Before we became obsessed with Looney Toons and Disney movies and Power Rangers, Dad would entertain us with folktales passed down to him from his father and his father before him. They were long, poetic tales of courage and magic and the origins of plants and life. We’d sit on the floor around him in utter fascination as the words tumbled from his mouth in a rhythm as old as time. My favorite tales were Nkauj Nog, the story of an orphan girl who desired to go to the Hmong New Year (equivalent of Cinderella, but much darker), Ntxawm Hlob & Ntxawm Yau, the story of two sisters who accidentally invited a witch home, and Niam Nkauj Zuag Paj & Txiv Nraug Ntsuag, the story of an orphan boy who loses his wife to the manipulation of a jealous neighbor.
I don’t remember when Dad stopped telling the folktales or when we stopped asking him to tell them. All I know is by the time I was in fifth grade, I was reading books in English. I was reading Hatchet, My Brother Sam is Dead, The Sign of the Beaver, Sarah, Plain and Tall and many more titles that tell the American story and shape the American identity. By the time I was in sixth grade, my favorite book was The Witch of the Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, and I had forgotten all about Nkauj Nog--the orphan girl--and Txiv Nraug Ntsuag--the orphan boy.
Escaping the confines of a good Hmong girl
In tenth grade, a girl I knew was discovered with her boyfriend, and her parents demanded the boy marry her, and he did. They were sixteen. Word travels fast in the Hmong community, and a girl could ruin her reputation with just a single decision. So my parents kept me close. (I mean, seriously, the begging I had to do just for them to let me go see Spiderman in theaters was Oscar worthy.) I went to school and came home and did my homework until it was time to cook dinner. I learned how to maintain a house, to translate for my parents as needed, and to wait--like a good Hmong girl--for young men to come courting.
Bored out of my mind with waiting--because honestly, no one came--I read. I read books about magic, epic wars and love. I read Beverly Cleary and Caroline B. Cooney and way too much Lurlene McDaniel. I learned what an American family was supposed to look like through the eyes of blonde hair and blue-eyed twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield in the Sweet Valley Twins series. I learned what it was like to have a boyfriend through the eyes of Caroline B. Cooney’s characters, and how to be an independent thinker through the experiences of Nancy Drew. I became American and learned to value American experiences and perspectives through these books. What I didn’t realize then was that the American experience also included my experience.
Rediscovering the Asian girl in me
The first time I saw an Asian girl on the cover of a book, I was in fourth grade. We were reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The second time I saw an Asian girl on the cover of a book, I was in fifth grade. The book was called Of Nightingales that Weep. Both were stories about Japanese girls living in Japan a long time ago, written by white women. When I finally got my hands on a book that was about an Asian girl living in America, I was in sixth grade. The book was called Children of the River, and it was about a Cambodian girl who fled the Khmer Rouge and is straddling life in Oregon. It was not written by a Cambodian author. Can you see a theme here?
A few weeks ago, I finished Jenny Han’s YA trilogy To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I remember the first time I saw the cover of the first book at Barnes & Noble. I did a double-take. No way they put an Asian girl on the cover of a hardback book. No way. Maybe a paperback, but certainly not a hardback. But I picked up the book with my own hands and--OMG--it really was an Asian girl. This was real. The fact that this Asian girl was on the cover of this book somehow stupidly validated my existence. It somehow told me that my experience mattered. People who look like me, who have black hair and brown eyes, mattered.
In that moment in Barnes & Noble, I was fourteen-year-old me again. Jenny Han had written a book that spoke to the teenager in me. I picked up that book and the subsequent two books (P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, Lara Jean) and they now sit on my bookshelf. And since then I’ve added other books with Asian girls on the cover (I just finished I Believe in a Thing Called Love, a rom-com about a Korean teenager using K-drama strategies to win the new boy at school. Yikes, right?). My greatest dream is that one day I will be lucky enough to have my book on the same bookshelf. And it will have an Asian girl on the cover.
Authors always say, “Write what you know.” What I know is that the more American I became through the books I read, the less I started to value the Hmong culture. I became so un-Hmong that I started writing about what it was like to be anything but a Hmong girl. I gave myself permission to loosely define “what I know” and made excuses to not write about my Hmongness. So much so that I began writing characters who had ambiguous ethnic identities.
I wrote my first full-length novel in grad school and two more after, but they always felt like pulling a difficult tooth. There was a lot of resistance, mostly because I was just learning how to write a novel, but also because something was missing. Something I had a lost a long time ago.
For at least twenty years I had forgotten about Nkauj Nog and Txiv Nraug Ntsuag. Becoming the me that I thought I wanted to be had taken me far away from them. For my fourth novel, I decided to go back to my roots. I decided to write about a Hmong girl. And it was like coming home. What you know, I learned, isn’t always in your head. Sometimes it’s in your heart.