Behind the Lines: May Lee-Yang
Editor's Note: May Lee-Yang is a playwright and performance artist who explores Hmong and Hmong American identities, sexuality and more through her works. She has performed at Theater Mu, Intermedia Arts, the National Asian American Theater Festival, and Fringe Festival. As well as initiating and contributing to other arts organizations and collectives, she also works in arts leadership as a co-founder of Community Artists Leadership Initiative (CALI), which focuses on collaboration and inclusivity to provide resources and support for artists from marginalized communities in the Twin Cities.
I spoke with May about her monthly radio play called The Poj Laib Project—which roughly translates as “The Bad Hmong Girl Project"—on 90.3 KFAI’s HmongFM, and has been co-written with Lyncy Yang since July. Our conversation expanded to her beginnings as a writer, her work within the Hmong and Hmong American community, a Korean drama she is adapting to portray Hmong life, the applications of comedy, and the new forms she experiments with nowadays, from radio to puppet-making to a Hmong Fiddler on the Roof. Tune in at 6 p.m. CDT on the last Friday of each month to ThePoj Laib Project; the episodes and roundtable discussions can be found here on KFAI.org. The upcoming episode will air tonight, September 29. Special thanks to Dale Connelly, Mike Fischbein, Leah Honsky, Crystal Meisinger, and Kathy Mouacheupao for making these episodes available online.
This interview has been lightly edited for length.
Irene Hsu: Let’s talk about the basis of The Poj Laib Project, translated as "The Bad Hmong Girl Project," and the episode you worked on last August.
May Lee-Yang: The Poj Laib Project is the brainchild of Kathy Mouacheupao, who is one of the people who runs HmongFM [on KFAI], and was also the executive director of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent. She’s done a lot of work in the arts community and Hmong communities. She had an idea about creating radio plays to explore this notion of bad Hmong girls, because many of us have been labeled as "bad Hmong girls." In a lot of ways, we’re reclaiming it.
We talked about how many of us have been labeled "bad girls" by elders and others in our community. At our first planning meeting, we made a list of as many different types of "bad Hmong girls" we could think of. You were a "bad Hmong girl" because you ran away. You were a "bad Hmong girl" because you went to the library. Maybe you were a "bad Hmong girl" because you dated outside of the Hmong community, or when you played volleyball, because you should have been staying at home doing the dishes. You were a "bad Hmong girl" if you did well academically and thought you were better than everyone else. There were so many different varieties.
Kathy had the idea of creating these short radio plays that are funny in nature, as a way to talk about some of these issues. The format is that I write with Lyncy [Yang] to write 10-minute plays. We have actors and sound designers coming in. Once a month, Kathy invites different people to curate each conversation. They invite a panel of people who come and talk about themselves and respond to the plays.
In June, we kicked off the series with Sonic Rain as a curator, who picked Hmong women who identified as queer. July, there was a panel of Hmong women in inter-generational conversation about Hmong women who work in the professional sphere. This month, they’re talking to women who are considered as "old single ladies"—"old," as in mid- to late-20s.
IH: I know you had a Poj Laib Laus theater piece from October 2016—are they related?
MLY: Actually, that project was through an organization called Hmong Museum. Last year, they kicked off a project called Hmong Chronicles. They wanted to pair an artist with an elder to do something—performance, storytelling, something.
In 2014, I’d started a theater project with some Hmong elders. There were a couple from that group of whom I thought, “Wow, these people are so badass. They need to have their own show.” [Last year], I immediately went back to two of those elders from 2014 to ask about putting together a show. I took the term “Poj Laib Laus” from them. Unlike good old Hmong ladies who “should” be at home cooking and taking care of their grandkids, they decided to be bad women to come out to play at the elder’s center, where they eat, play pool, exercise. They don’t have to babysit and they do whatever they want, not part of the norm. So they use “Poj Laib Laus” jokingly. We ended up creating a 45-minute piece together that we performed—totally coincidental that the names were the same.
IH: I noticed for Poj Laib Laus you had multiple translations of it—"Old Gangster Ladies,” “Bad Girls,” “Badass Women.” Can you tell me about the relationship you see and want to cultivate through the arts among different generations of Hmong and Hmong Americans?
MLY: I think everyone has the capacity to be an artist. Unfortunately, we live in a society where it feels like only certain gifted people get to be artists. It’s been fascinating for me as a teaching artist to work with, for example, youth and senior citizens to create artwork. Some people have amazing stories, or are amazing performers. The difference between them and someone like me is that they never had a platform to try things out. I feel like I’m in a position where I can share resources, like, “Hey, I’ve got a gig. Do you want to perform?” In that way, I’ve been trying to amplify more voices.
