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Writing from These Roots

Writing from These Roots: Literacy in a Hmong-American Community

John M. Duffy
Copyright Date: 2007
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    Writing from These Roots
    Book Description:

    Writing from These Roots documents the historical development of literacy in a Midwestern American community of Laotian Hmong, a people who came to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War and whose language had no widely accepted written form until one created by missionary-linguists was adopted in the late twentieth century by Hmong in Laos and, later, the U.S. and other Western nations. As such, the Hmong have often been described as "preliterates," "nonliterates," or members of an "oral culture." Although such terms are problematic, it is nevertheless true that the majority of Hmong did not read or write in any language when they arrived in the U.S. For this reason, the Hmong provide a unique opportunity to study the forces that influence the development of reading and writing abilities in cultures in which writing is not widespread and to do so within the context of the political, economic, religious, military, and migratory upheavals classified broadly as "globalization."

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6110-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Notes on Language, Orthography, and Transcription
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In the offices of the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association in Wausau, Wisconsin, a picturesque city surrounded by dairy farms and forests, is a collection of dog-eared scrapbooks. An employee of the association maintains these scrapbooks, which serve as an informal archive of the Hmong experience in Wausau and which contain virtually every newspaper article, editorial, and letter to the editor written about the Hmong and published in the local newspaper since the Hmong and other Southeast Asian refugees began arriving in the city at the end of the Vietnam War.

    Collected in the scrapbooks are newspaper stories explaining how...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Lost Books and Broken Promises: The Hmong People in China and Laos
    (pp. 21-36)

    As we have seen, the Hmong of Laos have long been portrayed as an oral people, lacking an alphabet and knowledge of basic literacy processes. In this narrative, the Hmong were introduced to literacy only in the 1950s, and only through the efforts of missionary linguists from France and the United States. Prior to this, the Hmong supposedly lived in what Walter Ong (1982) might call a “primary oral culture,” where knowledge of the very existence of literacy was so scant that most Hmong had never seen a book, much less held a pencil. This, at any rate, is the...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Rumors, Ropes, and Redemptions: Hmong Writing Systems in China and Laos
    (pp. 37-57)

    William A. Smalley (1996) observed that while the practice of writing in Hmong life is comparatively new, beginning in the late 1950s in Laos, the role of writing in Hmong culture is very old, reaching back to the beginnings of recorded Hmong history in China. Smalley is referring to the fact that while the majority of Hmong in Southeast Asia and the United States learned to read and write only within the last forty years, the Hmong as a culture have long been aware of the writing systems of the more politically powerful societies around them, including the Chinese, the...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Never to Hold a Pencil: The Problem with “Preliteracy”
    (pp. 58-78)

    Tou Vang, a Hmong woman who came to the United States as a political refugee in 1989, was born in the village of Moung Seng in the mountains of northern Laos in the mid-1920s. Her parents were farmers, Vang recalled, who grew corn, rice, and sugarcane, supplementing the modest family income by raising and selling horses. Neither of her parents had attended school, Vang remembered, nor had any of her four brothers. In fact, no one in the family could read or write. When I asked her about her childhood, Vang spoke mostly of the long hours of work that...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Other Gods and Countries: Hmong Literacy Development in Laos
    (pp. 79-123)

    While the literacy development of the Hmong people was inhibited by an array of powerful forces in China and Laos, there nevertheless existed in twentieth-century Laos several equally potent forces that worked to promote Hmong reading and writing. Perhaps the most influential of these were the Lao village schools, the Hmong military, and missionary Christianity, all of which assumed an increasingly prominent role in Hmong life with the escalation of the war. These sponsors of literacy, as Brandt would call them, not only offered the Hmong the opportunity to learn to read and write, but offered, as well, an identity...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Writing Hmong Americans: Reading and Writing in the United States
    (pp. 124-151)

    Although neither she nor her family were Christians, Zer Lee explained, members of the Baptist congregation in Minnesota that had sponsored the Lee family came twice each week to take the family to church. Lee was twelve years old at the time and did not speak English well enough to understand the services or tell her Baptist sponsors that she felt, in her words, “really bored, without understanding anything.”

    Nevertheless, the Baptists continued to look after Lee and her family, helping them with shopping, housing, employment, education, and other material needs. Ultimately, as Lee put it, “we felt that these...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Hmong Americans Rewriting: Testimony, Gender, and Civic Life
    (pp. 152-189)

    Literacy, as we have seen, is often institutional, a means through which national, religious, educational, and other organizations seek to impose their intentions upon others and assert powerful conceptions of reality. This is done, I have argued, largely by means of symbolic activity, through the assertion of what I have called “rhetorics” or the use of language and other symbols to fashion understandings of the world and invite human beings to take up identities and positions within existing social hierarchies and arrangements. Literacy is the written representation of such rhetorics, a technology for communicating, disseminating, or imposing them. In this...

  12. Conclusion The Rhetorics of Literacy
    (pp. 190-202)

    On the one hand, the Hmong literacy narrative is one of singular, even inimitable, particulars. It is a story of reading and writing set in contexts of mythical alphabets, centuries of warfare, religious conversions, and exile to Western nations. Its cast of characters includes missionary linguists, CIA operatives, and messianic revolutionaries, as well as American evangelists, public schoolteachers, and ordinary Hmong people learning to read and write. It is a narrative, moreover, enmeshed in what was a global struggle among Cold War superpowers that resulted in the Vietnam War, the scope and carnage of which had devastating consequences for the...

  13. Appendixes
    (pp. 203-216)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 217-224)
  15. References
    (pp. 225-236)
  16. Index
    (pp. 237-241)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 242-242)