Behind the Lines: Mai Neng Moua
Mai Neng Moua is a writer and editor who has worked for over two decades to amplify Hmong and Hmong-American voices in the literary arts. She founded and edited Paj Ntaub Voice, a journal of Hmong literature, and also edited the anthology Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong-Americans. In addition to being a crucial figure in the modern Hmong literary arts movements, she is currently a Rapid Response Specialist for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic. She is also the mother of two, and as of late, a tireless campaigner for her husband, Blong Yang, in his re-election for Minneapolis city council.
Near the end of August, I sat down with Mai Neng to discuss her most recent memoir, the risks of writing, and the role of literature as it extends from traditional Hmong oral culture. Her memoir, The Bride Price: A Hmong Wedding Story, centers on her refusal of nqi mi nqi hno, which translates roughly to "the bride price." In this part of the traditional Hmong marriage ceremony, the bride price is what the groom's family gives to the bride's parents as "a kind of 'insurance' so that the groom and his family will love and value the bride," as Mai Neng writes. Mai Neng's refusal of the bride price at the beginning of the memoir unfolds into a thoughtful, thorough exploration of intergenerational conflict between her and her mother, Niam; cultural clashes between Hmong and Hmong American culture; and the process of learning about and navigating these conflicts in adulthood.
Mai Neng will be discussing her memoir on November 28 at the University of Minnesota, alongside Professor Mai Na Lee of Hmong and Southeast Asian History, and Asian American literature and drama scholar Yuan Ding. The event is free and open to all.
Irene Hsu (IH): How did you get started writing, especially about your mother?
Mai Neng Moua (MNM): When I went to college, it was the first time I was away from home. I started writing about my mom and trying to figure out why she was such a hardass. Growing up as a daughter with a younger brother and an older brother, my mom was always very strict. I started writing her story and never intended to write about myself. I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Most writers probably feel that way—when are you really writer? At what point do you feel like you’ve made it?
IH: How would you answer that last question—when did you become a writer?
MNM: I think writers are people who feel like they have something to say or share with the world. They have an experience that will illuminate certain other experiences in other people’s lives. I think I felt like I was a writer when I published this story, called “Grocery Shopping at Byerley’s.” It was this story about being on welfare and going to the grocery store with my mom, and being the kid who counted out the food stamp coupons because I could speak English and communicate with the cashier, and being very embarrassed I was with my mom and hoping none of my school friends saw me.
It was published in the college literary magazine. I remember seeing those words in black and white and feeling this angst—everyone’s going to read this story and know that my family is poor and we’re on public assistance.
I still remember getting that literary magazine, and not knowing if I should be happy it was published. I was actually kind of scared. I remember Kai, my older brother, saying, “Why didn’t you write a happy story?” I also remember one of my friends—she, too, was almost embarrassed, like , “Why would you share this? It’s so intimate.”
And I thought, “Well, that’s what writers do. That’s part of my lived experience.”
IH: That sounds like a really complicated first story.
MNM: When you’re writing for yourself, that experience of putting out into the world...it’s a separate thing. Are you ready for the reception? For how people will take it? Maybe some writers don’t care, but for me, that was a big moment.
IH: I got a sense of the risks in your writing—I remember reading the chapter, “Unanswered Questions,” which starts off with unpacking “to marry” in both Hmong and English. You say, “I realize that these literal translations sound barbaric. I am afraid that by supplanting this literal definition I will get myself in trouble with Hmong readers.” What is the process of translating between cultures, when there’s the danger of imposing one culture’s values—for instance, Western values— on another?
MNM: I tried, the best I could, to honor [Hmong elders’] sensibility. But I’m also a Hmong-American woman who grew up here, in the U.S., with all these different values, that are very different from a patriarchal society. I grew up with non-Hmong women who told me I could be anything I wanted to be, who didn’t put limits on my jobs or aspirations or dreams, versus growing up having to carry out my gender roles. How do you honor yourself and honor your parents, your culture?
Bride price is complicated. For me, at the end of the book, it’s not this woman standing at the top of the mountain saying, “I’ve conquered the bride price, this evil thing.” The protagonist is still asking, “Did I do the right thing?” Yes, change needs to happen, but there’s still some ambivalence about the decision.
IH: On the one hand, the memoir deals with your mother’s story through the bride price—which remains an enigma at the end. Then, there’s a strand of narrative about you and Blong getting to know your contexts and communities. Throughout the memoir, there is this theme of uniting these two strands and ends on two notes—on the one hand, ambivalence about ending the bride price, and on the other hand, you help Blong run for city council as a way of taking action for your community. In memoir there’s also a strong tendency to want to give a moral of the story. How did you deal with that with multiple strands at the end of your memoir?
