Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Taking Care in the Digital Realm: Hmong Story Cloths and the Poverty of Interpretation on Hmongemboridery.Org

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Taking Care in the Digital Realm: Hmong Story Cloths and the Poverty of Interpretation on Hmongemboridery.Org

Article excerpt

Introduction

The object pictured is a Hmongpaj ntaub or "story cloth" (fig. 1). Its actual size is 46x54 centimeters, and it is constructed by surface stitching with cotton thread onto a blue fabric background. Though its place of origin and artist cannot be verified, it is very likely that this story cloth was made by Hmong women refugees in Thailand's Ban Vinai refugee camp, which is depicted in the bottom right of the cloth, in the 1980s-1990s. The Hmong are an indigenous group who originally lived in East Asia, particularly in the mountainous regions of Laos, Vietnam, and China. A people with a long history of displacement, the Hmong were uprooted from their homes in the 1970s during what Americans call the Vietnam War and what Hmong call the Secret War because of their CIA-endorsed support to United States troops. Led by General Vang Pao, Hmong forces worked with the CIA in Laos and Vietnam to defend United States troops and resist the communist Pathet Lao and Vietnamese Viet Cong. (3) After the United States pulled out of the region in 1974-1975, the Hmong were left vulnerable to the enemy. An estimated sixty-five thousand or more Hmong were killed, and approximately one hundred thousand sought protection in Thailand, attempting the long mountainous journey to refugee camps. Nearly half died in their journey. The remaining Hmong survived in the camps, which were often sites of violence towards Hmong, where story cloths like the one portraying the Secret War in Laos were created (fig. 1). (4) The story cloth accounts for Hmong experience of trauma and displacement during the Secret War. It also accounts for Hmong strength.

Though the Hmong have been creating fabric arts for thousands of years, Secret War era story cloths record Hmong displacement in unique ways. Because Hmong language did not become alphabetized until 1950, many Hmong refugees did not record their histories in writing. (5) However, the Hmong did create story cloths as a means of recording and expressing both individual and collective experiences. Though perhaps unconventional texts--at least in Western terms--the story cloths hold and continue to produce rich meanings and accounts of Hmong history. (6) In her memoir of Hmong American experience, The Latehomecomer, Kao Kalia Yang explains the significance of story cloths during her mother's escape from North Vietnam: "... her mother gave her gifts--fine embroidery she had spent hours in the hot sun making, little pieces of cloth carefully lined with flowery symbols and connected squares that told the history of the Hmong people, a lost story, a narrative sewn but no longer legible" (17). Some scholars believe that the story cloths contain a special ancient script of Hmong experience hidden in the designs. (7) However, for most, these meanings remain somewhat uninterpretable. Even Xai S. Lor, who is a Hmong paint artist and story cloth digital curator, speaks to the enigmatic quality of the story cloths: "Today, no one can decode these messages because the original language's meaning has been lost" (Shah). (8)

Despite the story cloths' enigma and absence of written language, Hmong experience is recorded in them through vivid threads, designs, and figures, as well as through oral stories and memory. Hmong story cloths show how meaning can exist and be conveyed without being interpretable--especially through cross-cultural and transnational frames of reference. In some cases, like the story cloths, meaning cannot be made simple or linear. While Hmong and non-Hmong scholars have worked to explain the cultural importance of story cloths for Hmong, and even to decode the cloths, the significance of uninterpretability and enigma in the cloths has not been explored.

The Hmong story cloth is one of 213 made digitally accessible to a viewing public through HmongEmbroidery.org, an online virtual textiles museum run by the Hmong Cultural Center and Hmong Archives, located in Saint Paul, MN (fig. …

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