I've just returned from the most wonderful event. I was enthralled and, at times overwhelmed, by the words, voices and images presented by the members of the Hmong American Writers' Circle. Normally rather reserved in public settings, my eyes repeatedly filled with tears at the accomplishment displayed and, also, at words that spoke to my own experiences of growing up in an immigrant family, to the struggle to weave an identity that could span worlds, both past and present. I'll share the first half tonight and finish up tomorrow.
While public school often rings with the sound of monolingual English-speaking teachers feeling the strain of cross-cultural dilemmas posed by students and their parents, Cindy Thao's theater reading about a Hmong teacher confronting the imminent marriage of her fifteen year old student, reveals quandaries that are rarely considered, if even known. Among them: to whom do you belong when faced with the demands of your cultural identity, and your professional identity?
The imagery of Pos Moua's "Under the Summer Shade" touched me deeply.The countryside imagery, "a cool breeze whistles through the surface of the lake," was strongly reminiscent for me of very old Irish songs that also mourn a beloved. His line, "The world is sad to have me without you" is a phrase that I don't think will leave me very soon, if ever. Were it possible to publish it here, I would.
Anthony Cody caught me by surprise, from several directions. I did think it was a rather unusual Hmong name, but then I thought perhaps he was bicultural; half Hmong. Instead, up stood a man of apparently caucasian origins, culture still uncertain. At that point, we learned that the Hmong American Writers' Circle is an inclusive group! Cody is of mixed cultural heritage, American and Mexican. Although it's not obvious, I was raised in both cultures, and I sat up. He spoke about finding himself reflected in the Hmong experience and about the work of knitting a whole out of his dual identities. Both experiences are familiar to me, however the freedom to both create a foundry and to seek an audience were unthinkable in my generation. So, it was redemptive to hear in "Cura" the me that I know, spoken out loud, and so beautifully. His work has a depth of empathy, for others as well as for himself. His "who can sew?" moves him to tears. I could not hold them back.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my Irish grandfather confessed that, as a teen, he had been a gang member. I was confused but, although embarrassed to reveal it to me, he acted as if it were normal. Asking whether a young man's"thoughts trickled into the ground through those long black strands into the pools of oil by your head?" Andre Yang's "Joy Ride," frames the normalcy of hiding from the law one day, going to school the next. Normal when your experience includes flight from Laos and then your father choosing his second wife, leaving you and your mother to emigrate alone. Written for his uncle, Yang's affection, his will to understand and give voice, are palpable-- an act of depth coming from a generation that did not directly share in the experience.
Soul Vang brought the first half to a close. His "The Hmong-American," based on his experiences as an American soldier in Europe, touches on questions of multiple identity. What is he, who is he, out of context? Who and what define him? What is his context? In Belgium, when "The old lady...greets me tentatively in English and asks where I'm from," it engenders a searching pause. "Without ever seeing an American hearth," abroad he's drawn in and embraced by strangers. This poem ends with his story, while his final poem equates the old ones' stories with a precious but dwindling wellspring. He seems to point to a possible evening theme: that identity is not fixed in place, or in places, but in telling one's story.