MNM: People want resolution, something nice and clean and neat. But life is messy, complicated. That’s where I am, in my head. Blong has always been okay with the decision [of the bride price], but it’s taken me a long time to say that it was the right thing to do. The protagonist is always like “That’s the right thing. No it isn’t. Yes it is,” just wanting to appease everyone around her. I struggled with, how should it end? Some of my readers asked, what advice do you have for young people? What does it mean? What is the moral of the story? I didn’t really feel like saying, in the end, “Hmong women! Don’t do it! [The bride price] is evil!”
IH: What pushed you to be writing this book at the moment you did?
MNM: When my mom and I didn’t talk for a year, the book started as letters to Niam. When we didn’t talk, I wrote a series of letters to her, as a way to communicate to her, to talk to her. The book took 13 years. When I first wrote it, I was really angry. I wanted to get my uncles in trouble. It took me a long time. Life happened—I had two kids. But I also had to grow up. I couldn’t have understood my mother’s deep love for me until I had kids. When your mother isn’t talking to you and people are like, “Your mother loves you!” I’m like, “Well, I don’t know about that.” And all your aunties and uncles are looking at you like they want to kill you for doing this bad thing. But I’m glad the book didn’t get written in those first few years. It would have been a very different book.
In those years, I matured, and the book matured with me to become a deeper book that probed more about meaning and also tried to honor my mother’s voice.
IH: In the book, you mentioned that you had a sudden realization that you weren’t privy to a lot of parts of your culture—especially as a woman, since Hmong men are the ones who are in charge of passing down tradition. The memoir felt like a symbolic mode for empowerment, a way to document knowing, not just knowledge, as you say in one part of the memoir.
MNM: I think this is where a lot of young Hmong people are—searching and not understanding. Hmong people and their parents, the way they teach or don’t teach us, they just learn very differently. I need to ask questions, dumb questions. But the parents and elders act like this is wrong, like I shouldn’t ask any questions. I felt like the book is this Hmong person searching and discerning, and being surprised she doesn’t know certain things that seem like common knowledge.
I don’t think I’m the only one. I think there are a lot of young people who ask the same questions and want conversations with the elders and adults. We want them to talk to us, to explain things to us. It often times feels like you only find out about this when it’s too late. Is it my fault that I’m not paying attention? Is it their fault, because they didn’t tell me?
IH: The book has this explanatory nature—even as a non-Hmong person, I was deeply appreciative of this memoir and the lucid way you describe your thought process as you’re figuring out Hmong traditions.
MNM: I struggle with that. As a writer, you’re always thinking, how much Hmong culture and religion do I need to explain until I get to the issue? How much cultural context do people need to have to even understand what’s going on? How do I weave it into the story?
I also can’t make the assumption that young Hmong people know. And my book isn’t just for young Hmong people. It’s for any reader who picks it up. I don’t know if I did a good job with that. It’s not sociological or anthropological, not Hmong 101. But if it’s the only book people pick up about Hmong culture, there’s always the dilemma of how much you tell, how much you give. I always wonder, did I pull it off?
For The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, [Anne Fadiman] has one chapter has cultural context, and the other chapter has the story. It’s appropriate for her as a white woman, a journalist—it worked for her. But I wanted to weave the context into the story. It’s interesting that lots of researchers have studied Hmong culture, but no one has done any research, or written any books, on the bride price. I was surprised. The [anthropologists and researchers] have done so much stuff, but this whole thing on the bride price—I didn’t see anything.
IH: I'm curious how, in the memoir, you talk about how motherhood enabled a change in your relationship with the Hmong community—especially your mother. Would you say that writing plays a similar role in that the very state of being a writer changes your relationships?
MNM: I still have that same fear of the first story being published in black and white, of wondering, "Did I say too much?" I translated 90% of the novel to my mother. My older brother never saw this manuscript—neither have my uncles. I still have that fear of what my uncles will think about it when they read it. What I fear is that people won’t read the book—they’ll just hear about it, and be mad and angry. As a writer, I'm committed to the story. I wrote the story for myself, for young Hmong people. They can write their own stories.
One of my readers, a Hmong cultural anthropologist, read an early manuscript and in the margins, he was really mad. I was blown away by his emotional reaction. It was this visceral reaction—like, "You think you know so much and you're so educated. What a Hmong daughter!"