You’ve probably heard of the term "the danger of a single story." There was this woman, [Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie], who did a TED talk on this, about how when you come from a marginalized community, it’s dangerous to have just one narrative of what this community is. Throughout my career, my life, people, both Hmong and non-Hmong people, in the professional and personal sphere, have always tried to put me in a box of who they thought I was. But I truly believe that if we have more stories, it will be harder to stereotype what kind of stories we’re supposed to own. For me, part of that is providing opportunities for other people to talk about themselves.
I think I grew up in a time when there were a lot of gatekeepers. When we don’t have a lot of people in a certain field, everyone goes to the same people. I’ve been pretty intentional about not being a gatekeeper. The way I look at it is, first of all, that it’s important to have more stories out there so people can’t stereotype us, but second, if I’m not confident in myself as an artist, I need to deal with that rather than blocking other people’s opportunities.
IH: Have there been challenges in achieving that vision?
MLY: It’s exhausting. One of the biggest challenges is that people have called me to say, “Hey, can you read this? Can I consult with you about this?” And my answer is usually, "Yes." Most of the time, I’m doing it because I know them—they’re my friends, or I want to be kind. I’m not getting paid to do it, necessarily. What happens is that it takes up my personal time, which could be used toward writing.
I’ve been thinking about this: my path as an artist. Would I have finished a lot more projects if I had done fewer community-related things, and [instead] just focused on my stuff? But I also realize that working within the community has helped to enrich me as an artist.
IH: You mentioned that the difference between you and other members of the Hmong community is that you were given an opportunity and platform. What was that first chance?
MLY: When I was 18, I found a bunch of Hmong writers, including Mai Neng Moua, who had already started building a Hmong writing community. I was a senior in high school. Everyone was already in college, or had graduated already. It could have been a very intimidating space, but [Mai Neng] said, “Hey, come join us,” which was really great. I felt like that was an opportunity.
That was [also] the year there was a Hmong theater company looking for actors to tour a play, called Hmong Tapestry. This was the first Hmong theater around. I auditioned, and I sucked—but they hired me. Again, I was 18. Everybody [else] was in their mid-20s. They had to get real jobs, start families, and couldn’t [continue to] do theater. Because of that, a lot of the folks in that theater company wanted to nurture new talent. Even though I wasn’t good, they hired me and I ended up touring with them and performing. Twenty years later—my God, that’s how old I am—I’m still doing theater. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but they gave me an entry into a world that I didn’t have access to, that I didn’t even know about. And I was just trying to make extra money on the side.
IH: I know in previous projects over yours, theater has been an important medium because it’s not necessarily accessible to older members of the Hmong community, and you see it as a way of reviving oral tradition and culture. Do you see radio as another aspect of this?
MLY: Totally. Even though I’m new to radio plays, radio is a huge part of the Hmong elderly community. Because we are an oral culture, a lot of elders didn’t have access to education and are not literate in Hmong or English. A lot of things had to be communicated orally. For example, when I was growing up, instead of writing letters, people would record stories on cassette tapes and send it across Laos, back to the United States, back and forth. I find that fascinating, the idea of cassette-recorded letters.
Then, back in Laos—I don’t know what it looked like before the war—but during the Secret War, they used radio as a way to get out information to people. I’m fascinated they had propaganda anti-communist music, nationalist music to unite Hmong people against communism, or to rally them.
Here, in the United States, radio continues to play a big role in the elderly community. They use it for music, news stories, a platform to sell products. There’s this whole world going on I don’t even know about. Radio is probably one of the biggest ways that elders have access to work. They call in, too. When I was working on the Hmong-language version of my play, Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman, I went in to do promo at a Hmong-speaking radio station. People called in—people say Hmong elders aren’t active, but no, they called in…. I was in their space, and they were there to validate, to challenge, to have conversations.
IH: What has the response been among the younger Hmong generation?
MLY: They’re excited! This is something I’ve learned. When I was younger, I thought old people were annoying and oppressive. Now, young people want to learn their stories, but don’t have a way to connect with them. Maybe it’s a language issue—you don’t speak Hmong well enough, and they don’t speak English well enough—or maybe it’s an issue of not knowing any senior citizens. Maybe it’s just not part of your family culture, so you can work with other people but you can’t talk to your own grandma.
