By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
Hmong American author and poet Burlee Vang founded the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC) in 2004 to encourage creative writing in the Hmong community and to provide a space for emerging Central Valley writers to express themselves and network with other writers. Currently, he is co-editing an anthology, entitled: How Do I Begin?A Hmong American Literary Anthology, which will be available this summer from Heyday.
Vang holds an MFA in Fiction from California State University at Fresno. His first book, The Dead I Know: Incantation for Rebirth, won the 2010 Swan Scythe Press Chapbook Contest. His prose and poetry have appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Asia Literary Review, and have also been anthologized in Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers: Best New Voices of 2006 (Random House) and Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley (Heyday), among many other publications.
Asian American Press: We often talk about how writers got started, but what keeps you going as an artist?
Burlee Vang: I’m motivated to write because Hmong American literature is a vast, unexplored terrain. I think the same can be said of Southeast Asian American writing, especially within Asian American literature. We need to hear more from the post-Vietnam War perspective.
The works of poets and writers I admire also stoke my fire – Pablo Neruda, Yusef Komunyakaa, Li-Young Lee, Yehuda Amichai, Anton Chekov, William Trevor, Edward P. Jones, Richard Yates, Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li, and many others.
I’ll admit that the gratification of seeing my work in a respected literary journal is good motivation. Inspiring others to write is also inspirational.
Two-thousand-years ago Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Across the spectrum of human history, the best and worst of us have killed and sacrificed in the name of it. Everyone searches for truth in this world, I think. This is what I believe I’m desperately doing as an artist, whether I’m doing it at a conscious level or by pure instinct. This is probably the main reason why I write, why I continue to do it, otherwise I’m just (in Martin Espada’s words) wearing a plunger on my head and parading myself as a unicorn.
AAP: How did it feel to find out about the Swan Scythe Press competition?
BV: I was actually calm when I heard the news. And then I saw my manuscript in book form. That’s when the excitement really kicked in.
AAP: Do you have any other big projects coming up this year?
BV: For the last two years I’ve been co-editing a book entitled “How Do I Begin?” A Hmong American Literary Anthology with HAWC (the Hmong American Writers’ Circle), a writing group I founded in 2004. The book is scheduled for publication this summer from Heyday. The only other anthology of Hmong American literary writing I’m aware of is Mai Neng Moua’s “Bamboo Among the Oaks,” an amazing and necessary book that helped pave the way for this new anthology.
Although “How Do I Begin?” has a Central Valley focus, readers will be surprised with its inclusion of Hmong writers outside California and even writers who are not Hmong. I think it’s a book that really pushes and blurs many tangible and intangible margins and boundaries regarding identity – and I’m not even strictly talking about Hmong identity here. So far we’ve garnered a handful of wonderful blurbs from writers like Juan Felipe Herrera and Gary Snyder. And the cover, featuring a painting by Minnesotan Hmong artist, Seexeng Lee, looks fantastic.
AAP: What’s your artistic process like for you as you start developing a new piece?
BV: Although I don’t write at my desk as much as I’d like to, I think I’m constantly writing in my mind. Writers are voyeuristic, and I find myself always looking and prying into lives beyond my own, eavesdropping on conversations, collecting snippets of news, listening to the dead, examining my own flaws, filtering the world through my senses. I do this before I actually write anything down. Sometimes I’ll have an idea or image to work with. After that, I’ll have to determine whether something will work as poetry or prose. Images mostly end up as poems or metaphors in a short story. Ideas that are too complex or abstract or ambitious to explore in the format of a poem usually become short stories.
With poetry, I often start with an image. Most of my poems have required grueling years of adding and chiseling away. Some pieces I’ve written in one setting, but rarely does this happen. Even rarer are occasions where I’ve literally dreamt up an entire line in my sleep and had to wake myself up to write in down. Writing poetry usually requires a lot of meditation and emotion, the process is almost like a prayer. I have to chant aloud each line I’ve already written, over and over until I am part of that cadence, until I hear the next word, image, or line whispering its way onto the page. It’s like summoning a ghost. The process is spiritual.
I feel like I’m more methodical when it comes to prose—fiction in particular (I think the creative nonfiction I’ve written and published are just long prose poems – whatever a prose poem is). For me, fiction doesn’t seem as loose or malleable as poetry, and it doesn’t require a spiritual process – if it does, it’s only in the language (since poetry is my first language I’m not sure how to avoid it in writing). When I write a short story, I usually start by fantasizing about a real person or event, and from there I develop a character. I write from truth, you can say. My fiction is always character-driven, and the plot exists to serve and shape the character according to his or her flaws and desires. With each short story I write, my attempt is to give the reader a glimpse of an entire life from only a slice of it.
AAP: Where in your newest work do you feel you are you really trying to push yourself?
BV: As a Hmong writer, I used to write with my “write for Hmong people” cap on. I wrote out of obligation. I wasn’t writing for myself. And I think that kind of burden was a limitation on my art. I talk about this in the introduction to “How Do I Begin?” I’m barely learning how to write for myself, even though I’m still writing about Hmong people. Does that make any sense?
AAP: How important is risk for Asian American artists?
BV: I’m not sure how to answer this. I’m not even sure if I fully understand the question. But I think there is always a great risk when you are a minority writer, whether you are writing from the margins of race, class, or gender. I think it is very easy for a marginalized artist to be confined to those margins or to exploit them.
Yes, you can’t separate yourself from “what you are.” But “what you are” shouldn’t be for you an object of exoticism or a kind of artistic limitation. I guess what I’m saying is: be honest in your work, do it for yourself. For example, I’m less interested in my being Hmong (unless it serves as a crucial theme or topic in a particular piece) and more concerned with trying to reveal some universal experience or truth, despite how alien the world, situation, or characters I am presenting might be to readers. We all lust, bleed, grieve, and die. I’m interested in transcending boundaries, to make familiar the unfamiliar, extraordinary the ordinary.
This is how an artist can connect successfully with the audience. This too, I think, is how one can produce that which is eternal. I’m not even sure if what I’ve said relates to the question.
AAP: What’s your next project you’d like to take on?
BV: Well, I’m currently wrapping up a collection of short stories I wrote as part of my M.F.A. thesis in fiction. I’ve also started the first paragraph of a novel (a New York agent who spotted a story I had published in Ploughshares requested for a manuscript but said he couldn’t sell a book of short stories unless I had a manuscript for a novel as well) – so let’s hope that paragraph can develop itself into a novel that’s publishable (fingers crossed). Let’s just say that, like my poetry chapbook, there are ghosts in it – it seems the dead will always find their way into my writing.
With poetry, I’m taking my time with each piece that comes to me. Like I said before, poems require a spiritual process. I do oil paintings whenever I have the time and money, and I would like to publish a poetry book with my own artwork to accompany each poem. I think that’s an interesting concept to play with.