Documenting the history of a people

How does one record the history of their people – the tragedies, heartache, and tales of love and war when they have no written language?

In her poem Cipher Song, Mai Der Vang, 2016 winner of the prestigious Walt Whitman poetry award, perfectly captures the significance of Hmong embroidery and the role it has played, for hundreds of years, in the documentation and telling of Hmong history.

Cipher Song

It’s come to this. We hide the stories

on our sleeves, patchwork of cotton veins.

Scribe them on carriers for sleeping

babies, weave our ballads to the sash.

Forge paper from our aprons, and our

bodies will be books. Learn the language

of jackets: the way a pleat commands

a line, the way collars unfold as page,

sign our names in thread. The footprint

of an elephant. Snail’s shell. Ram’s horn.

When the words burn, all that’s left is ash.

(as cited in The Fresno Bee)

To learn about the Hmong story and read more of Vang’s work, check out her op-ed piece for The New York Times Heirs of the ‘Secret War’ in Laos.

Vang lives in Fresno, California and teaches English at Clovis Community College. Look for her book of poetry, Afterland, to be released in April 2017 by Graywolf Press.