” which is a very startling image. Can you speak to the feminine slant you took here and what inspired it?
SV: The word cluster invokes images of seeds, fruits, trees, nature. Some pictures of cluster bombs and bomblets remind me of peapods containing hundred of peas. From there, it is very natural to use the feminine to describe the cluster bomb. It is a steel pod/womb, containing hundreds of steel seeds, sent on the wind, sowing death wherever they land.
MDV: I sense there is also an educational component behind this poem. We know that the horrific reality of unexploded ordnances (UXO) exists in many countries and has taken too many innocent lives, especially those of children. As a Hmong American, the issue of UXOs in postwar Laos as a result of the American-led Secret War is alarming to me. I think many people can agree that President Obama’s increased pledge of $90 million to help Laos clear UXOs is an important step in continued progress, but so much more needs to be done. What kind of greater awareness do you hope this poem brings to the issue of UXOs?
SV: It has been forty years since the end of the Secret War, yet UXOs continue to kill and maim, especially children born decades after the war. I can imagine them continuing to kill and maim the innocent for many more years. And imagine the lingering effects of bombs used in current wars in the Middle East, how many decades into the future will they continue to destroy lives? These human creations take on destructive lives of their own that we, their creators and beneficiaries, must be more aware of.
MDV: Soul, you’ve been credited as the first Hmong American ever to receive an MFA in creative writing, at least to the best of our knowledge. You took to the pen at a time when very few in the Hmong community had even considered the idea. What was it that brought you into a life of writing?
SV: Growing up in Laos, I loved stories and folktales told orally by the fireside. Coming to the United States as a refugee child, I found this tradition fading away, so I turned to the public libraries to read books as a substitution. I was fascinated by stories from every genre and every culture, but I found stories about Asia especially interesting. One of my early favorites was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Finding no stories about the Hmong, I knew that it was up to us to write and share our stories.
MDV: A writer’s work is an ongoing journey. What can readers hope to see from you in the near future?
SV: My second collection, of which “Song of the Cluster Bomblet” is the title poem, is forthcoming from Blue Oak Press. I look forward sharing it with readers.
Soul Vang received an MFA from California State University, Fresno. He is the author of Song of the Cluster Bomblet (forthcoming from Blue Oak Press) and To Live Here (Imaginary Friend Press, 2014).
Mai Der Vang: Your poem pursues the subject matter of zombies and the apocalypse, which has in recent years experienced an incredible emergence or reemergence within popular culture. It seems to me that your work often ruminates on mortality and the apocalypse, so I can see how the zombie impulse might naturally figure into your writing. Apart from these observations, what was it that triggered this particular poem for you? In general, what do you find as the natural triggers for most of your work?
Burlee Vang: Any creative writing I do will often originate from an emotional response to something I’ve read or seen. And it’s usually a feeling I can’t shake off for days. If I’m lucky, it turns into something more tangible. Like an image. Or a string of words. At that point, I’ll have to figure out if it should take the form of a poem, short story, or essay.
When I first moved my family to Los Angeles, and having to suddenly live among 10 million people, I developed anxiety. There was the drought in California. A mudslide that swallowed up one of our major freeways. An earthquake that sent me reeling to the ground. And then there were the constant brushfires—and sometimes, you could smell the ash in the air. It was also the first time my children’s teachers notified me that I had to provide survival kits for my children, which had never been a requirement when I lived in a smaller county. Every day, while driving through the worst traffic jams, I’d find myself thinking about my family’s survival. It may have been an irrational fear. But this poem was born out of it.
MDV: In reading this poem, it seems to me that themes of refugee vigilance or exile from humanity also underscore the speaker’s present situation. The poem looks at the aftermath of something, and the speaker’s sense of anxiety is heightened by the fear of what will happen next, much like the refugee who never knows when someone or a government will turn against him. The zombie survivor, then, is the refugee running through the jungles. These lines seem to gesture at that notion and they remind me of the Hmong narrative of war: “we learn to read / what moves along the horizon, / across the periphery of a gun scope— // the flicker of shadows, / the rustling of trash in the body / of cities long emptied.” Well, that’s my reading of it. I’m curious about yours. What was your thinking, and how did you attempt to negotiate all the various layers in this poem?
BV: I was born here in America, but I grew up listening to the horrors of the war my parents and their generation had to live through. And in some unexplainable way, those horrific experiences have become a part of my own childhood memory. I think the Hmong, as a displaced community, are suffering from a kind of collective PTSD. So it’s impossible to not express in our art this idea of having to constantly adapt, constantly survive. This was a theme I explored heavily in my chapbook The Dead I Know: Incantation for Rebirth. The very fact that I am Hmong makes me a survivor, one who is burdened with all the anxieties that come with such a label. And now, although I may be writing about some fictional apocalyptic world crawling with flesh-eating zombies, I am still that same character—just in a new context.
MDV: The other intriguing aspect of this poem is how its ideas transfer to our current reality, how it can be made applicable even without the zombie context, but that it’s placed in that context offers a refreshed meaning. I’m referring to these fierce, hard-hitting lines: “To live // in a world of flesh / & teeth, you must / learn to kill // what you love, / & love what can die.” How do see these particular lines applying to our world today?
