Friday, April 18, 2014

Retro Review: Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans

Title: Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans
Edited By: Mai Neng Moua
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Pages: 205
Availability: On shelves now - published 2002
Review Copy: From public library
Age Level: Adult

Summary:  Of an estimated twelve million ethnic Hmong in the world, more than 200,000 live in the United States today, most of them refugees of the Vietnam War and the civil war in Laos. Their numbers make them one of the largest recent immigrant groups in our nation. Today, significant Hmong populations can be found in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, and Colorado, and St. Paul boasts the largest concentration of Hmong residents of any city in the world.

In this groundbreaking anthology, first- and second-generation Hmong Americans -- the first to write creatively in English -- share their perspectives on being Hmong in America. In stories, poetry, essays, and drama, these writers address the common challenges of immigrants adapting to a new homeland: preserving ethnic identity and traditions, assimilating to and battling with the dominant culture, negotiating generational conflicts exacerbated by the clash of cultures, and developing new identities in multiracial America. Many pieces examine Hmong history and culture and the authors' experiences as Americans. Others comment on issues significant to the community: the role of women in a traditionally patriarchal culture, the effects of violence and abuse, the stories of Hmong military action in Laos during the Vietnam War. These writers don't pretend to provide a single story of the Hmong; instead, a multitude of voices emerge, some wrapped up in the past, others looking toward the future, where the notion of "Hmong American" continues to evolve.

In her introduction, editor Mai Neng Moua describes her bewilderment when she realized that anthologies of Asian American literature rarely contained even one selection bya Hmong American. In 1994, she launched a Hmong literary journal, Paj Ntaub Voice, and in the first issue asked her readers "Where are the Hmong American voices?" Eight years later, this collection -- containing selections from the journal as well as new submissions -- offers a chorus of voices from a vibrant and creative community of Hmong American writers from across the United States.

Review: Typically I am only reviewing children's and young adult materials so I want to make it clear that this is written for adults though I am sure that mature young adults may also be interested. I read this book years ago, but pulled it out again recently because I was looking for some Hmong poetry to share at our school. I remembered that there were poems in this collection and I thought that possibly I could at least use a few lines from one of the poems. I did find what I was looking for in the poem "Walking Manifesto #2" by Pacyinz Lyfoung. It is prefaced with this statement, "For the First People, who never appear in any Asian American history because we too forget that before any of us--white, black, yellow--came here to argue race issues and our rights, they were here first" (p.55). Even my younger students could understand and appreciate this poem which is ultimately about peace, justice and equality.

The many voices and variety of formats in the book combine to make a spectacular collage of Hmong experiences. As readers we are fortunate to have this text available to us. There are so many ways of life in America. Sometimes we don't see the diversity within a cultural group. This book provides us that opportunity. It also lets us know that there are uncountable ways to be Hmong American beyond these examples and that over time there are still changes. This book also reminds us that we each have a story to tell no matter our heritage. We yearn to tell our stories  and publication of this book helps magnify the voices so that they can be heard by many more people. I so appreciated that the authors shared themselves with us.

This is a fantastic work and I would highly recommend it to anyone. 

If you would like to hear some of the poems and learn more about the book, please watch the book discussion below.


  1. Crystal, in looking through your posts, I noticed this review. It sounds wonderful. Have you read The Spirit Catches You And We All Fall Down? It's another book about the Hmong experience in America-fascinating!

    1. Yes, I have read that one. It does give some insight, but what was so great about this book is it is written by Hmong authors. I have spoken with some Hmong people in our community who were not as happy with how Hmong were portrayed in The Spirit Catches You. It's nice to hear from them directly.

  2. What an excellent-sounding book--very much enjoyed reading this. We yearn to tell our stories and publication of this book helps magnify the voices so that they can be heard by many more people. ---absolutely. (Here because you happened to follow me on Twitter, which prompted me to come looking! I'm morinotsuma over there)