Any single time I’ve done projects with senior citizens, we get a really good following—online, as well as in person. Every show that we did, there was a crowd. [The elders I worked with] were so excited and surprised, and felt validated. When I did the Poj Laib Laus [October 2016] project, the Eastside Freedom Library had maybe 100 seats, for this free event. Right away, tickets were booked. We made the decision to have a second night showing, which was not part of the plan. That just speaks to the fact that people are hungry and excited for any kind of connection. So I get to listen and hear experiences, build relationships with people—but the next step is for other folks to have that as well. Because the most interesting things for me are not necessarily the final show. It’s the process of getting there.
IH: Your theater work features a vignette-like structure. Given that radio plays also have this intimate, serial production of spaces, and given that the Poj Laib Project is about 10 minutes long, how does the relationship between the radio format and the themes of the show work together? And where does the impulse toward vignettes come from?
MLY: We only started doing this because it was an experiment. Originally, we wanted to do one long play, but realized it would be a lot of rehearsals and logistics. Kathy’s hope is that in December we’ll do a full-length, hour-long show. So the [10-minute structure] came about because we were playing around. We couldn’t land on a specific "poj laib" story, so we decided to spend every month featuring a type of poj laib.
Ironically, in real life I’m long-winded, but when I write, I write in a short chunks because, one, I’m inspired by things like Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street or Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. They’re not long pieces of work. I’ve been trying to figure things out—this craft of creating work. I think that’s why my previous works have lived as vignettes. [Also], for a very practical reason, it’s easier to write short chunks than something big. I read a quote by a writer who said that books are written by people with the privilege of time. Poetry, or short prose, are things that people who are marginalized—especially people of color, women—have to settle for. They don’t have the luxury of sitting around for a long time. Maybe they’re writing here and there during short breaks. I think for my life, it feels frantic. I’m always writing, performing, teaching, consulting, volunteering, doing family stuff, doing unofficial social work. Writing is a part of my life, but I don’t have long chunks of time to sit.
That said, the last two plays I wrote were much longer than my usual stuff. They’re plays that are not about my life—I’m sure they’re about part of my life, but they’re about fictional characters, in a traditional play format.
IH: I also want to ask you about what you see as the role of art-making and cultural production in Hmong and Hmong American identities and experiences.
MLY: I see it as a reflection of society. I’m sure this is relevant to anybody regardless of background, but for me, being specifically a Hmong American writer right now, I’m cognizant that the things we create now will be remembered as Hmong American history in the future. I’m aware that I’m living in an interesting moment of Hmong American history. I’m a 1.5 generation refugee. I came right after the war. I remember my parents’ generation of people—I don’t know it as well as I should. I have siblings and relatives who grew up here as teenagers. I’ve seen their worlds. Then, there are people like me, who came here as little kids. I grew up as an American as well. I got to see the old world, the Hmong American world, and the new Hmong American world, or whatever you want to call it.
When I think about the works I’ve created, they are a reflection of Hmong life. I have a play that hasn’t been produced yet—The Divorcee Diaries—which I wrote a couple years ago. When I was growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, [Hmong people who] were divorced were ostracized. Then, in the 2000s, people had divorces. The play takes place at a nightclub, at a bar—but Hmong women didn’t drink back in the days! So it’s a piece of Hmong culture that didn’t exist when I was growing up. The play does talk a bit about why we think divorces are happening now, as well as why people are drinking more than they were, back in the day.
Even the Korean drama play I’m working on, that’s not a part of Hmong culture, but it’s reflective of who we are right now in this time and space.
IH: Could you tell me more about this drama play?
MLY: It will be produced through Mu Performing Arts in 2018 and Park Square Theater. The play is called The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity. The story is about a Hmong woman in Minnesota who is a Korean drama addict, and what happens when she meets a real-life Korean heir. But within that, I wanted to play around with the tropes of what I call “drama land.” I was clear from the get-go that I wanted this to be a romantic comedy. Though some people in the snooty art world would probably look down on romances— “But what’s the deeper issue?”—I feel like there are so few opportunities to showcase Asian American love stories! We always have to talk about issues or hard stuff. Romance seems frivolous. But I personally don’t see enough representations of Asian-on-Asian love. I felt that was important. And to have a comedy, at that.
There’s a lot of culture clash. It’s been interesting workshopping the play with actors and audience members. One of the things that people gravitate toward the most is learning more about Hmong culture, or Korean culture, or Korean drama culture. We don’t have enough plays that talk about cross-cultural relationships, not romantically, but in general.
IH: How do you deal with that as a Hmong American woman writing tropes from Korean dramas?