BV: I don’t think these lines apply directly to our world today—but they can be read as a kind of warning, or perhaps a kind of foreshadowing of what could happen to our world if we let it fall apart. Just look at the racial tension, religious wars, economic problems, political polarization, climate changes, and onslaught of natural disasters. The clock’s ticking, and we’re going to have to learn how to survive all this.
MDV: As the founder of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, you’ve been an instrumental force behind spurring the development of Hmong literary voices through mentoring emerging writers and leading community-based workshops. In what ways do you think the Hmong American voice contributes or adds complexity to literature in this country?
BV: Like other minority groups, we face symbolic annihilation in media and art. Our stories not only need to be heard, but they also need to be told by us. America is a nation of great diversity, but I want to believe that it can be a more inclusive America. And because of this hope, I also believe that the literature in this country can be more inclusive of its minority and ethnic voices. I think the addition of the Hmong American voice will only speak to this inclusiveness. There can only be growth for both the Hmong community and the literary community if our experiences and perspectives are welcomed.
MDV: So what are you currently working on, or what’s next for you? Projects? Passions? Pursuits? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
BV: I’ve been obsessing over the apocalypse for a few years now, so I’m hoping to finish a book of poems exploring all sorts of end-of-the world scenarios. The poems are grim, but I really want the book to be about light, hope, and the goodness in us. I want to believe in our species. We can be that small, flickering torch, held against the overwhelming darkness. I’m also revising a collection of short stories. And as a filmmaker, I’m currently working on my second feature film.
by Mai Der Vang
I saw them when I was about ten years old. I had ventured into my uncle’s room to peruse the books on his shelf.
Among the textbooks from the community college where he was studying to be a mechanic was a very small collection of books about Hmong people that included a set of old National Geographic magazines dating back to the mid-1960s. These particular issues included stories on the Vietnam War, and there were articles, maps, and color photos documenting the war in Laos along with the subsequent exodus of Hmong refugees to the United States.
It was the first time I had ever seen anything like it. Their goldenrod edges stood out against the oak finish of the bookcase. I flipped through the pages and attempted to grasp a cultural history that was entirely new to me. In awe, I stared at pictures of people who looked like me, were dressed in traditional Hmong clothing, and stood against a backdrop of mountains in a country I have never seen or visited. There were images of refugees peering through what looked like cell bars, emaciated bodies lying on mats in a camp, Hmong women weeping good-bye. All of it belonged to a war I knew nothing about. And more strikingly, it was printed in a mainstream American publication. A few years later, when my uncle moved away, I inherited a few of his books, along with this tattered set of National Geographic magazines.
Eight years ago, he passed, and I never got the chance to ask him where he found these magazines, why he kept these slim volumes, their spines studded with words.
My discovery of the magazines helped lay the groundwork for my curiosity about books and writing. So much was also rooted in how little I saw of myself in books growing up that it was often startling when I did see an image or find an obscure mention of Hmong people, most of which was produced or authored by a non-Hmong. Whether or not it was an issue of my having access to the right books, it was as if my kind didn’t exist because I rarely ever saw anything about Hmong people in print, never mind coming across any Hmong poets.
Today, however, I am a poet who belongs to a generation of Hmong American writers challenging ourselves to write from this place of absence. For me, it means being able to harness what isn’t there, to transform that sense of literary deprivation into a new body of craft, to seek solace in knowing that the beauty of not having can usher forward an entire renaissance. It means taming the void into a voice of my own.
For underserved writing communities like the one I am from, carving out literary spaces and keeping those spaces sacred and consistent through years, sometimes decades, is a critical part of the emerging process. Every opportunity becomes a significant step toward much-needed visibility.
Few citizens in this country know about Hmong people and how we came to be here as refugees. During the Vietnam War, the United States Central Intelligence Agency led a covert operation in northern Laos where many Hmong lived. Tens of thousands of Hmong boys and men, like my grandfathers and uncles, were recruited to fight communism on the side of the Americans in what became known as the Secret War.
When the United States withdrew in 1975 and the communists took power, hundreds of thousands of refugees escaped on foot to Thailand in fear for their lives. Many drowned crossing the Mekong River, others were killed in landmine explosions, while many more were murdered along the way. Those who survived the journey ended up in crowded refugee camps where they lingered for years before being resettled in third-world countries.
Narratives of statelessness, war, and exile run deep in Hmong historical memory, along with a past as an unlettered people. For as long as Hmong people can remember, oral tradition has functioned as the primary medium used to pass our cultural practices, shamanic rituals, chants, and folktales from one generation to the next. To my best knowledge, there is no definitive history or formal documentation of where Hmong people originated. What little is known is that hundreds of years ago, my ancestors occupied the southwestern hills of China. Yet due to wars with the Chinese, along with ongoing pressure to assimilate into the dominant culture, they fled to Southeast Asia and sought refuge in the highlands of Laos. Some scholars have suggested that any traces of a Hmong writing system or books, if they existed, would have been destroyed during these ancient wars.
