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Reconstruction of Voice: 30 Years Later

2005 marks the 30th year since the end of the secret war in Laos between the communists and the royal Lao government, which was backed by a clandestine army raised by the CIA and US State Department. Many of the principal combatants were recruited from minority tribes in the mountains of Laos, including the Hmong, who trace their roots back over 4,000 years to pre-dynastic China.

By the end of the war, thousands had been killed, maimed and uprooted from their lives in the landlocked tropical nation that American servicemen in the know referred to as "The Other Theater. " More bombs were secretly dropped on Laos than had been dropped on all of Europe during World War 2, and Hmong soldiers as young as 11 were seen on the battlefield because most of the men of fighting age had been killed.

SPEAKEASY recently had a chance to interview several young Hmong and Lao writers and artists recently to discuss their work and its relationship to their community as many Hmong and Lao rebuild their lives in the United States.

Pacyinz Lyfoung is a Twin Cities community activist, Hmong poet and dancer. Kou Vang is a Milwaukee, WI-based Hmong visual artist. Soudary Kttivong Greenbaum is a Laotian community activist and writer in Illinois. May Lee is a Hmong spoken word artist and writer based in Saint Paul. A-Yia Thoj is a Hmong writer and actor living in the Twin Cities.

An Interview with Hmong and Lao Writers and Artists

Asian American Press (AAP): What got you started in the arts?

Pacyinz Lyfoung (PL): I turned to the arts as a healing process, to deal with my grandmother's passing/the loss of the older generation, and to deal with the aftermath of a life-changing job loss and transition. The arts helped me be a more balanced and wholesome person, less consumed by my work, more attuned to my inner self and more connected to others. The arts also provided me with new tools, more pleasing tools to effect social change.

Kou Vang (KV): I've always been naturally interested in art but what got me really started was my longing to "identify" myself as a Hmong-American woman and to be okay with that. By identifying, what I mean is a self-fulfilling desire to know more about who I am, where I came from, who my people are, what my culture is and where do I belong in this vast community.

Soudary Kittivong Greenbaum (SKG): I got my start as a child. The tone of my writing was really simple and honest, but I think I had a talent for expressing my thoughts pretty clearly on writing, though I was a very quiet, shy child. I was encouraged by various people - like my 4th grade teacher who recommended that I go to a Youth Writers Workshop, or when my 8th grade teacher entered my essay into a nationwide contest, or when a simple poem I wrote was published in the district-wide collection.

When I started to explore my Laotian American identity during college, I began to write more about my personal experiences, and reactions, and then moved to prose that wove social and cultural voice. Since then, I have gone through ebbs and flows in my craft. I am not really that prolific at the moment.

May Lee (ML): When I was twelve, I started reading a lot of books. It was probably one of the best discoveries of my life because books allowed me to be a part of different worlds. Inevitably, I was so inspired by some of the stories I read, I began to create stories of my own. Since then, I've always known I wanted to be a writer.

A-Yia Thoj (AT): My dad. He was an artist all his life. He played many, many traditional Hmong instruments when he was alive. Through his creative spirit, I was subconsciously nurtured into art. I found myself seeking artistic expression even at a very young age. My first play was in 3rd grade when I played Abraham Lincoln. From there, things just took off for me in acting. In High School, my brother Keej got me more involved with drawing and sketching. We always tried to out perform each other. I'd always lose because he was an amazing sketch artist.

AAP: How would you describe your work?

PL: I try to keep my work real and original. I look for what has not been done or said before. I learn from others and fuse styles. My art needs to be meaningful to me and in substance. I have never followed the flow or the trend. But I do respond to current issues or try to shape the future.

KV: I work in many mediums, traditional (photography, printing) to non-traditional (installations, digital works). My work reflects my experience as a Hmong-American woman - a hybrid as oftentimes referred to - where boundaries are hard to distinguish or vanish altogether. My work thus far is a study of the human experience, reflecting upon aspects of human history and culture. My art is simply a reflection of ongoing events, my environment, upbringing, morals, values and life experiences up to this point. As artists, we grab our time through our artwork.

ML: Simple and honest. In the past, people have said to me, "I was thinking the exact same thing as your character," and they think I'm witty or intelligent. The reality is that I simply state what I think is the obvious. I've learned over the years that we don't necessarily have to tackle grandiose themes, invent complex ideas or use large words to create meaning. We just have to be good at observing and articulating what exists before our very eyes.

AT:I don't really like boxes but if I was to put my work into a box, you would find that my work tends to be socio-political. As an artist, I see a lot of things perhaps that the general public either doesn't see or chooses not to see. I feel that I have been given the gift to bring these issues and situations into the light through entertainment. Sometimes, I also find that my work is a tool for my own healing process.

AAP: Do you feel the wars in Southeast Asia have any effect on your art?

PL: Yes. There are topics, feelings, and frames of mind that are unique to the Southeast Asian war and refugee experience. There is nostalgia, as well as a sense of innocence that survived all the hardships as well. Interestingly, my work is about hope and strength, which are what came through from the darkness.

SKG: A significant reason why I began writing in college was in reaction to being exposed to Asian American history, the history of America, war, and immigrants, and the history of Laotians in the U.S. So yes, there is a link. I am most intrigued by how world events and decisions have influence on the lives of everyday people, how we are haunted by them for generations to come; how the public and personal intersect.

