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Writing from These Roots: Literacy in a Hmong-American Community by John M. Duffy (review)

From: Community Literacy Journal
Volume 7, Issue 2, Spring 2013
pp. 101-104 | 10.1353/clj.2013.0005

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The immigration debates of recent years have touched all of our communities and classrooms. In my hometown, government, family, church, and other relocation efforts have created extraordinary diversity for a rural town of 40,000, with the largest immigrant groups coming from the Middle East, formerly Soviet republics, and Mexico. Our high school represents over 40 languages spoken. My college’s students reflect this diversity. I attend a church that conducts English, Spanish, and Arabic services and offers English lessons. John M. Duffy’s Writing from These Roots: Literacy in a Hmong-American Community is an engaging and informative look, through the lens of literacy and rhetorical education, at two communities’—one town and one ethnic group— responses to similar circumstances in the mid-to-late twentieth century.

Duffy explores literacy education and public rhetoric in Wasau, Wisconsin’s Hmong-American community, placing many individuals’ stories—gathered through extensive personal interviews as well as archival research—within a broader survey of their literate, political, and geographic histories. He aims to “[connect] ethnographic, historical, and theoretical perspectives” (10) and succeeds in admirable fashion. Duffy also grounds the book in an explicitly rhetorical understanding of literacy, literate practices, and literate acts. He describes “the rhetorical character of literacy, or the ways in which a writing system can offer a conception of identity and position” (42). In most chapters, he identifies one or several “rhetoric[s] of ” that guide the identity formation, position occupation, and literate acts that describe the chapters’ foci.

Roots opens with three epigraphs. One shares a Hmong student’s experience in an American school; another references the Hmong role assisting United States military efforts during the Vietnam War. The longest tells a traditional Hmong story that Duffy returns to frequently, in which the ancient Hmong lived in an independent, prosperous, literate nation in what is now China. The Hmong fled their homeland after being displaced by the Manchu dynasty, and in the course of their escape the Hmong ‘book,’ the metonym for the Hmong alphabet and knowledge of writing, fell into the waters of the Yellow River and was lost. Or it was eaten by horses as the Hmong slept, exhausted from their flight. Or it was eaten by the Hmong themselves, who were starving (22).This story ties loss of literacy to the losses of home, community stability, and political agency. Throughout Roots, pursuing and practicing various literacies remains tied to attempts at restoring or re-establishing those lost elements.

Duffy’s first chapter, which argues that “histories of literacy are also histories of peoples,” (23) starts long before the loss of the Hmong book. The chapter recounts a turbulent ancient Hmong history in China, the defeat by the Manchu dynasty, and Hmong settlement in Laos, then a French colony, in the nineteenth century. Later, members of the Hmong population in Laos were recruited to assist the CIA in espionage and military efforts against North Vietnam. As that war concluded, the Hmong were again displaced, this time to refugee camps in Thailand and then, for many, permanent resettlement in the United States.

Chapter 2 examines, as its subtitle says, “Hmong Writing Systems in China and Laos.” Duffy focuses on the technical elements of literacy and the “rhetoric of writing systems” (56). The chapter covers early Hmong mnemotechnic writing systems and later alphabets created for the Hmong language by various nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Christian missionaries. The chapter highlights resonances between the Bible’s book-based Christian salvation narrative and the notion of recovering home, political agency, and literacy from the lost Hmong book and acknowledges the irony of receiving a writing system for one’s own language from an outside group.

Chapter 3 problematizes widely held notions of the Hmong as a long-preliterate culture, as well as the notion of preliteracy itself. Duffy explores how the “rhetoric of preliteracy” (61) has been used to marginalize the Hmong and to inaccurately simplify the history of their written culture. The chapter acknowledges that the Hmong culture that developed in Laos had little to no role for formal literacy but points out that Lao and French government policy limited Hmong formal education. Later, work with the CIA during the...

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