In the 1950s, missionaries arrived to Hmong villages in Laos. In order to preach, they developed a writing system for the Hmong language that was based on the Roman alphabet. Other systems were also developed through the years, but this Roman version survived long enough to become the primary system utilized by most Hmong today.
Whether I want to or not, this is the story I have to tell every time I tell the story of Hmong people. The historical lack of a written language only deepens the sense of absence I feel as a writer when I consider the context from which I write. Not only am I without a definitive literary tradition, but for a time, I also lacked the means to create that tradition. To have had our own known and formal writing system would have been instrumental in the production of books containing poetry, history, and other literature authored by a Hmong tongue.
On the other hand, however daunting it might be to write from this geography of absence, I also don’t ever for a minute regret or dare forget the vibrant oral tradition that has kept my culture alive all this time and allowed it to endure in the face of such odds. Some of these traditions, such as kwv txhiaj, a type of vocalized poetry sung in ballad style, often blur the boundaries between literature and the other arts. Another craft form, paj ntaub, consists of colorful cross-stitched embroidery and other similar tapestries that many believe contained symbolic ciphers or codes that Hmong women sewed onto clothing in order to covertly wear and record their history during the upheavals in China. In many ways, both of these cultural practices embody a written truth and function as their own kinds of literature even though they are not printed and bound. They are acts of resistance, the courageous innovations of ancestors and elders who were resourceful enough to adapt during a time when one was likely persecuted for intellectual or literary expression.
I find myself today at this historic junction between the oral and the written. I see my work attempting to retain what it means to be descended from a people whose way of life relied on the spoken word, while braiding that notion together with the need to pen one’s voice onto paper in order to survive this era and the next. I recognize that periods of war and exile have interfered with the Hmong potential to solidify a literary culture—war always got in the way. But in the current time of ongoing post-resettlement, it’s never been more urgent than now to set down my literary roots in order to help ensure a future that will include poetry. This series is one step in that direction.
The hope is that this series will offer readers the opportunity to discover and rediscover the work of Hmong American poets, while learning more about what drives them to write. These are the kinds of unknown voices that lend greater depth and diversity to the literary fabric of this country. Hopefully, long term, this series will help shed further light on how everyone can better advocate for underserved poets in all communities. Beyond this, I also hope the series serves as a keepsake of resistance. In my experience, to write is to resist against erasure, especially when you are Hmong and you come from a hilltribe culture that has long been without a formal writing system until only recently, and your people were caught in a disposable war that the world was never supposed to know about. Writing, then, is about survival from becoming extinct, from being erased, from being forgotten. Poetry is no longer just an interest or activity but a required act that constantly reaffirms its necessity whenever I contemplate my cultural history or identity as a Hmong American woman. In my case, to write is to ensure that my history will be remembered.
To write is to also have access to shaping the attitudes toward and national narrative of one’s community. Learning how to write poetry has allowed me to engage in the craft of the establishment in order to write back against it. It has allowed me to use the tongue of the West against itself in order to weave my own narrative, my own literary being. No longer do I need to rely solely on non-Hmong sources to cite my own existence.
Recently, my nine-year-old niece started writing poetry. In this movement toward remembrance, I saw in her what I saw in myself when I first came across the National Geographic magazines. It first started out as a few lines in a journal she kept, which then turned into stanzas, and eventually became short meditative pieces about nature and the world around her. I jumped at the prospect of another poet in a family teeming with nurses and spent time with my niece talking about poetry, encouraging her to keep at it even if it was just a couple of lines now and then. Regardless of whether or not she chooses a life of writing, she is still part of the next generation that I hope will sustain whatever literary traditions I and other Hmong American poets put into place today.
Even so, our numbers are devastatingly few, so few that I am unable to name to the best of my knowledge more than ten Hmong American poets who have taken steps to pursue a life of writing. But we are much further along than where we were ten or twenty years ago, and I’m thrilled that the poets to be featured in this series will have a chance to share their perspectives on craft and how they are contributing to building a more vibrant literary culture.
Today, there are Hmong American playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters, and other writers, of course including poets, from California to the Midwest, who are gaining a tremendous foothold in the establishment. Grassroots literary organizations, such as the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, a group that I have had the privilege of working with, are instrumental in developing the capacity of writers who come from communities with fewer resources and little to no access.
Such efforts are even more vital when taken within the context of a stateless, exiled people who have no way to return to a homeland. As a result of Hmong migrations spilling over time and borders, the vast wanderings from one river in a country to a highland in another, I’ve even asked myself: where exactly am I being exiled from? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that for me, poetry is the country I never had. It is in the terrain of words—their formation on the panorama of a page, their utterances of another world, real and imagined, their silences, as well as their openness to shelter the history and offer asylum to the stories of a landless people—that poetry then becomes my homeland. It is the place I return to no matter how far I roam.
As much as it disturbs me to see the detached, outsider portrayal of my culture on the pages of the National Geographic magazines, it saddens me also to acknowledge that these magazines are part of the little I do have of a documented history. They are a reminder of how far Hmong people have come in the quest to assemble a voice. They affirm that I do not need to rely on writing by others in order to have documentation of my historical self. The magazines remain, but they exist now as relics, afterthoughts of what truly defines a people—the people themselves.