Tuesday, July 14, 2015
To Live Here: A conversation with Soul Vang
In some circles, the Hmong are considered one of the oldest continual cultures of the world, but it wasn't until relatively recently the Hmong are said to have had a written tradition. Among the first writers I'd met from their culture was Soul Vang, whose work appeared regularly in later issues of the Paj Ntaub Voice Hmong literary journal which was first established nearly 20 years ago.
Some of Soul's work will be appearing in the upcoming special issue of the Asian American Literary Review, and has also appeared in classic Hmong anthologies such as Bamboo Among the Oaks and How Do I Begin, which takes its name from one of Soul's classic poems. He's based in California and much of his poetry draws from the unique terrain and culture found in the Central Valley experience.
I've known of Soul's work well over 15 years now, and am always deeply impressed by its quality, vision and breadth. But it was not until this year that I had a chance to meet him in person, despite our regular correspondence in year past. He recently released his first full-length collection of poetry, To Live Here and I consider it an absolute essential read for anyone who wants to get a sense of the future of Hmong literature. I had a chance to talk with him about that journey.
Tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in poetry?
I was born in Laos and came to the U.S. as a teenager. Being uncomfortable socializing and integrating into the U.S. school system, I found comfort in books. Stories and poetry became my friends. Throughout high school and beginning in college, I had trouble situating myself. I dropped out of college to join the U.S. Army. After a stint in the army, I came back to college and took a poetry class as an elective. It gave me a tool that I had been looking for, the ability to define and reshape my life.
How did To Live Here come about? What's one of your particularly favorite poems from this collection?
The core of To Live Here is my M.F.A. thesis. I have been adding to and refining it over the years, so in essence it is my collected work thus far. My favorite poem of this collection is the first poem, “How Do I Begin?” I think it sets up the scope, content and tone of the book.
What was the most difficult thing about putting "To Live Here" together?
I had to reshuffle and reorganize the book in a couple ways to see which way would work best. I think the most difficult thing was to make the book flow, content wise and thematically. I am glad to finally sort it into a sense of order.
What are some of the fun things happening with the Hmong American Writers Circle these days?
The fun things that The Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC) is going through these days are holding workshops, making homemade pizzas, enjoying our writing lives. Our members are going through growth spurts that we find exhilarating. We are submitting and being published, we are going to retreats and conferences, we are growing and looking forward to the future with optimism.
You have a great many talents and interests. Was your family supportive as you began to show interest in being a writer?
My family has been very supportive of my writing. Although writing doesn’t guarantee success or an income, my family has been there 100% to see me through.
What's your starting advice for anyone thinking of getting into writing poetry seriously, particularly from communities with roots in Asia?
If you are interested in poetry, read as much as you can. Then learn some basic skills and gradually add to and refine those skills. And keep a journal, and write down everything and anything interesting. Once you start writing, find fellow writers and form a community, or join an existing community to give you encouragement, guidance, and critical feedback.
Lastly, strive to find your voice, not just in writing but also in performing. Join readings and slams to finesse your style.
What's the best compliment you've received for your books so far?
A person who introduced me at a reading once said that HAWC is literally creating Hmong American literature before our eyes. That is a profound and I think true statement.
What's next for you?
I am working on a collection focused on my private life and my family. It may be a mix of poetry and creative non-fiction. Then beyond that I want to explore a collection of poetry about the future, about hope and possibilities, thanks to the inspiration from a friend.
You can get a copy of To Live Here from http://www.soulvang.net/