I saw them when I was about ten years old. I had ventured into my uncle’s room to peruse the books on his shelf.

Among the textbooks from the community college where he was studying to be a mechanic, he owned a very small collection of books about Hmong people that included a set of old National Geographic magazines dating back to the mid-1960s. These particular issues included stories on the Vietnam War, and there were articles, maps, and color photos documenting the war in Laos along with the subsequent exodus of Hmong refugees to the United States.

It was the first time I had ever seen anything like it. Their goldenrod edges stood out against the oak finish of the bookcase. I flipped through the pages and attempted to grasp a cultural history that was entirely new to me. In awe, I stared at pictures of people who looked like me, were dressed in traditional Hmong clothing, and stood against a backdrop of mountains in a country I have never seen or visited. There were images of refugees peering through what looked like cell bars, emaciated bodies lying on mats in a camp, Hmong women weeping good-bye. All of it belonged to a war I knew nothing about. And more strikingly, it was printed in a mainstream American publication. A few years later, when my uncle moved away, I inherited a few of his books, along with this tattered set of National Geographic magazines.

Eight years ago, he passed, and I never got the chance to ask him where he found these magazines, why he kept these slim volumes, their spines studded with words.

My discovery of the magazines helped lay the groundwork for my curiosity about books and writing. So much was also rooted in how little I saw of myself in books growing up that it was often startling when I did see an image or find an obscure mention of Hmong people, most of which was produced or authored by a non-Hmong. Whether or not it was an issue of having access to the right books, it was as if my kind didn’t exist because I rarely ever saw anything about Hmong people in print, never mind coming across any Hmong poets.

Today, however, I am a poet who belongs to a generation of Hmong American writers challenging ourselves to write from this place of absence. For me, it means being able to harness what isn’t there, to transform that sense of literary deprivation into a new body of craft, to seek solace in knowing that the beauty of not having can usher forward an entire renaissance. It means taming the void into a voice of my own.

For underserved writing communities like the one I am from, carving out literary spaces and keeping those spaces sacred and consistent through years, sometimes decades, is a critical part of the emerging process. Every opportunity becomes a significant step toward much-needed visibility.

Few citizens in this country know about Hmong people and how we came to be here as refugees. During the Vietnam War, the United States Central Intelligence Agency led a covert operation in northern Laos, where many Hmong lived. Tens of thousands of Hmong boys and men, like my grandfathers and uncles, were recruited to fight Communism on the side of the Americans in what became known as the Secret War.

When the United States withdrew in 1975 and the Communists took power, hundreds of thousands of refugees escaped on foot to Thailand in fear for their lives. Many drowned crossing the Mekong river, others were killed in land mine explosions, while many more were murdered along the way. Those who survived the journey ended up in crowded refugee camps, where they lingered for years before being resettled in third-world countries.

Narratives of statelessness, war, and exile run deep in Hmong historical memory, along with a past as an unlettered people. For as long as Hmong people can remember, oral tradition has functioned as the primary medium used to pass our cultural practices, shamanic rituals, chants, and folktales from one generation to the next. To my best knowledge, there is no definitive history or formal documentation of where Hmong people originated. What little is known is that hundreds of years ago, my ancestors occupied the southwestern hills of China. Yet due to wars with the Chinese, along with ongoing pressure to assimilate into the dominant culture, they fled to Southeast Asia and sought refuge in the highlands of Laos. Some scholars have suggested that any traces of a Hmong writing system or books, if they existed, would have been destroyed during these ancient wars.

In the 1950s, missionaries arrived to Hmong villages in Laos. In order to preach, they developed a writing system for the Hmong language that was based on the Roman alphabet. Other systems were also developed through the years, but this Roman version survived enough to become the primary system utilized by most Hmong today.

Whether I want to or not, this is the story I have to tell every time I tell the story of Hmong people. As a writer, the historical lack of a written language only deepens the sense of absence I feel when I consider the context from which I write. Not only am I without a definitive literary tradition, but for a time, I also lacked the means to create that tradition. To have had our own known and formal writing system would have been instrumental in the production of books containing poetry, history, and other literature authored by a Hmong tongue.

