The Best Storytellers

Photo credit: Jason Halley @jasonhalley_csu

Photo credit: Jason Halley @jasonhalley_csu

Sometimes, I wonder if we were better listeners before we came to the United States. When we first arrived in 1990, my untainted ears still longed for the steadiness of a storyteller’s tone. In the evenings when mothers called their kids home for dinner and crickets began their soothing songs, my siblings and I gathered around Dad to hear sweeping tales of monsters and heroes and magic in a tradition that had been practiced long before a book, a TV or a tablet became the norm.

We sat on the ground, arms wrapped around our knees as Dad’s voice, seasoned from years of chanting ceremonial songs, rounded out vowels and consonants, joined high and low tones, and rhymed to compose a monstrous flood that reached so high, it knocked on heaven’s door. The Sky King opened the door, saw that a flood had covered Earth, and waved the water away so life could return.

Next, the drama of an orphan boy shunned by his family but not by the fish he mercifully returned to the sea. It turned out to be the Dragon King who, in his gratitude, gave the orphan a daughter in marriage. Then, a hero journeying to the caves of a terrifying tiger to rescue a maiden who may or may not have wanted to be rescued. Only the storyteller knew the truth.

Putting pen to paper is still a new phenomenon in the Hmong community--about 70 years new--but art isn’t. Storytelling—the kind my Dad practiced, the kind that asks you to arrange oral melodies and sprawling symphonies—is a dying art. It’s dying because a generation has stopped listening and all the Dads in all the world have stopped telling and the stories have stopped asking to be told. Lately, I’ve been thinking: after Dad, there will be no storyteller. No one to breathe life to the story of Older Sister and Younger Sister who took the long road to learning the most important lesson of all: listen to your parents.

Dad’s tales wove important lessons into epic narratives, displaying a beautiful system our forefathers used to transfer information from one generation to the next. No pen, no paper, but the music of Hmoob and only Hmoob. As he sung, the words kept one part of me close to home, while the rhythm encouraged another part of me to run with the wind--to imagine fish that could be princesses and tigers that could be men.

Many years have passed since I sat at Dad’s feet, eagerly waiting to see how the orphan girl will get to the new year celebration to meet her true love. Or whether the grasshoppers will beat the monkeys in their war with one another. Except for skeletons, I have, sadly, forgotten many of the details of these stories.

Photo credit: Jason Halley @jasonhalley_csu

Photo credit: Jason Halley @jasonhalley_csu

Today, I call myself a storyteller. I frequent cafes, drink tea, and use foreign words to scribble out foreign stories. I tell myself that I’m a new type of storyteller for a new generation of listeners. And maybe I am. But even a new type of storyteller spinning stories for a new audience can benefit from these two old lessons--the best stories are the ones closest to your heart, and the best storytellers are those who know how to listen.

Puag thau ub…

Ntsuag tsis muaj niam tsis muaj txiv.

Ntsuag nrog tij laug thiab niam tij nyob xwb.

Nkawd tsis hlub ntsuag

ces nkawm nej hnub xa ntsuag mus zov qaib tom teb.

Ntsuag pluag pluag, txom txom nyem.

Tsis muaj dab tsi hnav, tsis muaj dab tsis no,

ces Ntsuag kej mus kej cuab tsiaj.

Muaj ib hnub Ntsuag cuab tau ib tug plis.

Tus plis hais rau Ntsuag tias, “Koj tso kuv mus es kuv mam pab koj.”

Ntsuag tshaib tshaib plab tab sis Ntsuag tso Plis mus.

Ces Plis nrog Ntsuag mus tsev.

Muaj ib hnub suav tuaj ua luas,

ces Plis hais rau Ntsuag tias, “Ntsuag, koj coj kuv lub tsho mus muag rau suav kom tau nyiaj tau kub.”

Ces Ntsuag txawm coj Plis lub tsho mus muag.

Ces Ntsuag tau nyiaj tau kub los yuav khaub ncaws hnav, los yuav tsev nyob.


A long, long time ago…

There lived an orphan boy.

He lived with his brother and sister-in-law.

They didn’t love him

So everyday they sent him to the farm to watch the chickens

The orphan boy was really, really poor.

Nothing to wear, nothing to eat,

So as he went to the farm, he trapped animals.

One day, he caught a wild cat.

The wild cat said to the orphan boy, “Let me go and I will help you.”

The orphan boy was really hungry, but he let the wild cat go.

So the wild cat went to live with the orphan boy.

One day, Chinese traders came to town,

So the wild cat told the orphan boy, “Orphan boy, take my coat and trade it for silver and gold.”

So the orphan boy took the wild cat’s coat to trade.

And he came home with silver and gold to buy clothes and a house.

Thank you for listening.