He was a writer and a Hmong elder and a cultural anthropologist. I expected a different reaction, but he was honest and true to himself as an older Hmong male. I knew that this would be indicative of some of the reactions I'd get from the older generation who would read it and think who would think, "You just want both cultures. First, you throw away the Hmong but you still want them to treat you well."
Blong was saying, "They’re not attacking your writing. They’re attacking you as a person—that you’re a bad daughter." And I was like, "Yeah, that's true, I guess. I didn't do what they wanted." The reaction is not a reaction against my writing, but against me, as a “bad daughter.”
IH: That sounds useful—but also potentially exhausting—to know and always have to keep in mind. Now that the book has been published for a couple of months, how do you process reactions from within and outside of the Hmong community?
MNM: Because it’s in English, I don’t know how much older Hmong people will read this. There’s this older Hmong man who didn’t even read it but he came up to me and Blong, saying, "You know that book, it’s not good for young Hmong people." And I’m like, "You didn't even read it. You don't even know what the book is about. You didn’t even give that a chance."
In some of the readings I’ve done, I’ve had really good conversations with young Hmong women, who ask, “How do I talk to my dad about [the bride price]? How do I even enter this conversation in which I have no say, no control?” It’s easy to talk to mom, but the person you really need to talk to is your dad.
I'm not saying I'm right, but I encourage young people to try and understanding, to talk to their dads about why this is important, what this is about, and get their perspective first. Sometimes Hmong people, they're not even sure how they feel about [the bride price]. What is it? Why do I want it? Do I want it? Figuring out their own values and feelings can be hard because Hmong parents don’t have discussions about this—especially with women. To even have that conversation is important. When you ask your parents, "Why do you do it?" And our parents are like, "Well it’s just the way we are. It's what we do." That’s not enough. We need to know the deep meaning behind it. We need to be allowed to ask dumb questions. We don’t know.
IH: You're seen as a major advocate for Hmong literary arts, what role do you think writing plays in this exploration of values, culture and tradition?
MNM: Hmong people come from oral culture. We didn’t have a writing system until the 1950s. Unlike other cultures that have had manuscripts, things written on walls, records of their lives, we don’t have that. I’ve always been jealous of those cultures that have this literary tradition that scholars can pour over and go back to and study. What was Hmong life like in the 1500s? I don't know! I feel like this written literature piece is a continuation of the oral arts, that will leave a record behind in a tradition. That's important. When I’m gone, my kids are gone, and all this stuff is gone, what’s left of the culture, of Hmong life, in the 2000s?
Because I can write, this is what’s left behind. What about all the other people who can’t write—my mother, her story; my uncles, their side of the story? We talk about history and what's written down, and what’s remembered. Those elders’ stories are important to tell, too—their versions of the story. As a writer, I get to write my version. My version is what’s printed, and what people read. I’m conscious of the power I have as a writer. There are so many more stories to be told, than are told.
IH: You run the Paj Ntaub Voice and you're the editor of the first Hmong anthology, Bamboo Among the Oaks. How does that advocacy for other voices to tell their stories inform your own writing? Where do you see Hmong literary arts in a decade?
MNM: As a young Hmong writer, I wanted to read other Hmong writers. I wanted to know if they were struggling, with their moms and cultures. I started this literary arts magazine and the only people I could convince to do free work were college kids. In not finding Hmong writers and voices in even the Asian American anthologies, and having these social scientists study us and speak for us, it was important for me and other Hmong writers to be able to tell stories in our own voices.
Being from this culture where the oral arts are so important and creative, I didn’t understand why we weren’t doing this ourselves. This magazine was just important to get these stories out. There are so many talented Hmong people. We needed an avenue to have these stories. It was really cool. It’s a really exciting time to be a Hmong writer. Mai Der Vang just won the Walt Whitman award! All these Hmong writers who are publishing, who are writing, I want them to add to my body of knowledge, to push me beyond what I know, to make me think. I don’t have to like the story, but I want it to give me new perspectives. We have poets, we have creative non-fiction writers, we have spoken word artists.
What I’d love to see [in the coming generation] is—we have a lot of Hmong elders who are passing away. There’s a need to capture their stories and their voices before we lose them all. I have one maternal uncle who is in his 80s. But where do I start? What questions do I ask?
IH: What would you say is the role of knowing your family history in your own writing?