KV: The Vietnam War, specifically has affected my art. It has been the underlying basis of my work. Because of the war, our people have been transplanted here from our homeland, instantaneously. With this movement, Hmong traditions, roles, responsibilities have hindered us in some way, shape or form, from moving forward and from having an equal voice. These factors need to be brought to the table, discussed, and find somehow a common understanding to help transform our Hmong culture into a thriving one that will prosper and have permanence.

ML: Yes and no. While many of the things I've written do not center on the wars in Southeast Asia, its excess baggage is reflected in my stories. For example, I may write about the lives of Hmong people in the U.S. , but I also have to remember that my migrant workers may have been war veterans or my young professionals might have trekked through Communist-infested jungles as a kid.

AT: At the current time, not that much. I have matured out of that work a little bit. My earlier work was really focused on the past and the emotions associated with something that I know very little about. I was two years old when we came to the United States. All I know is what people tell me from their experiences. Now I find that there is a much stronger message in focusing on what I see, hear and know - Modern Hmong America.

AAP: What are some of your favorite themes to work with, if any?

KV: Myself, people, Hmong (culture, tradition, issues, rights), family.

SKG: Family, Memories, Justice

AT: I tend to focus on issues of divisiveness and inequality within the Hmong community and the community at large. Family is also a topic I tend to spend a lot of effort on. Is it because I am Hmong? Perhaps. Love sometimes sneaks its ugly little head past my defenses but I try to stay guarded about my expressions. This is mostly because I feel like there's enough artists out there focused on this topic. I will not bring much light to what is already existing. My work tends to be self focused and directed towards 1) self improvement or 2) healing a past pain/scar while helping others to understand it. Lately, Zen poetry has been creeping into my work a little bit.

AAP: Do you think there is a particular Southeast Asian arts movement within the larger Asian American art movement, or are they indistinguishable?

KV: Through my educational experience, we usually skimmed the Asian Art section without going in great depth. Most of the art that were introduced in the Asian American art section were "pretty " or "crafty" art that had to do with mythical, spiritual, religious and historical figures and landscapes. The Southeast Asian art movement, particularly the Hmong's, isn't mentioned. When the Hmong are mentioned, we are categorized into the "craft" section (paj ntuab, silversmithing, clothing). I believe the Southeast Asian arts and Asian American art movements are distinguishable in context. For example, since the Hmongs did not have a permanent place to live, the art instinctively created derived for purpose and survival, not expressionism. Whereas the Asian American art movement were already passed that stage and could focus on expressionistic and individualistic art.

PL: It appears to be difficult for Southeast Asian artists to stray from the western mold, classical or hip hop. It is also difficult to emerge from the dominant East Asian precedents and the emerging South Asian dominance. However, eventually, Southeast Asians will find their unique voices and images.

SKG: They are definitely interwoven. We do need to ensure that Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian and Vietnamese artists are encouraged to develop, publish, perform and produce art. We also need to ensure that Asian American artists are inclusive of SEA voices. As a group, we are the first Asians to have arrived to the US as "refugees" instead of immigrants or sojourners, so I think that is a distinguishing factor in what we write. But we face many of the same barriers that other Asians and people of color have and do today.

AT: I can't say. I don't pay enough attention to speak knowledgeably about that. Southeast Asian arts that I am exposed to tends to be more war focused. Art from other Asian countries tend to focus on serenity and peace in/with nature.

ML: Within the Minnesota area, yes, there is a Southeast Asian arts movement. Whether it's recognized in the larger Asian American art movement, however, is questionable. Regardless, I think that Southeast Asians do have stories that are distinguishable from other Asians: our experience in the Vietnam war, as refugees, and as first or second generation Americans documenting our own lives.

And though the following may be a generalization, here it goes anyway: Southeast Asians tend to be at the bottom of the socioeconomic and education ladder whereas East Asians, who have been in the U.S. longer and who may have come from a more industrialized part of Asia, tend to be better educated and have more wealth. This separation in class, education, and reasons for being in the U.S. do distinguish the themes we focus on. Or, if Southeast Asians focus on themes previously covered by East Asians, there's definitely a different take on the same ideas.

AAP: Where do you get your artistic energy or drive from? What motivates you?

PL: Friends and fellow artists motivate me. Great art that I would like to emulate motivates me. Bad art that I would like to give an alternative to motivates me. Remembering certain memories and certain people motivates me. But most of all, sometimes, it is just something waiting to bubble up.

SKG: I write usually because I need an outlet, or there's some idea that needs to be captured in written form. I used to write because it would provide some relief or catharsis in response to an emotion, but now, I think I am more methodic. Perhaps that has some correlation to my current hiatus from writing. . .

KV: My drive comes from within. My motivation stems from looking at our future Hmong--my children, and knowing they'll never really feel what it means to be Hmong--today, right now! I want to, within my powers, preserve what is left of our rich culture for them to know about, told from a Hmong person. My motivation also comes from the past, my mother's generation, knowing they've carried their silence with them for generations, I want to speak on their behalf and share their personal experiences with the world to develop a global perspective on social, cultural and artistic issues.

AT: People are the biggest motivators of my art. They are so interesting! Because I act, direct, sketch, write. . .I spend hours trying to understand someone's inner workings, their thought patterns, speech patterns, movement patterns. Someone once said, a murderer does not think he kills and a thief does not think he steals. The question then becomes. . .where must one come from and go to in order to rationalize that?

ML: I'm motivated by books, people I observe, and other writers. When I do readings, I'm also motivated by good feedback from people. Lastly, after years of saying, "I'm a writing aspiring to get paid" instead of "I'm an aspiring writer," I feel a strong motivation to prove that I can not only talk the talk but also walk the walk.