Review: How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology

by Mel
How Do I Begin

This is two-for-one review for two books I read simultaneously: How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology, as well as the short educational essay, Hmong in Minnesota.

How do I begin my song?
Where do I enter the chorus
when my part is not yet written,
when the conductor won’t point
my way?
– Soul Choj Vang, from “Here I Am”

Minnesota has the second largest Hmong population in the U.S. after California. As a child I had one Hmong school friend, but my knowledge did not extend much further beyond knowing the word, “Hmong.” As an adult who has resettled in the Twin Cities, I have made more friends who are Hmong American, have bought many of my vegetables from Hmong farmers, have been following the Hmong American Farmers Association cooperative, and have enjoyed many meals at the Hmong Village marketplace. It is clear that Hmong immigrants are part of the fabric of the Twin Cities. However, I recently recognized my own ignorance glaring in pulsating neon in front of my face: I don’t know anything about my Hmong neighbors. How could I know so little about why my friends’ and farmers’ families settled here? About what their traditions are like? About the struggles they’ve faced? So both in an effort to add more diversity to my fiction reading, as well as learn more about Hmong history and culture, I added half a dozen Hmong history books and literature anthologies to my book list. These are the first two that I decided to read.

“For any serious artist, it is a terrible feeling of surrender when you realize there is no place in the world for your voice…” – Burlee Vang

How Do I Begin? is a 200-page anthology compiled by The Hmong American Writers’ Circle based in Fresno, California and published in 2011. It includes pieces from 17 writers as well as three visual artists. Until the 20th century Hmong stories were passed down by oral tradition. As Burlee Vang, founder of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, notes in the book’s introduction: “there are no novels, plays, or collections of poems, essays, or short stories. There is no account of Hmong life preserved in writing by a Hmong hand and passed down through the centuries.” Thus, these writers are forging into uncharted territory and paving the way for new cultural expression. Each writer in this book attemps to answer the question: Am I Hmong before an artist, the other way around, or are the two inseparable? It is no surprise that each writer has a very different answer.

The book is comprised of poetry, short stories, and essays. Some express what it was like to flee war and live in a refugee camp, while others can only wonder at that experience while they write about what it’s like to grow up both Hmong and American. I am not much of a poetry reader, so the short stories stood out more for me. In particular I enjoyed “Pao Dreams of Bodyslams, André the Giant, and Hulk Hogan” by Ka Vang which is full of both humor and sadness as a son deals with disappointing his father to follow his own dreams (and has wild dreams of pounding the living daylights out of André the Giant).

This book serves not only as an important record of history, but also as a beginning for Hmong writers all over the country, the continent, and the world. It also serves as a window for non-Hmong Americans and the first step in a path toward greater understanding.

“History does not cease moving at the exact moment we begin to occupy it comfortably.” – Bill Holm

Hmong in Minnesota is part of a series published by the Minnesota Historical Society called “People of Minnesota.” It is a 100-page essay about the history and settlement of Hmong immigrants, the traditions and cultures of Hmong people in Minnesota, and what it is like to be Hmong in Minnesota. It was a very quick read, and thus pretty limited in information. However, I still learned quite a lot in a short amount of time and it was a very good primer for further reading. If you’re going to be delving into creative Hmong literature without any background history, I would recommend reading it before your literature reading. If you’re just interested in Hmong history or culture you can read this in one or two sittings to give you a baseline of knowledge before you delve deeper into the details.

I highly recommend both of these books. You may not enjoy every poem and story in the anthology (with such a diverse collection that would be an outrageous expectation). However, if you’ve been alive in the last 45 years, there is important culture and history in the pages of these two books that has been greatly overlooked by our textbooks, arts scenes, and media. We could all stand to put a little bit more effort into learning a few things about our neighbors.

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