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How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology

The Hmong American Writers' Circle, a group based in Fresno, California, pulled together some wonderful poems, short stories, creative nonfiction, and visual art for How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heyday Books, 2011). The book features work by Hmong American writers as well as by a couple of other writers whose experiences have intertwined their lives with those of Hmong communities in the United States. There are a few writers whose work also appeared in the anthology Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002).



The book has a stunning cover image adapted from a painting by Seexeng Lee titled "Hmong Woman Sewing a Paj Ntaub," and a full-color insert in the middle of the book includes a couple more images by the artist as well as a selection of paintings and photographs by Boon Ma Yang and Mary Yang.

Before each writer's work, there appears a short autobiographical statement and a photograph of the author. The statement provides the author's perspective on how being Hmong American impacts his or her writing. The responses the authors provides ranges from comments about ethnic identity being mostly incidental to ethnic identity infusing everything. Taken as a whole, the collection of statements provides some interesting material for considering the perennial question of what it means to be an ethnic writer while also addressing the specificity of Hmong American identity. One of the most thoughtful statements, in my mind, is May Lee-Yang's paragraph in which she notes that she writes for "Hmong Americans who are bilingual" rather than a general audience because: "This shift from creating a world where I exist to re-contextualizing my world for non-Hmong people is, I think, indicative of an underlying attempt to shift the paradigm of power."

In an introduction to the volume, Burlee Vang, founder of the Hmong American Writers' Circle, chronicles his own journey as a writer as well as the origins of the Hmong American Writers' Circle in Fresno. He explains how important it was for him and other Hmong American writers to find each other and to establish their presence in the community.

Some of the poems and stories touch on the history of Hmong refugees fleeing Southeast Asia to arrive in the United States. Many of the writings are more from a younger generation, though--not the perspective of refugees themselves but rather their children who either were born in the United States or were too young to remember much of the refugee camps or life in Southeast Asia (primarily Laos or Thailand). A number of the pieces in the collection seem to deal with gender roles in Hmong families, with both men and women writing about the expectations placed upon women--mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law--to act and serve men in particular ways. There is, however, throughout the writings a strong sense of the importance of family and relationships. The piece that stands out for me is a short nonfiction essay by Ying Thao, whose autobiographical statement is the only one that identifies a Hmong GLBT perspective. Thao's essay explores the silences and difficulties of a relationship with an older brother who explicitly rejected him when he came out to his family.

Incidentally, I really love this anthology's publisher, Heyday Books, which is a small press based in Berkeley that specializes in books about California. I have in mind a collection of essays about multiethnic, transnational histories at the nexus of Contra Costa County (where I grew up) that, if I ever write them, I may send to them in the future for possible publication.
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