ST. PAUL, Minn. _ Mai Neng Moua was recovering from kidney surgery in 1994, writing about the personal price of her illness and looking for other Hmong literature for inspiration and direction.
Inspiration and direction came in a way that amazed her: She couldn't find Hmong literature.
A St. Olaf College sociology student at the time, Mai Neng Moua rallied other students and the Hmong American Partnership to start a literary magazine. Six years and seven issues later, Paj Ntaub Voice is among the country's few and oldest outlets for Hmong writers and poets.
"There was a lot of Asian and Asian-American writing, but nothing by Hmong people," says Mai Neng Moua, 26. "Our culture has a lot of art, but it's so much a part of our daily life that it's all woven together. Almost nothing had been written down."
Paj Ntaub _ pronounced "pah dow" _ is a colorful, hand-woven piece of clothing, and the magazine takes its name from the tapestry of voices it strives to gather and expose. Mai Neng Moua wanted to focus on young writers, to balance the channels _ newspapers, radio programs and community access television shows _ dedicated primarily to older Hmong. She also wanted to connect those voices to American culture.
She received poetry, essays, short fiction and artwork from Hmong university students around the Twin Cities, along with a few as far away as Harvard. Mai Neng Moua was surprised at the breadth of subject and sentiment. Writers tackled the clash of Hmong traditions with American cultural norms. Women explored sexuality. Today, roughly half the content is written in Hmong with English characters, the rest in English.
"The coolest thing is reading all the submissions," she says. "All the voices, they give me other ideas for ways to write. And the more we go, it's really encouraging that we're seeing better poetry and better writing. It makes me want to meet these people."
In an issue dedicated to "gender and identity," Mai Neng Moua wrote an essay cutting through Hmong patriarchy and advocating interracial marriage:
"For a long time, I hated Hmong men. ... My father, even though he was married with kids already, still courted other women. ... My mother was angry, but what could she have done? It was normal for married Hmong men to have girlfriends. ... I decided that my family, my uncles, my male relatives, heck, the whole Hmong community were not on my side. I was not going to let anyone make me do anything I did not want to do."
Some Hmong elders have criticized Paj Ntaub Voice for exposing and encouraging controversial topics, Mai Neng Moua says, and the journal pulled away two years ago from the Hmong-American Partnership to keep its content independent. Paj Ntaub Voice now publishes from the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood.
Dai Thao, 25, of Minneapolis has written poetry and short fiction about race and growing up in tough neighborhoods. Paj Ntaub Voice not only motivates him to write, but also makes him feel he's having an impact on Hmong youth.
"Most of the things written about Hmong people aren't written by Hmong people," he says. "I have a heart to it, and hopefully young people can pick up on that."
Dai Thao also praises the platform for Hmong women.
"They can't express certain things in the community, but they can express it in literature," he says. "Maybe some of those issues they write about _ like male dominance in Hmong history _ maybe Hmong men are not liberal and they're afraid to see, but I think it's great. One thing we all should look forward to is the future, instead of focusing on issues of the past."
Kou Yang began writing before he left Laos 25 years ago and found that writing helped him make sense of the dramatic personal and cultural shifts he experienced in America. Along with his own poetry, he self-published several oral stories garnered from Hmong elders.
Paj Ntaub Voice has published Kou Yang's writings on gender, aging, Hmong unity and a range of social issues. Such outlets, he says, are vital for communicating not only emotions but also history.
"So many Hmong have no experience with life back in Laos. Even if they collect oral stories, they don't understand what they mean," says Kou Yang, 46, now a professor of Asian-American studies at California State University, Stanislaus.
"We need to document tradition and the change that's happening now, so we can understand the past and present, so we can better understand our future," he says. "It's also important to preserve some of this writing because in the next 20 years, we'll have more work published than in the last 2,000 years."
The journal sponsors public readings after each issue is published, but Mai Neng Moua and her 12-person editorial board are trying to raise money for writing workshops and critique groups.
"Hmong writers are at a plateau," Dai Thao says. "We need mentoring from successful writers. But on the Hmong side, it's almost like a new frontier. When I was young, I didn't read much, and that's a problem with a lot of Hmong youth today. But you can't become a good writer without reading, and maybe the Paj Ntaub Voice can help with that."
Some schools in St. Paul and Fresno, Calif., are using Paj Ntaub Voice in the classroom. Paj Ntaub Voice has just committed to publish two issues each year.
For information on subscriptions and literary submissions, call (651) 603-6971 or e-mail pajntaubvoice(AT)hotmail.com.
Mai Neng Moua, who works in public policy for the Institute for Education and Advocacy, wants to raise enough money to work full time for the journal. She's now sifting through two folders of submissions for the magazine's next theme: silence.
"I just bought a house for me, my mom and my two brothers, and there's no money in nonprofits," she says. "But maybe I need to believe in myself and this magazine and take this leap of faith."