The Tiger on the Page
UWEC grad student makes grandmother’s Hmong story into a children’s book
When graduate student Pakou Vang first held a copy of The Tiger in the Village, a children’s story that she translated and edited, tears sprang to her eyes.
She was excited because she loves children’s stories. She was relieved because the published copy meant the closure of her thesis project at UW-Eau Claire, a project which initiated the book. But Pakou’s response went much deeper than hobbies and graduate accomplishments.
“It’s my grandma’s story; I feel so proud of her,” said Pakou. Her grandmother had passed away in 2008. “She was the head of our family and so valuable. I’m carrying her legacy on.”
In 1985, Pakou’s grandmother, Mee Moua, immigrated to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand. She arrived with Pakou’s parents and older sister, and was illiterate her entire life. But when Pakou needed a story for an undergraduate research project on literacy, Mee was eager to help.
Mee pulled out her paj ntaub dab neej (a storycloth) and told Pakou about a tiger clothed in a man’s outfit that came to a Hmong village during the New Year to trick the villagers. But the villagers knew better and enlisted the help of a young girl, a crow, and the girl’s uncles to defeat the tiger.
The anthropomorphic crow and tiger are common in Hmong stories. “Growing up, when older people tried to give wisdom and guidance through a story, proverb, or riddle, a lot of it was nature-related,” said Pakou.
In her undergraduate research, Pakou used The Tiger in the Village to study how Hmong narratives differed from North American story grammar – elements that comprise a story, such as characters, conflict, and setting. She found that Hmong stories sometimes left out definite endings or information about a character’s feelings.
When Pakou moved on to graduate studies in communication sciences and disorders, she received news that her grandmother, battling cancer, had passed away. Mee’s death was a difficult adjustment for the family. In her grandmother’s honor, Pakou expanded her research on Hmong narratives. “I really wanted to carry out the project as far as I could,” she said.
Pakou revised her grandmother’s story to include the missing story grammar. Then she shared this story and a North American narrative with Hmong students, who told the stories back to her. Pakou discovered that in retelling the Hmong narrative, students remembered more aspects of the story grammar, and told the story with more details and complex sentences.
The discovery is important because some research suggests that a good grasp of story grammar can help in other academic areas. With such a high population of Hmong students in the Chippewa Valley, Pakou sees her project as a community service. “It’s a resource that students and teachers can draw on,” said Pakou. “The hope is that Hmong students will benefit from this project.”
To publish the book, Pakou enlisted the help of local artists Jesse Edgington to paint illustrations, Leah Dunbar to photograph them, and Joe Hilary to bind the book and send it to Lulu, a self-publishing company. “It was really a family-friend collaboration putting this book together, and drawing on so many skills in the community,” said Pakou.
For Pakou, the children’s book is a tribute to her grandmother. “She couldn’t read or even use a phone,” said Pakou. “And yet she’s helping Hmong students become more literate and better storytellers.”
You can order The Tiger in the Village from www.Lulu.com for $8.30.