MNM: As kids, we remember certain things in certain ways. Oftentimes they’re not true, or not the whole picture. I needed to know some of those factual information, factual things. It’s one of the things I need my mom for—the factual information. These, the details and specifics are most important to cement us in the story.
If we don’t ask now, when my uncle passes away, I won’t have any of that information or knowledge. Even with my mom’s story, there are gaps in her story. There are things, I’m like, “What happened there?” The specifics and details of everybody’s lives are so different. I used to think that Hmong people had the same story of crossing to the Mekong River and coming the U.S., but my mom was a widow and she had three kids. Her story is different from others' stories. As writers, our job is to uncover those things and find the hidden stories that people have forgotten. There’s a lot of work.
IH: [In August,] you were also helping your husband with his campaign for re-election. How do you balance these roles with your role as a mother, your role as a daughter, your role as a writer?
MNM: I think that’s why the writing takes so long. There’s all these other roles. I tend to go a little crazy when I don’t write. I think as a writer, there’s always this yearning. You’ll always come back to it. Even when you're not writing, it’s in your head.
For me, the struggle is that sometimes writing comes last. If I’m working, I have two kids, and my husband’s on a campaign, I need the headspace, the emotional space, to be able to process and think. It’s been hard with the political state of the U.S. I feel like there’s so much going on that troubles me with [Donald] Trump. I feel tired. I don’t have the headspace to do the writing. For me, I need to be able to hear my own thoughts. Right now, I can’t because there’s all this distraction and noise.
My daughters voted in school. The morning of the election, Sam, the little one, woke up and asked, "Who won? When she found out Donald Trump won, she was upset. She said, "How did he win? He doesn’t like my color, mom." I was like, "Can we have this conversation later? I can’t explain this now." Their dad won because he had the most votes. But how do I explain the electoral college? Even from the election till now, I still feel troubled. I think a lot of people are in the same space.
IH: Are there books or art that help you navigate this right now?
MNM: For me, I’ve coped with it by disengaging at times. I’m an artist. I’m not a politician! I think that’s where the arts come in. We need some relief. We need hope. The role of the arts is to give us hope. To say, all is not lost. We’ve got a big role to play.
IH: Who are the writers you see doing that work?
MNM: Lots. I’m so excited to see Bao [Phi]’s work [in children’s literature]. As a parent, and especially for kids, we really don’t have children’s literature for people of color that reflect my kids and their experiences. We need more of that. We need young adult novels. My daughters are seven and nine. What do I want them to read? Sweet Valley High? Oh my God, I hope not. It's cool those things are out there, but I want them to read things that reflect what they are, that says their experiences are important, they are important, so important that they’re at the center of the book.
IH: What about books that have changed the course of your writing or your life?
MNM: In high school, the first book that told me I could be a writer was Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. I always thought that poetry was complicated, and to be a writer, I needed to know all these fancy words. But I read this book and I was like, wow. I know all these words. And there were all these stories that I felt like, for the first time, reflected who I was, as a poor person who didn't like her name or struggled with English. It could have been a Hmong American story.
Then, in college, I read Charlie Chan is Dead. It showed these Asian Americans who were wild and had affairs. It was such a different portrayal of Asian Americans as actors, as agents of their own—these amazing stories of Asian Americans who cursed. It was revolutionary. I loved it. It was like, “Yeah!” It didn’t have these weak Asian Americans on TV who were asexual and couldn't speak English—like [the character "Long Duck Dong" in] Sixteen Candles. It was like, these are the characters I want to write about, characters who are strong, who have a voice, who curse. That was a really good book for me. These are the Asian Americans I read who fight and lie and gossip, who work hard. It was cool.
IH: What's your next project?
MNM: My next project is to interview my mom. I want to dig deeper into her story and make a promise to her that The Bride Price was my story and told from my perspective. I want to help her write her own story, in her own voice. I want to help her translate her story. That’s the first course. I need to do that so I can get to my uncle, and talk to my uncle about his story. I don’t’ know enough about my uncle to even know where to start. If I talk to my mom and figure out her story, I can better ask the questions of my uncle. There’s’ a lot I don’t know about my mom, maybe because when I was younger, I wasn’t ready to listen to her stories, but now I’m ready. I’m curious about who and what she is. I told Blong, "Man, if I were her, I would have left those kids [when she was fleeing, after my father died]." It's incredible. I’m a mom now. I have two kids, and my mom had three kids, during the [Vietnam War]! She’s an incredible woman. I want her to be able to tell her story in the way that she wants. It’d be pretty cool. After the [Minneapolis city council] election, that’s my plan.
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.