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English Professor Connects|
With Hmong Community
MAILED: Dec. 29, 1998|
When John Hildebrand decided to write about Hmong hunters in Buffalo County a few years ago, he had no idea the story he was about to dive into would eventually span thousands of miles and reveal a culture unfamiliar to many Americans.
But then again, that's what draws the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire English professor to writing in the first place to comb through all the anecdotes to uncover the big story.
In his latest short story, "Coming Home: Hunting Squirrels and Tigers With the Hmong," published in the October issue of Harper's Magazine, Hildebrand describes a number of domestic and international Hmong experiences and uses them as a backdrop for the extended metaphor of a culture being lost but ultimately finding ground to stand on in America.
For Hildebrand, the author of numerous other articles and essays and two books, "Mapping the Farm" and "Reading the River," the idea for the story came after running into a party of Hmong deer hunters near the Chippewa River in Buffalo County.
"We exchanged a few words out in the brush, but I really didn't know anything about them," he said. "This is when I decided to look into Hmong hunting in the area."
After contacting Kou Xiong, a Department of Natural Resources employee who translates hunting regulations into the Hmong language, Hildebrand was eventually put in touch with Joe Bee Xiong, who became the focal character in the story.
Hildebrand ended up hunting with Xiong and several of his relatives, discovering that the deer and squirrel hunt was very much a family affair.
"What struck me the most wasn't so much the hunting, but how they shared everything everyone got an equal share," he said. "It was a very interesting experience."
It was also during the hunt that Hildebrand decided he couldn't go any further with the article without addressing the larger question of how the Hmong ended up in America a result of the secret war sponsored by the CIA in Laos during the Vietnam War.
"Basically, we used the Hmong in Laos to fight for us, and when we pulled out, we left them high and dry to face the communists," he said. "The ultimate result of our involvement in Laos was that the Hmong lost their country. And, because it was a secret war, when they came here they received no recognition."
The loss of a country and the lack of appreciation in America bring about the story's theme of a people without a home. It's a bumpy road for the Hmong to travel down, as Hildebrand writes, but eventually things start to smooth out with the election of Joe Bee Xiong to the Eau Claire City Council. During the campaign, Hildebrand himself helped out by putting up yard signs and having a tea party in his neighborhood to introduce Xiong.
"Joe Bee is an important figure in the article for a number of reasons," Hildebrand said. "He embodies the Hmong experience he's old enough to have fought in Laos and young enough to have graduated from an American high school.
"I discovered that he was a natural leader, and I was glad to work on his campaign. His election was very important, especially to the Hmong community, because many saw it as a sign that this was their home now."
The story ends at a Laos veterans recognition day in Fresno, Calif., bringing the past and present together. Included in the day's activities was a memorial service for William Colby, the former chief of the CIA's Far East operations and the man responsible for the Hmong being in America and, ultimately, their feeling lost in the world. He spent his retirement years, however, trying to make amends by shedding light on Hmong involvement in the war.
"The satisfaction in writing these kinds of stories is that you learn something you didn't know, and you're looking for relationships how one event connects with another event, which is ultimately what a narrative is about," he said.
For Xiong, the story's main character, "Coming Home" brought to light many important aspects of Hmong culture and life.
"It was good for us to share this information," he said. "Now people will know how we hunt, eat and live in America. I'm really impressed with what he did."
By working with Hildebrand on the article, Xiong said he was able to form a friendship with him that is still solid today.
"If there is anything I need as far as the English language goes or understanding living in America, I can talk to him," he said. "He's a very good friend."
Having the story published in Harper's Magazine is a major accomplishment for Hildebrand, said Bruce Taylor, professor of English and creative writing at UW-Eau Claire.
The magazine is not only popular and widely circulated, but it has the reputation of having the highest quality of writing, Taylor said.
"This is one of the most prestigious writing magazines in the nation," he said. "Most nonfiction writers would give a limb to be in this magazine.
"Being published in Harper's will give other people a chance to know what we in the English department have known for some time now that John is one of the best nonfiction writers in the country."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Dec. 29, 1998