(This is a guest post by Laotian American poet Bryan Thao Worra. In 2022, he spoke at the event: “Memory, Experience & Imagination in the works of Lao & Hmong American Authors.” Read the related blog here.)
The year 2023 marks a particular milestone in American history as the 50th anniversary since the end of the United States’ involvement in Laos, marked by the end of the secret bombing campaign Operation Barrel Roll on March 29, 1973 and the end of air support and monetary aid for Cambodia and Laos on August 15, 1973, under the Case-Church Amendment. Within months, hundreds of thousands would begin a long journey in diaspora around the globe and in particular to the United States.
Laos is a country approximately the size of Utah or Minnesota, with many connecting its turbulent history to the kingdom of Lan Xang in the mid-1300s. Forty-nine ethnicities and 162 ethnic groups reside in Laos, actively speaking 87 distinct languages. Buddhism and animist beliefs are particularly influential on the social customs and traditions of Laos. Despite this rich heritage, we are only just beginning to have a full appreciation for the diverse range of writing from there and in the diaspora.
While historians and scholars debate when we might recognize the official start of U.S. involvement in Laos, the inscription on the Hmong and Lao Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery considers 1961-1973 to be the key dates that American advisors worked with Hmong, Lao, Khmu, Tai Dam, Iu Mien and other ethnic groups in Laos, forming a secret army to interdict enemy troops and supplies moving through Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Additionally, they were tasked with rescuing downed U.S. airmen, protecting secret radar stations and other duties connected to U.S. activities in Southeast Asia, often at tremendous cost. This era has often been referred to as the Secret War, and considered one of the largest U.S. covert operations of the 20th century. Thousands fled for safety in the aftermath of the conflict for their roles in assisting the United States, and today nearly 500,000 with roots in Laos have rebuilt their lives in America as refugees and immigrants.
In the early years, few Americans knew why refugees from Laos were in the United States, and it was often challenging to secure resources to assist resettlement efforts in the 1980s. There were issues of culture shock, and many refugee assistance agencies focused on finding housing, workforce and education assistance in addition to dealing with issues of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, early teen pregnancy, gang issues, gambling and substance abuse. But with persistence, communities began to adapt and find solutions as they made the transition from life under the monarchy of the Royal Lao Government to participation in a democracy that was undergoing the computer revolution.
Cultural preservation issues became a particular concern for many elders, with an emphasis on traditional dance and music in many communities. The literary arts, however, faced struggles. Five decades later it remains difficult to find and collect books by writers with roots in Laos, but it is interesting that many first focus on poetry as their preferred genre, often to great acclaim.
The Lao Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa received the $20,000 Trillium Award in 2021 for her debut novel “How To Pronounce Knife,” but she had long been noted for her poetry collections such as “Small Arguments” and “Light,” which received a 2014 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. The Hmong American writer Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir about her father, “The Song Poet,” was recently presented as an opera in Minnesota, and she was just awarded a 2023 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. The Hmong American poet Mai Der Vang received a 2016 Walt Whitman Award from the American Academy of Poets for her collection “Afterland,” a finalist for the National Book Award. Lao American film director Thavisouk Phrasavath was nominated for an Oscar for his film “The Betrayal: Nerakhoon,” but also writes poetry extensively, as does Hmong American film director Burlee Vang, who was a founder of the Hmong American Writers Circle in Fresno in the 2000s. One of the interesting early collections of Lao American verse was poet Phayvanh Luekhamhan’s “I Think of This Every Time I Think of Mountains,” co-written with the late Lao opera singer and composer Souphine Phathsoungneune. Catzie Vilayphonh and Michelle Meyers broke ground as the spoken word troupe Yellow Rage and the very first Asian American poets to present on “Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam” on HBO in the early 2000s.
Interestingly, in the United States, two networks of creative writers emerged around the same time in the mid-1990s: the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project and the Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong literary journal. This was at a time when many refugee families had begun to send their children to college. Few in this generation were majoring in English or the literary arts or the humanities, typically encouraged to pursue degrees in business, law, medicine, or computer sciences. As the internet began to become increasingly available, especially IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and Usenet, as well as access to desktop publishing and design software, young Lao and Hmong began to avail themselves of the opportunities this presented and began grass-roots publications to share their stories and poetry. Many of these works were written in English with a small percentage in other languages. For the Hmong, these literary efforts have been particularly significant as that they did not have a written language until the mid-20th century, even as many scholars trace their roots back to pre-dynastic China.
