A groundbreaking new anthology of poetry and stories will share the voices of one of the state's newest immigrant groups -- Hmong-Americans.
The anthology, published by Berkeley-based Heyday Books, is called "How Do I Begin?" and it focuses on Hmong American writers with roots in California's Central Valley. The book was scheduled for its public debut at a community reading Oct. 21 in Fresno.
One of the anthology's co-editors, Burlee Vang, grew up in Fresno. His parents, like many Hmong, fled Laos in the late 1970s and resettled in the United States after the Vietnam War. He earned an English degree from UC Davis and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Fresno State. But despite his love of reading and writing, Vang faced one problem.
"I wanted to read stories with Hmong characters in them," he said. "But nobody was writing about us."
Some historians say that the Hmong community lost its written language thousands of years ago, through forced assimilation under Imperial China. For generations, the Hmong have depended on what Vang calls "heritage art forms" the playing of bamboo instruments, the making of textile art, and the telling of oral stories.
But the oral stories change over time, sometimes with each new telling. Or, they disappear completely. Growing up, Vang said he felt like a fictional character, sketched on the page and left there to invent his own back-story. He felt lost.
"I felt like I didn't have an identity because nothing was written down," he said. "Things are just always sort of changing and in the air. And because it wasn't written down, it felt like you had to be in the Hmong community to know."
For the Hmong people, a written culture has slowly developed over the last five decades. Vang founded the Hmong American Writers' Circle in 2004. The eight-member group discovers and fosters creative writing in the Central Valley's Hmong community, and they put together the new anthology "How Do I Begin?" Now, the current generation's history is being preserved and shared this time, in writing.
But the writers, writing in English, have experienced growing pains. Like other American children of immigrants, their identities often live between two worlds.
"Being born here, but being tied to the memories of my parents, you sort of feel like you don't really have a solid ground to stand on," Vang said. "And it's funny, because you're living in a past that you never experienced. But yet, you hold it so close and so dear to you because your parents keep reminding you of what they went through. So it feels like, I went through those experiences, too. But really, I didn't."
Some of the book's writers, like Vang, are first-generation Hmong Americans. But others were born in Laos, and they bring with them the heartbreaking stories of refugees.
Soul Choj Vang, no relation to Burlee, is also a member of the Writers' Circle. He is believed to be the first Hmong American to earn a master of fine arts degree in poetry, from Fresno State in 1999. He also served in the U.S. Army.
Throughout his childhood, Soul Vang always lived with war. He was born in Laos in 1962, as the intense fighting began to start there. His family came to the United States when he was 11 years old.
This passage from Soul Vang's poem "Here I Am" inspired the anthology's title:
Now, here I am, adopted citizen,
not rooted in this land, unable to taste
the spirit in its dust,
to sense its moods in the pollen.
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
Soul Vang said the refugee experience, for him and for many Hmong, was like waking up from a dream. His past, his present, and his future -- everything felt taken from him. He knew he had to write about it.
Still, he said, many writers in the book struggle to identify themselves. As the writers put the finishing touches on their biographies for the anthology, the questions piled upon them.
"Do I write for Hmong? Do I write for Americans? Do I write for Hmong Americans? And who is my reader? How do I define myself?" Soul Vang said. "Even though there wasn't a question that was asked explicitly, everyone instinctively answered that question."
For the Writers' Circle, the anthology marks a big jump into the American mainstream. "How Do I Begin?" is only the second collection of contemporary Hmong American writing in the world. It follows the first collection, "Bamboo Among the Oaks," which was published in 2002 by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Connie Hales, who teaches poetry in the MFA program at Fresno State, said "How Do I Begin?" is an essential addition to contemporary world literature.
"They represent the first generation of Hmong writers -- at all -- in any language," Hales said. "That's important in California and also important all over the place."
Burlee Vang, who recently won a major fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to develop a screenplay that he co-wrote with his brother, said he hopes the new anthology inspires young writers, Hmong or otherwise.
"I think everybody has a story to tell in their lifetime," Burlee Vang said. "And if you don't tell it, once you're gone, your story dies with you. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from. You have to tell your story."
Members of the Writers' Circle will now focus on writing new works of their own.