Monday, November 09, 2009

Building Lao and Hmong literary cultures

The growth of Lao and Hmong literary traditions is important for a number of personal, professional and cultural reasons. They are a great mountain ahead, and we've not even begun to reach the summit. I always bear in mind the words of Winston Churchill, who says "This is not the end. It's not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps, the end of a beginning."

For Hmong, there's an amazing tract before them. Every page is history, even those pages that are, for lack of a better term, 'failed' works. For the first time in 4,000 years, Hmong have an opportunity to tell their story from their own perspective in their own way. Free of censorship, political 'expedience,' the social 'ass-kissing,' if you will, that has often been required for survival within other societies.

Scholars may debate, but ultimately, until the last 50 years, there was no writing system, no works of literary art, no poems, no novels, not even a short story that was written down. This is not to say that there weren't oral works. Far from it, there's an amazing wealth of music, much of which has unfortunately been lost. You'll find no books, no manuscripts or scrolls from ages past.

So, what's written down today should be of extreme interest. Some choose to preserve the folktales and old proverbs, some want to create memoirs of the last 50 years and the war for Laos and resettling in America. Only a few are choosing to venture well beyond 'expected' territory. And we should value all of these.

This doesn't mean we check our critiques out the door. There are those whose work sells out. Whose work is mediocre or derivative. Whose work regurgitates but does not recast the story in particularly interesting ways. But, this is every writer's growth process and journey, and I think over time we've been rewarded with some very vibrant material, and with encouragement we will see even more unique work from Hmong writers. I wish there were more programs and resources to meaningfully encourage these developments and let writers consider paths as professionals.

But, like the hard stone of the old Lao mountains that can be made to flourish, perhaps what's meaningful is what emerges in spite of the excessively harsh literary conditions Hmong and Lao writers face.

For Lao writers, I see the role as essential to the continuing growth and definition of Lao culture. There was a time when literature and poetry were considered more valuable to the Lao than even academia. Not everyone could go to school, but the arts helped level the playing field and united the country. There's a fine tradition to uphold, with work that caters to some distinctively Lao sensibilities and preferences.

People can be governed by laws, but under the healthiest of conditions they -choose- to be a people because of the arts and what the arts create: The conversations, the expressions of shared and personal dreams and hopes. We may not know the implications of Section II, Paragraph 6, Line 2 of a particular legal code, but we can appreciate the story of Sithong and Manola or Nerakhoon at whatever level works for us.

Nearly 35 years since the end of the war in 1975, Lao literature is in its most curious state. Desired but difficult to come by. Experimenting and transforming. Full of potential, but clearly in a zone of crisis if we cannot begin a meaningful resurgence, interest and commitment to literary excellence AND literary risk.

At the very least, bad writing produces bad entertainment. But bad writing also creates stagnant cultures and we don't have to have that.

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