Writing from These Roots: The Historical Development of Literacy in a Hmong American Community

Paperback, 242 pages, 6x9, English
by John Duffy
ISBN: 978-0-8248-3615-3

Writing from These Roots documents the historical development of literacy in a Midwestern American community of Laotian Hmong, a people who came to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War and whose language had no widely accepted written form until one created by missionary-linguists was adopted in the late twentieth century by Hmong in Laos and, later, the U.S. and other Western nations. As such, the Hmong have often been described as "preliterates," "nonliterates," or members of an "oral culture." Although such terms are problematic, it is nevertheless true that the majority of Hmong did not read or write in any language when they arrived in the U.S. For this reason, the Hmong provide a unique opportunity to study the forces that influence the development of reading and writing abilities in cultures in which writing is not widespread and to do so within the context of the political, economic, religious, military, and migratory upheavals classified broadly as "globalization." Drawing on life-history interviews collected from Hmong refugees in a Wisconsin community, this book examines the disparate political and institutional forces that shaped Hmong literacy development in the twentieth century, including, in Laos, French colonialism, Laotian nationalism, missionary Christianity, and the CIA during the Vietnam War. It further examines the influences on Hmong literary in the U.S., including public schooling, evangelical Christianity, ethnic self-help organizations, and media discourses about Hmong refugees. In relating the particulars of the Hmong story, the author asks broad questions--still urgent and unresolved--about the nature of literacy development: How do people learn to read and write? What are the forces that nourish, compel, sustain, deny, or redeem literacy? What processes are at work when a majority of people within a given culture, begins, for the first time in its history, to acquire and use written language? And, finally, in what ways do minority peoples--refugees, immigrants, and others--claim the possibilities of literacy for themselves, using it as an instrument to compose identities, cultures, and conceptions of the world? Writing from These Roots offers a theoretical perspective on these and other questions concerning literacy development, one rooted in the symbolic interactions of peoples, cultures, and nations.