Listen: St. Paul is at the center of an emerging group of Hmong writers

MPR’s Steve Nelson reports on St. Paul being the center of an emerging group of Hmong writers. That's may not seem all that remarkable, until you consider that Hmong people had no written language at all until 1952. Before then, Hmong story-telling relied on oral traditions. Now, writers in St. Paul are turning those stories into literature and history.


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STEVE NELSON: This is Zha Blong Xiong. He's reading from his short story called A Letter Of Tidings.


STEVE NELSON: It's written as a series of three letters between a husband and wife separated more than 20 years ago when they tried to escape Laos across the Mekong River.

ZHA BLONG XIONG: Used to help people tell me a lot about their struggle when they cross the Mekong River. Some people there lost their loved ones. And I then bring all those story, the true story, together, make a real person. And then put together as a story.

STEVE NELSON: He heard stories like these as a boy in a refugee camp in Thailand. Like most of the Hmong who've settled in the US, he was born in Laos. Zha Blong Xiong escaped to Thailand when he was 12. Later he wrote for magazines and newspapers, but not in Hmong. He wrote in Thai and Lao.

Hmong writing wasn't even taught in schools. He picked it up from friends and family. When he arrived in St. Paul, he finally discovered a place to write in his native language, the Hmong literary journal, Paj Ntaub Voice.

MAI NENG MOUA: What I've been trying to do is to move my community from an oral tradition to one that is also written.

STEVE NELSON: [INAUDIBLE] is founder and editor of Paj Ntaub Voice.

MAI NENG MOUA: At the same time, I also don't want to forget about the oral traditions. I want to acknowledge, I want to pay tribute to, I want to study and remember and know what the oral traditions are as well. But in this society, it's still based on text and written text. And so when there aren't Hmong stories when Hmong writers are not writing stories themselves, then we don't exist, at least on paper.

STEVE NELSON: For a long time, those stories weren't written down. Dr. Yang Dao is among scholar and he currently teaches in the Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Minnesota.

YANG DAO: We don't have a written tradition. We have a long oral traditions because at the moment, memorize everything.

STEVE NELSON: Everything; funeral rites, family trees, and history like this legend of how the Hmong lost their written language more than 2,000 years ago.

YANG DAO: A long time ago, when the Hmong live in the central part of China, the Hmong troops were defeated by the Chinese and the Chinese authorities prohibited the Hmong people from learning their own writing system.

STEVE NELSON: Then in 1952, a group of Catholic missionaries developed the Hmong writing system to translate the bible. In addition to creative writing, Mai Neng Moua also wants to record and transcribe Hmong stories and songs to help create a history of the Hmong people. This is a cassette her mother recorded of a traditional folk song.


MAI NENG MOUA: There are people-- Hmong people my age or younger that don't understand these forms. The think that Hmong people, we don't have poetry, and we don't have writing, and we don't have our own Cinderella story. And so I think my concern is how to tape and transcribe these things and then make them accessible to the community so that we have our own appreciation for Hmong arts.

ZHA BLONG XIONG: It's not a good idea to just forget what you came from.

STEVE NELSON: Again, the writer, Zha Blong Xiong.

ZHA BLONG XIONG: And then just adapt to other cultures. Actually, you should know both is the best, where you came from and what culture you're from. And the latter is the only way to keep this culture, this history.

STEVE NELSON: Saturday night, Mai Neng Moua will be part of a panel discussion and book signing for the one year anniversary of Bamboo Among the Oaks. It's an anthology of stories and poems written mostly in English by young Hmong writers. I'm Steve Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio.


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