By Paul Gilmore
Over the years—from the time I was a kid in Baraboo, Wisc., to just last week at the bar—I’ve run across a great many people whose formative experiences had something to do with what is rapidly becoming a fading collective memory—Vietnam. I’ve accumulated a number of “how I got out of Vietnam” stories, some from folks who were drafted and went, but most from those who didn’t go.
There are the simple stories of going to college to stay out. Then there are the elaborate and odd scenarios, ranging from the fake seizure in basic training, to running from town to town a few steps ahead of the draft board notices, to the “acne deferment” from what must have been an antiwar doctor at the induction center.
Then there are the stories of those who went—some gung-ho, but mostly, the keep-your-head-down-and-get-through-it survival stories. Almost all of these stories were told by people who seemed to know that the war was something giant and looming, beyond or above them, yet intruding on their lives in ways that they had little power to control.
One that has stayed with me isn’t a story at all; it’s my memory of the Vietnamese woman (a teenager really, but my first grade mind couldn’t understand that), a South Vietnamese refugee, who stayed with my family for two years in the 1970s. For that reason, I guess I’ve always understood that others had “getting out of Vietnam” stories too. They were also coming to America stories.
Among those other tales are the individual and collective stories of Fresno’s Hmong community, refugees of our secret and not-so-secret wars in what was once called Indochina. And one invaluable bridge between the experiences of the Hmong people and the larger community is Joel Pickford and his camera.
It’s easy to write a review that tells you that a book is good, and that the photos are, sometimes simultaneously, achingly heartbreaking and inspiring, ethereal and gritty. But my concern is how to convey it in such a way that makes you, the reader of this review, go right now—right now!—to the Web site of that wonderful publisher, Heyday Books, and buy two copies of Pickford’s Soul Calling: A Photographic Journey through the Hmong Diaspora. Perhaps I should just try to describe to you what Pickford has done.
For several years, Pickford has been visiting the apartment complexes of Fresno and taking pictures, documenting the lives and culture of the Hmong refugees as they make the transition to America. The project started out as a California Council for the Humanities grant-funded effort to document the experiences of a group of recent arrivals from one of the largest refugee camps in Thailand, but it morphed into a larger project that included earlier generations of refugees in the Hmong diaspora and trips to the villages of northern Laos as well. The result is the several essays and more than 160 photos compiled in this magnificent book.
The large photos that fill the first hundred pages, even in their often unflinching portrayal of Fresno’s urban squalor, still reveal the dignified resilience of the Hmong people as they adapt to this new place. Turning the pages, moving from the outside world of dilapidated apartment complexes and into the homes and lives of Hmong families, we see the ceremonies, feasts and funerals of the people who have invited Pickford into their lives.
Whether they are of the black-hooded shaman performing a hu plig (soul calling) ceremony in an apartment kitchen with 1980s linoleum on the floor, or of the celebratory dinner with M&Ms and chicken feet, these photos offer telling details of two worlds not colliding but linking a Hmong-American world.
And there remains the link with Laos. There is a distance in these pictures, but a connection, perhaps diminishing, just the same. The portraits of Hmong American men with musical instruments, of women with children, of homes and fields around Fresno, all find their counterparts in Pickford’s series of photos of the Hmong people remaining in the hills of Laos.
I may be committing some sort of art crime here, but perhaps the best part of this book isn’t the photography at all. Pickford has also written a series of essays—at once matter-of-fact and at the same time poetic—describing his journey into this world.
His honest, graceful prose brings Pickford and his camera back in; his essays are a reminder of his so easily forgotten presence in the photos. Here he is unabashed in telling of his efforts to photograph a blind child’s blue cloudy eyes, or in his attempts to get the perfect exposure of an old man.
There is an almost uncomfortable naked honesty in his description of his efforts to convince Ju Cha, his “perfect Madonna,” his version of Dorothea Lange’s “migrant mother,” to allow him to take a picture of her in the hospital with her sick child. Yet I could not imagine a photo that would do his description of the scene justice, for he wouldn’t be in it.
And in these essays too, he deftly addresses the politics of the whole migration. Behind every small story, with their telling details of hidden realms of cultural resilience, is the large story of General Vang Pao, the politics of opium and the CIA-run “secret” war in Laos.
Here, too, are the stories of other, more local, but just as seemingly intractable forces, like JD Home Rentals and the world of food markets and the constant need for money. But these stories, the stuff of big history and developers, don’t dominate Pickford’s journey. People’s lives are shaped by these forces, but they live their lives locally, day-to-day, regardless. Yet, throughout Pickford’s essays, they always return—the “how I got out of Laos” stories.
I have heard similar tales from some of my older Hmong students over the years—I add them to my collection of “how I got out” stories. Soul Calling ends with such an account, offered by Yer Lor, a Hmong shaman. It’s the story of her harrowing journey out of the Plain of Jars in Laos, south to the Mekong River and then to Thailand, refugee camps and, finally, to America and Fresno.
But one of the extraordinary achievements of Soul Calling is that it is not only a chronicle of how some of the Hmong got out of Laos but also how, against great odds, they have been able to keep a bit with them—how to remain in America and yet retain what makes them Hmong.
Paul Gilmore teaches history at Fresno City College. Contact him at email@example.com.