Humor(less) features Hmong humor

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Paj Ntaub Voice, the premier Hmong literary arts journal in the nation, will launch the release of its newest edition titled Humor(less) on Friday, November 30th from 7- 9 PM with a free public reading at Nina’s Café directly above Common Good Books.

Paj Ntaub Voice is the longest running literary arts journal that focuses on Hmong art and culture. For the past 13 years, Paj Ntaub Voice has helped nurture, promote and create a network of more than 200 Hmong writers and visual artists. It is one of the few places where readers can find original literature and artwork by Hmong artists. Its latest edition, Humor(less), examines Hmong humor and explores Hmong writers’ ability to be capricious, comical and delightful.

Background: The Hmong American Institute for Learning (HAIL) published Paj Ntaub Voice. HAIL is a non-profit arts organization whose mission is to promote and inspire artistic expression of Hmong culture. HAIL offers writing workshops, residencies and events for emerging and professional writers and visual artists through our acclaimed literary journal Paj Ntaub Voice and the Hmong Storytelling Project. For more information, visit www.hmonghail.org.

First, what is Hmong humor? Loosely defined, Hmong humor looks at Hmong culture or the Hmong community in some comedic or satirical way. It could be an individual experience that is shared collectively, such as the way children are raised or stereotypes like having 50 pairs of shoes at any given entryway of a Hmong residence. Or it can be something funny that happened to a person who is Hmong.

While the idea of humor is not new to the Hmong community, articulating Hmong humor on paper is actually a novel idea. Dr. Gary Yia Lee, a visiting professor from Australia and the first Hmong to receive a Ph.D. in anthropology, would like to see more written Hmong humor. “We do not make fun enough of ourselves, always so serious, humorless. There are some of us who are very funny and we should allow this to be a major form of entertainment (e.g. Tou Ger Xiong). But Hmong culture puts less value on humor. You have to be serious to be respected, especially when you happen to have a Ph.D. How boring.”

Currently, Dr. Lee is a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul. In 1981, Dr. Lee became the first Hmong to receive a PhD in anthropology from the University of Sydney. He has written extensively on Hmong history and culture, and is also the author of several non-fiction books, poems and short stories.

Dr. Lee is also the author of two short stories in Humor(less) – “The Hunting Trip” and “Working for the CIA”. While most of Dr. Lee’s work has been academic and serious, he thinks of himself as a “funny in real life”. He admits, though, that it’s difficult to be funny in writing, “So much depends on the readers and their subjective interpretation of what you write.” It’s perhaps this fear of being misconstrued, also, that causes Hmong writers to shy away from being intentionally funny.

That is why the release of Humor(less) is important. This edition is not only funny but captures the continual growth of Hmong heritage. It is a marker that the Hmong community is changing, becoming westernized; putting more emphasis on being funny, writing funny works, and valuing a good laugh and comedy as an art form.

Humor(less) features the works of 15 writers and 2 visual artists. Featured writers include Dr. Gary Yia Lee, Bryan Thao Worra, Paj Ann Herr, May Lee-Yang, Souvanneary Phann, Lorrie Siong, Ka Vang, Sai Vang and Mary Yang.

The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) will also be featuring Dr. Gary Yia Lee on its Monday night radio program, CHAT Radio, live at 8:30pm on November 26 on KFAI (106.7FM in St. Paul, 90.3FM in Minneapolis, or streaming online at www.kfai/org/node/3138).

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