Friday, March 18, 2016

Hmong folklore recommendations

One of the topics I frequently encourage emerging writers to engage with are cultural folklore traditions. This includes myths, legends, folklore, anecdotes, and so on. In the Hmong community, I don’t think the last word has been written on this by far.

I hope we’ll see more works in the traditional and the experimental vein continue to emerge from this generation of writers. It’s especially important to try and document as many of the stories of the elders they have before that generation is lost.

Due to the historically oral nature of the Hmong community, many traditional stories and their variations are still unwritten. For those who are working with the Hmong community in their fiction, poetry, music and non-fiction it may be handy for you to have a solid baseline of Hmong folklore, legends and beliefs.

For my Khmu, Tai Dam, Lue, Iu Mien and Akha readers, I would certainly encourage you to obtain copies of these books in order to see if there are shared stories and to see how others with ties to Laos have made efforts to preserve their history. Four books that continue to be essential to me in my process since I first began research in the 1990s follow:

Charles Johnson and Se Yang worked very hard together to produce Dab Neeg Hmoob: Myths, Legends and Folk Tales from the Hmong of Laos. One might easily mistake it for a phone book at first at 520 pages. This is a bilingual text. It’s fair to say the 1992 edition’s illustrations and the typesetting definitely make it feel dated today. The organization of the copious notes can sometimes feel like a chore to wade through because they’re VERY comprehensive, although rarely repetitious, to their credit. It can be difficult to tell where one story begins, and another ends. But one should absolutely not let that deter them from using this book as a starting point reference. Likely more of our knowledge on Hmong beliefs and traditions have since been expanded upon in other texts, so keep that in mind that this is more of a snapshot of what was readily documented in the 1980s and early 90s. Some of the older beliefs have likely been forgotten or less well-known by the current generation. But the book definitely makes for fascinating reading. Take care of your copy if you can get ahold of one.

Hmong Art: Tradition and Change came out in 1986 from the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin, originally tied in to an exhibit they’d had during the early years of the Hmong resettlement. There are some really amazing examples of Hmong traditional textiles, jewelry, musical instruments, weapons, and everyday objects from Hmong life with plenty of photos, a great history (for the time) and explanatory notes. While not strictly a book of folklore, the captions frequently mention the meaning of many of the objects and patterns we saw on Hmong objects of the 1980s, and I’ve found it valuable to refer to as we look at changes in the community 30 years later.

Grandmother's Path, Grandfather's Way (Poj Rhawv Kab Yawg Rhawv Kev): Oral Lore, Generation to Generation by Dr. Lue Vang and Judy Lewis is approximately 190 pages with very 1990s production values and somewhat simple illustrations and diagrams, but I consider it very important for its clarity on several folkloric beliefs including Hmong geomancy, textile symbolism, the paj lus (flower words) and other customs that typically aren’t included in discussions of Hmong culture. It went out of print without plans to reprint it, the last time I checked, so finding a copy may be a somewhat difficult process, but I wouldn’t let the price or the production values deter you considering the knowledge it contains. It’s not the last word on the subject, but there are notes you won’t find many other places yet.

Dr. Dia Cha holds the distinction of being the first Hmong woman to hold a doctorate in anthropology. And while I’ve been waiting for some time for her to complete her book on Hmong ghost stories, in the meantime, her collections on folktales of the Hmong remain standout classics. Folktales of the Hmong with Dr. Norma J. Livo is very well organized and clearly written, although it doesn’t go into as many in-depth details as Dab Neeg Hmoob. But it’s also one of the only ones on this list that remains relatively easy to find. It has reasonable depth and breadth, leading the careful reader to many interesting lines of inquiry in the future.

As a reminder, this isn’t an encylcopedic list, but simply four books I found very helpful for my work, and it may be helpful for you, as well.

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