Behind the scenes with Chia Youyee Vang and Pao Yang

This week in North Philly Notes, we post a Q&A, conducted in December 2020, between author Chia Youyee Vang and Pao Yang, the subject of her book Prisoner of Wars, which chronicles the Hmong Fighter Pilot’s experiences during the Secret War in Laos.

Chia: Many people have asked me how I came to work with you on this book. I usually tell them that as a historian who relies on oral history to tell stories of ordinary people, I found your life experiences to be unique and that what you and your family went through contributes to the larger history of the Vietnam War and the Secret War of Laos. Why did you decide to share your story after all these years?

Pao: Well, I should first say thank you for the seven years that you spent on it. If I had not been on this journey with you, I never would have understood how much work goes into making something like this happen. I’m really pleased that you didn’t give up, and I’m most pleased that I’m still here to have this conversation with you. I’m getting older so there have been a few times since we first met in 2013 that I wasn’t sure I’d live to see this book.

To answer your question, some people in the Hmong community and other Americans have heard about my POW experience. As a matter of fact, students and a few American writers have wanted to write my story but they didn’t follow through. When you came to interview me, and then returned a few more times to listen to what I had to say, I felt that you were different. You asked me a lot of questions and you listened to what I had to say. In trying to answer your questions, I started to reflect more about what happened to me. For so long, I felt that war is not good because nobody really wins. I survived, so I just need to keep living. You helped me to better understand not just what happened, but why some things turned out the way they did. That’s what motivated me to share my life experiences.

Chia: I have interviewed many veterans and I have certainly heard a lot of compelling stories. One of the reasons why I found your story so important to share is that you are the only Hmong pilot veteran from the Vietnam War era who was shot down, survived, and spent time in a prison camp. What was the hardest part for you?

Pao: I have to say that even today there are times when I still have dreams about the time that I was imprisoned: the torture, hunger, and seeing fellow prisoners die from disease or from trying to escape. I would wake up from the dreams sweating, or my heart would be pounding so fast. There have been times when it felt as though I was still in that place. Family, friends, and strangers have asked me about what it was like in the prison camp. I usually just tell them basic information without details. That is because I have tried to forget. So the hardest part for me during our work together is that I had to remember. I can’t describe it but it’s like I’m reliving those moments when I’m telling them to you.

Chia: I remember quite a few times during the first interview when I could tell it was difficult for you. We had to stop the first interview when we got to the part where you held the hand of a fellow prisoner as he slowly died.

Pao: Yes. The next day when we continued the interview, I was able to discuss it without choking up.

Chia: Can you discuss what the last seven years have been like for you? And, what does having this book mean to you?

Pao: Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t sure it would happen. I felt like I told you so many things about my entire life. I’m really proud of the fact that you helped to make my life story coherent. It was, and is, to some extent, still a little chaotic. I don’t have a magical answer for how to overcome difficult experiences. My life and that of my loved ones are not perfect. We still have issues to resolve. To answer your question, the last seven years have actually been hopeful for me. Working with you and knowing that someone believes my lived experiences are worth remembering gives me hope, that it is OK that I don’t have all the answers. I feel honored that during wartime I was forgotten, but with this book, my story will be known to others today and future generations.

Chia: Well, I’ve certainly learned a lot collaborating with you. Thank you for trusting me to help tell your story, which I know is reflective of the lasting impact of the war on Hmong lives. Through your story, I’ve tried to reveal the scars that never heal and the experiences that are difficult for people who did not go through similar experiences to understand. It’s a story about war and survival and the struggle to make sense of life.

Pao: Indeed, the struggle continues but being able to hold this book in my hand has brought great joy to me. Thanks again for believing that my ordinary story is worth documenting.

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