The team is made up of Vlai Ly, Chelsey See Xiong, and Lilian Thaoxaochay. Vlai and Chelsey crossed paths during the Hmongstory 40 exhibit in Fresno, CA, in 2014. They began working together more closely after Vlai submitted some photographic work to Chelsey’s zine series, Mai. Chelsey and Lilian met each other formally in 2017 at a three person book club meeting that lasted twice as long as it should have. Ironically, they went to the same high school for a year or so, but had never met until nearly a decade later. The three of us came together when we realized we had a passion for Hmong literature, and wanted to curate a space for our various writing interests and projects.
C: I was a teenage blogger. I have used many blogging, social media, and forum sites. My journey to becoming a writer came from social media spaces where I was able to connect with the Hmong American diaspora. I am not an artist in the traditional term. I cannot paint, draw, create music, or the likes. Writing has always been my medium to express myself and to dissect the experiences I had and the experiences I was observing. At the same time I was looking to connect and I wasn’t coming across a diverse of narratives from Hmong Americans. I had a feeling that there was more stories out there beyond the war stories and I wasn’t reading them because the platforms I had access to were publishing war stories and stories of the struggles and trauma of refugees. I thought the Hmong American experience must be multi-dimensional and there has to be experiences and stories beyond those war stories. maivmai is my hope to find those stories.
L: I didn’t begin to write more seriously until late into my college career. My pog (paternal grandmother) died at the end of my third year and it was devastating - albeit I kept telling everyone I was okay, that I was alright, and that it didn’t matter because we hadn’t been very close. However, the next year of my life I took on the task of writing an autoethnographic fiction - meaning a series of stories based on my real life as well as field work I had conducted between my home-state in California and my grandmother’s birth-country in Laos about what it meant to be a refugee as well as how it felt to live in exile from the perspective of three generations of women. I had and have always loved reading, but suddenly I realized the story/stories I needed to get me through this period of grief didn’t exist, and so I started writing them for myself. My writing continues to be influenced by this moment where I realized for the first time how pivotal my identities as a Hmong American feminist scholar and writer were.
V: I grew up with an absence of stories as my parents and grandparents never told me about their lives back in Laos or what it was like being in the United States for the first time. Combined with growing up in Massachusetts where the Hmong community was sparse, the distance between myself and my Hmong identity was a large gulf. After graduating from college with an English degree, I felt like half of my identity was missing because I didn't know much about my Hmong identity. I embarked on a personal mission to start discovering the Hmong story through my photography work which allowed me to pay close attention to the culture's nuances that I never noticed before. As my photography progressed, I wanted to supplement the visuals with powerful written storytelling and began working on my writing abilities that I had studied in college. This ultimately led to the creation of maivmai as I wanted to be surrounded by other Hmong American writers within my writing journey.
We’ve only been active since February, but in the six months or so that we’ve been around, we’ve mainly encouraged our contributing writers to speak their minds about any and all topics. While we post monthly prompts which pose or ask questions about topics and themes we think folks might be interested in, our writers are free to write about whatever it is that’s on their minds. This open-arms approach reflects our open-mindedness. If we truly hope to create a long and lasting space for people to share their diverse experiences, our content needs to reflect that complexity.
The Hmong written language that we use today is only about 70 years old. It was developed in the 1950s in Laos by French missionaries seeking to convert Hmong “tribesmen” to Christianity. While there were other attempts made by other factions - Chinese traders, Vietnamese nationalists, and Royal Lao surveyors in Southeast Asia and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries - the Hmong “Romanized Popular Alphabet” or RPA was the one that took root best. You can read about the Hmong “Messianic” or “Pahawh” script in Mother of Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script by Smalley, Vang, and Yang (1990) for an alternative history of what might’ve been.
But in a sense, the Hmong written language and quest for literacy has long been tainted by colonialism. However, that doesn’t mean Hmong people don’t have a history or that what is known about them only comes from others. Hmong people have utilized oral narratives to share their legacies with their children and grandchildren. All of us grew up with our parents and grandparents telling us stories about our origins, history, and travels.
Additionally, Hmong women have long made paj ntaub, hand-stitched, nature-derived and reflecting embroidery for clothes. Hmong hats, coats, sleeves, skirts, and even shoes are lovingly decorated, signifying lots of things about themselves from clan names to geographical origins. In the refugee camps, these paj ntaub became “story cloths”, ways of telling and sharing the Hmong plight and migration. Families both gave away and sold them in the hopes of finding help and sponsors or earning enough money to leave the camps.
Stories have always been the heart of a culture that kept it alive throughout time. Take for example the visual storytelling of the Paleolithic Chauvet cave paintings that gave us a glimpse into the lives of our human predecessors from 30,000 years ago. Despite them living in the stone age, their cave paintings tell a story that humans today can still understand so well. Their culture continues to live on through us, and we are provided a reference point of who we used to be and just how far we've come as a species.
As Hmong Americans approach 50 years in the United States, it is the story tellers and the artists that continue to give life to the beating heart of the Hmong culture. Through maivmai, new stories are being written down by our own voices. These stories will provide a bridge between the past, present, and future that Hmong Americans can use to make sense of their reality in the oftentimes chaotic journey of their lives.
The Hmong American identity is a complex identity to wrestle with in life. But through maivmai, we are creating a supportive community of storytellers writing to unravel the beauty of the Hmong history and identity and move it forward into the future for newer generations to experience.
Hmong American Experience: https://www.facebook.com/HmongAE/
Hmong Studies Journal: https://www.hmongstudiesjournal.org/
Hmong Studies Journal (articles from 1996-2011 arranged alphabetically by researcher name): http://www.hmongstudies.org/HSJArticlesScholaName.html