MLY: I needed to make sure I was grounded in the Hmong world. The play wasn’t a Korean drama, and is set here in Minnesota, about a Hmong woman who ends up living in a Korean drama-like world through a Hmong lens. I incorporate a lot of Hmong cultural stuff in there about spiritual beliefs. [The main character] has ghosts that populate the world. Even within Korean dramas, there are so many different genres—gender-bending dramas, supernatural dramas, medical dramas. This merges with my world because it’s a supernatural rom-com; in the Hmong world, ghosts are just a part of our life.
There are always a lot of questions I end up having to navigate: Are Hmong people going to be annoyed at me? We’re in Minnesota, [so] I needed to acknowledge our Korean adoptee population here—I couldn’t write a play about Korean dramas and totally ignore them. Even if it was just one or two mentions, [acknowledgment] needed to happen. There’s also a Hmong man in the play, who is an antagonist to the heroine, so I was aware that someone’s going to look at this and think, “The one Hmong man in the play is someone she doesn’t like. What is this commentary that you’re making about Hmong men?”
It’s a lot of policing of myself, of anticipating what people will say. When it’s all said and done, I feel I will be in a good place to respond to a lot of these criticisms. The great thing is, sometimes I think about all of this stuff, and people go, “It’s funny!” Great. Done. But if these questions come, I’ll be in a place where I can defend this. I’ve checked my facts. I’ll stand by this.
IH: How do you negotiate that relationship, between the people represented in your works and the communities themselves?
MLY: It’s a couple of things. You need to understand who you are and what your work is, so that you can listen to feedback but also, at the end of the day, make a decision about what you think this piece is about, and not let yourself get bullied into creating a work you didn’t want to create. At the same time, you need to have that humility: “Okay. I am an artist, but I can’t just represent something without consequences.” For instance, if anyone is angry about my representation of Hmong men in any of my work, what they probably don’t realize is that before that character even gets out in the public space, I’m already thinking about how to humanize him, so he’s not demonized. I’m already regulating myself.
There is danger in complete artistic freedom—like the Walker’s scaffold project. At the end of the day, you should at least be aware of what the ramifications might mean, or what your intentions are in creating this piece. There is a Latino woman who wrote a book called Hey, Hmong Girl, Whassup?: The Diary of Choua Vang. There aren’t many, if any, books about Hmong young adults. People were looking at it as though: “Hey, it’s a book. It’ll tell your story.” I picked it up and I was really disturbed... Her character would say things like, “Oh yeah, my dad beats me up all the time but that’s just Hmong culture.” There are all these things that her character just says blatantly, in a blasé way. There’s no complexity or nuance to it.
I’m not saying that we need to create "good images" of Hmong people, or whomever else you’re writing about. I just think about the number of young people or folks outside the community who read this and are like, “Okay, so that’s their culture. Beating up their kids up is a norm.” For me, as a Hmong person, this is a dangerous story. I think you can write about other cultures other than your own. I’m not against that at all. But for example, because Hmong people are the “more mysterious” Asians, people can say stuff like this and others won’t know any better and will just believe it.
IH: Going back to expanding the pool of artists so as to make any cultural narrative richer, another kind of work you do is for Community Artists Leadership Initiative (CALI). Could you tell me more about that? How do you manage work in arts leadership with your writing?
MLY: We have a lot of arts organizations here in the Twin Cities. Some artists, especially people of color, don’t even know about these organizations, or some organizations don’t know how to reach out to people of color.
CALI was accidentally started by me and three other people—Saymoukda Vongsay, [Julia] Nekessa Opoti, and Desdamona [Rox]. In the past 15 years of all of our lives is that, as we were working as artists, there were other aspiring artists who would just come ask us for advice. We thought, why don’t we just make this more formalized and create CALI? People who are not part of any of our networks, personal or professional, can have access to us. We started doing workshops for marginalized artists, specifically for Asian American artists, one for Hip Hop artists. We’ll do more.
Part of it is trying to give people access to money that’s already out there. Part of it is training people to speak “grantspeak.” Part of it is encouraging more of these people to sit on these panels, so that you can change the conversation. If you sit on the panel and you’re part of this world, you can advocate for it and help to provide context so other panelists will understand, rather than dismiss it. We're trying to provide people opportunity, to connect people to resources that already exist, to build community, and maybe change the face of who gets funded and who makes the decision about funding for the arts.
IH: What is the role of humor and sass in your work?
MLY: I don't sit around and think about jokes—I think those are actually really boring. The kinds of comedy I find interesting are when people just say honest stuff—that's how I roll. It disarms people. I always see comedy in everyday life. It's not that I have a more interesting life—I think I'm just paying attention and listening.