Washington University Press published the Lao writer Outhine Bounyavong’s short story collection “Mother’s Beloved” in a bilingual edition in 1999, but it remains very rare to see any books involving Laos presented this way in the US or other parts of the world. This collection also included an excellent introduction to Lao literature of the 20th century by the late Peter Koret, a noted scholar of Lao literature, although much remains to be updated regarding the 23 years since.
For libraries and institutions interested in books by writers from Laos, it is important to note that many opted for self-publishing or small presses, and typically these have a very small print run such as Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay’s chapbook “No Regrets” by Baby Rabbit Publishing and Mali Phonpadith’s 2011 collection, “A Million Fireflies” from Synergy Press. In Utah, Xaysouvanh Phengphong has published numerous collections and founded the Lao Poetry Society of the 21st Century. The San Diego-based poet Krysada Panusith Phounsiri broke ground as one of the first Lue poets to publish his poetry collections “Dance Among Elephants” and “Every Passing Minute” in the United States through Sahtu Press. A copy of his work was recently donated to the Library of Congress. Thanks to social media and growing computer literacy, and increased Lao cultural gatherings across the US, more of these works that were made between the 1990s to the present are becoming commonly known but not necessarily easier to obtain. Older works remain difficult to find, such as the Iu Mien anthologies “Quietly Torn” and “Quietly reBorn,” or the five anthologies printed by the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project that were distributed by the members for free but never sold in stores. Back issues of the Paj Ntaub Voice magazine have similarly become difficult to collect, yet they provide a distinctive snapshot of where these communities were as they became part of the American story.
Geographically, California and Minnesota were among the most active states where Lao and Hmong poets emerged in the first 50 years of these Southeast Asian diasporas. “Karst Mountains Will Bloom” by the late Hmong American poet Pos Moua was released in 2020, and joins Soul Vang’s “To Live Here” as two collections from the California Central Valley region. The Minnesota Historical Society originally printed an anthology collecting works from the Paj Ntaub Voice journal in the anthology “Bamboo Among the Oaks” in 2002, while the California-based Hmong American Writers Circle published the collection “How Do I Begin” through Heyday Books in 2011.
Among the interesting resources for the community, however, has been the Hmong ABC Bookstore which, against the odds, has collected books of interest to the Hmong and those from Laos for over two decades. In Laos, Dokked Publishing and the children’s book publisher Big Brother Mouse are regularly printing works by newer and established writers, but it is still somewhat rare to see them in the United States, especially books of poetry.
As we look back on the last 50 years, it is clear there is still much to be said and shared about the history of the diaspora in the United States, Canada, and beyond. But the work of the authors described above is cause for optimism that a succeeding generation of writers with roots in Laos will find fresh ways to give expression to their cultural heritage and shared experiences around the globe.
Please note some works mentioned in this post were recently donated to the Library of Congress and are in the process of being cataloged and made available to Library patrons. Please contact an Asian Reading Room reference librarian using the Ask a Librarian service to learn more.
Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans, edited by Mai Neng Moua. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.
Paj Ntaub Voice. Saint Paul, MN: Paj Ntaub Voice.
Mali Phonpadith, A Million Fireflies. Synergy Press, 2011.
Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife: Stories. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2020.
Souvankham Thammavong, Light. Toronto: Pedlar Press, 2013.
Souvankham Thammavongsa, Small Arguments. Toronto: Pedlar Press, 2003.
‘Uthin Bunnyāvong, Phǣng mǣ = Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos, edited by Bounheng Inversin and Daniel Duffy; introduction by Peter Koret. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.
Vang, Mai Der, Afterland: Poems. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2017.
Vang, Soul, To Live Here. Pittsburgh, PA: Imaginary Friend Press, 2014.
Yang, Kao Kalia, The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2016.
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