On the other hand, however daunting it might be to write from this geography of absence, I also don’t ever for a minute regret or dare forget the vibrant oral tradition that has kept my culture alive all this time and allowed it to endure in the face of such odds. Some of these traditions, such as kwv txhiaj, a type of vocalized poetry sung in ballad style, often blur the boundaries between literature and the other arts. Another craft form, paj ntaub, consists of colorful cross-stitched embroidery and other similar tapestries that many believe contained symbolic ciphers or codes that Hmong women sewed onto clothing in order to covertly wear and record their history during the upheavals in China. In many ways, both of these cultural practices embody a written truth and function as their own kinds of literature even though they are not printed and bound. They are acts of resistance, the courageous innovations of ancestors and elders who were resourceful enough to adapt during a time when one was likely persecuted for intellectual or literary expression.

I find myself today at this historic junction between the oral and the written. I see my work attempting to retain what it means to be descended from a people whose way of life relied on the spoken word, while braiding that notion together with the need to pen one’s voice onto paper in order to survive this era and the next. I recognize that periods of war and exile have interfered with the Hmong potential to solidify a literary culture—war always got in the way. But in the current time of ongoing post-resettlement, it’s never been more urgent than now to set down my literary roots in order to help ensure a future that will include poetry. This essay and showcase of work by contemporary Hmong poets are steps in that direction.   

I hope the poems here offer readers the opportunity to discover and rediscover the work of Hmong American poets. These are the kinds of unknown voices that lend greater depth and diversity to the literary fabric of this country. Beyond this, I hope the poems serve as a keepsake of resistance. In my experience, to write is to resist against erasure, especially when you are Hmong and you come from a hill-tribe culture that has long been without a formal writing system until only recently, and your people were caught in a disposable war that the world was never supposed to know about. Writing, then, is about survival from becoming extinct, from being erased, from being forgotten. Poetry is no longer just an interest or activity but a required act that constantly reaffirms its necessity whenever I contemplate my cultural history or identity as a Hmong American woman. In my case, to write is to ensure that my history will be remembered.

To write is to also have access to shaping the attitudes toward and national narrative of one’s community. Learning how to write poetry has allowed me to engage in the craft of the establishment in order to write back against it. It has allowed me to use the tongue of the West against itself in order to weave my own narrative, my own literary being. No longer do I need to rely solely on non-Hmong sources to cite my own existence.

Recently, my nine-year-old niece started writing poetry. In this movement toward remembrance, I saw in her what I saw in myself when I first came across the National Geographic magazines. It first started out as a few lines in a journal she kept, which then turned into stanzas, and eventually became short meditative pieces about nature and the world around her. I jumped at the prospect of another poet in a family teeming with nurses and spent time with my niece talking about poetry, encouraging her to keep at it even if it was just a couple of lines now and then. Regardless of whether or not she chooses a life of writing, she is still part of the next generation that I hope will sustain whatever literary traditions I and other Hmong American poets put into place today.

Even so, our numbers are devastatingly few, so few that I am unable to name to the best of my knowledge more than ten Hmong American poets who have taken steps to pursue a life of writing. But we are much further along than where we were ten or twenty years ago.

Today, there are Hmong American playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters, and other writers, of course including poets, from California to the Midwest, who are gaining a tremendous foothold in the establishment. Grassroots literary organizations, such as the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, a group that I have had the privilege of working with, are instrumental in developing the capacity of writers who come from communities with fewer resources and little-to-no access.  

Such efforts are even more vital when taken within the context of a stateless, exiled people who have no way to return to a homeland. As a result of Hmong migrations spilling over time and borders, the vast wanderings from one river in a country to a highland in another, I’ve even asked myself: Where exactly am I being exiled from? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that for me, poetry is the country I never had. It is in the terrain of words—their formation on the panorama of a page, their utterances of another world, real and imagined, their silences, as well as their openness to shelter the history and offer asylum to the stories of a landless people—that poetry then becomes my homeland. It is the place I return to no matter how far I roam.

As much as it disturbs me to see the detached, outsider portrayal of my culture on the pages of the National Geographic magazines, it saddens me also to acknowledge that these magazines are part of the little I do have of a documented history. They are a reminder of how far Hmong people have come in the quest to assemble a voice. They affirm that I do not need to rely on writing by others in order to have documentation of my historical self. The magazines remain, but they exist now as relics, afterthoughts of what truly defines a people—the people themselves.