Mooks [Saymoukda], Naomi Ko, and I have been doing this other initiative called Funny Asian Women Kollective (F.A.W.K.). We're using comedy to combat microaggressions. Sure, we're trying to build more Asian women who can maybe be entertainers and all that, but there are also really practical life issues. People say dumb stuff to you. How do you speak back? How do you do it in a way that will not get you fired, beaten up, but will leave you more empowered?
IH: Art is often taught, or conceived, as something separate from everyday life. Would you say that art and everyday life have always worked together for you, or was there an influential moment that affected your approach to the two?
MLY: I saw art as very separate from my everyday life, but when I reflect on it, I think it was part of my life. People gossiping—that's storytelling. My aunt telling me bedtime stories—folk tales, which I've retold since—that was art. I just didn't know. A lot of Hmong girls my age and older ended up learning how to sew paj ntaub, which is a Hmong form of embroidery. I never learned, but that's a form of art. We didn't think of it in that way. We thought of it as a burden.
I didn't grow up getting to learn an instrument, or see plays. When I read books, I read them not because somebody made me read them, but because I wanted to read them. I would read books out of boredom. A lot of people look down on TV and video games, but [they] taught me about storytelling. Playing video games also taught me about characters, world building, and storytelling. I access art in a different way. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 12 or 13, but I didn't take a creative writing class until I was 20 or 21. For me, it was about not having access. I think that's why I'm intentional now about creating access for other people.
IH: Do you remember any artworks—TV shows, movies, books, or anything else—that have changed the course of your writing, your work, or your life?
MLY: The first book I really, really liked was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. People always wonder, "What do you have in common with nineteenth-century white girls?" But I felt a lot of affinity for Louisa May Alcott, as well as her main heroine, Jo. It turns out that a lot of the heroines I like are like this. She—as well as Laura Ingalls Wilder—are second daughters in the family, tomboys, ended up being teachers, took care of other people in their families because they were supposedly [emotionally] stronger, and ended up being writers. And had issues with their older sisters—all stuff that I resonated with. That was the first book I read that made me think, "I have to finish this. What is going on?" I read that when I was in seventh grade, and that started me on my journey to writing.
Years later, in high school, I read The House on Mango Street. Even though she was a Chicana writer writing about Chicano culture in Chicago, I really connected with that world. It was one of the first times I saw poor people of color, just living in their neighborhoods doing their thing. Even the format was really interesting. I was like, "Hold on. I thought chapters were supposed to be pages and pages. This is only one paragraph!"
The worlds I saw in books and movies were primarily of people who were middle class or upper middle class—primarily white families. Talking about poverty and—I didn't know this until later—racism, was a world I understood really well, but I thought that was stuff to keep on the down-low. I thought, you do not reveal that to the world.
IH: What is one book or play, or another work, that you want to create but don't have the bandwidth to do yet, isn't formulated, or isn't ready to be explored?
MLY: I want to write a musical set in Laos during the 1970s. I want it to be a Hmong Fiddler on the Roof. I want it to have a soundscape of radios—I mentioned earlier that in the '60s and '70s, Hmong people used radio as a form of communication. They had music that had anticommunist music, and I want to recover some of that music and make some more new stuff. I want people to play the qeej so instead of a fiddle.
The challenging thing for me is, the scale of that is huge. I'm not a musician. I need to find those kinds of songs so I can either use or replicate versions of them. In some ways, it's a race against time, collecting all those stories before people who used to live in that world die. And then training enough actors—Hmong and non-Hmong actors—so that they can inhabit that world. Because I'm thinking about bringing in people who do folk arts to be in the mainstream [art] world, getting them trained and ready to go is a challenge. I have an idea about the story, but the scale feels really large. That needs to be a collaborative venture.
IH: What is the role of collaboration in your life as an artist?
MLY: As a writer, not that much. As a theater artist, a lot. All the time. In the theater world, I'm always collaborating with a dramaturge, who provides feedback and edits. There's a director who interprets your work. There are actors, designers, even audience members who might come in during the early phases of your work and provide feedback.
In the case of this last project, collaboration would be so different. I would have to work with choreographers and musicians to create things from scratch, and I'll probably be working with people who have never worked in theater. They do their work, and they do amazing things, but our worlds probably have never merged before. So for me, collaboration is always learning to create something new together. Most of us have probably never done any of the stuff before, and it would also require mentorship from outside the Hmong community to make this work. Collaboration is super key.
Irene Hsu is currently an editorial intern at The New Republic. Prior to that, she was the Loft's Marketing & Communications Intern and Graywolf Press's Editorial Intern. Her poetry has appeared in the Asian American Writer's Workshop's editorial platform, the Margins. She is currently working on a personal essay about studying literature in the Silicon Valley.