As the first generation to grow up with a written language,
English -- rather than the spoken Hmong -- the members of a writers'
circle are addressing a new kind of coming of age in the United
In many ways, the preoccupations of the young writers who gather
every week here over supermarket cheese and crackers are those of
young people everywhere. They grapple with loneliness, the
mystifying behavior of siblings, being gay, the parents who do not
But as the first generation to grow up with a written language,
English -- rather than the traditional spoken Hmong -- the members
of the Hmong American Writers' Circle are addressing a new kind of
coming of age in the United States. It is one in whi ch living room
sofas are moved for the arrival of a shaman on Saturday mornings and
in which Fourth of July fireworks are avoided because they elicit
terrifying flashbacks among their parents.
Mai Der Vang, a 30-year-old poet and a project director for New
America Media, an ethnic news organization, writes about the lives
her mother and father could not have:
And what you learn on back-to-school night,
when your mother does not know how to
write your name on the chalkboard
of your fourth grade class.
They call themselves the 1.75 generation, mostly born in the
United States but still strongly identifying with their Hmong roots.
They are the sons and daughters of the thousands of Hmong villagers
in Laos who were covertly trained by the C.I.A. to repel communist
forces during the Vietnam War. Although the oldest writers were born
in Thai refugee camps, most grew up in the Central Valley of
California or in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area of Minnesota.
In the United States, traumatic memories of wartime atrocities
are often compounded by language issues, poverty and social
isolation. The writers' parents grew up not only without a written
language, but without much knowledge of the outside world.
In monthly workshops and in "How Do I Begin?", an anthology of
their writing recently published by Heyday Books, Ms. Vang and her
colleagues try to make sense of the dualities of growing up Hmong
American, especially the hidden inner lives of parents often
expressed as an inchoate sadness.
In Laos, only one child -- usually the eldest son -- was chosen
to attend school, said Pos L. Moua, 41, a creative writing and
English teacher at Merced College in California. When his father was
younger, he spent his days "taking food to his older brother, a long
journey by donkey," Mr. Moua said. Now 74 and ailing, Mr. Moua's
father had deeply wanted an education; when his son read him a poem
he had written, he wept.
"They have an urge to talk about feelings," Mr. Moua said of his
father. "But the limitations in the new world changed the way they
The limitations have been profound: about a quarter of Hmong
families in the United States live in poverty. In Fresno, the
percentage is even higher, at 35 percent. And in California, nearly
43 percent of Hmong 25 and older have less than a high school
diploma, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S.
I n a study of the Hmong community by the Center for Health
Disparities at the University of California, Davis, poverty was
cited by families as a major contributor to mental illness. In the
1990s, a wave of teen suicides in Fresno cast the challenges of
assimilation into relief, with truancy among boys still a major