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.

Temple University Press’s Annual Holiday Give and Get

This week in North Philly Notes, we cap off this unusual year with the staff at Temple University Press suggesting the Temple University Press books they would give along with some non-Temple University Press titles they hope to receive and read this holiday season. 

We wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday season!

Mary Rose Muccie, Director

Give: This year, in hope for and anticipation of a time when we can once again roam freely, I’m giving City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System, by James McClelland and Lynn Miller. Pick an area of the park, learn its history, and set out to experience the beauty of a big part of what makes Philadelphia special.
Get: When I saw Black Hole Survival Guide, by Janna Levin, on one of those “best books of 2020” lists I was immediately intrigued. Rather than a how-to for 2020 and 2021, it’s a fun and accessible description of what black holes are and what they mean for the universe. 

Karen Baker, Associate Director/Financial Manager

Give: I would like to give Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City by Joseph E.B. Elliott, Nathaniel Popkin, and Peter Woodall because my son-in-law has discovered their website and is very interested in touring all the hidden locations in the book.
Get: I would like to receive The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish because I love her humor and find her story to be inspiring.

Aaron Javsicas, Editor-in-Chief

Give: Philadelphians know our city boasts a number of French influences in our arts and built environment, but Salut! France Meets Philadelphia will tell you the full story, from early Huguenot settlers seeking religious freedom, to the Ben Franklin Parkway, to Philly’s French restaurant scene which has been among the best in the country. It’s also an absolutely gorgeous book filled with beautiful color illustrations, making Salut! a can’t-miss gift. 

Get: I’m curious about The Blind Light, but Stuart Evers. A novel of Cold War fear, paranoia, and class inequality in England, it might not sound like the uplifting escape one would wish for this year. But as the Times review points out, historical fiction can offer a reorienting perspective on our current struggles, and it’s — what, reassuring? bracing? — to recall that 2020 is certainly not the first time we’ve stared global destruction in the eye. 

Shaun Vigil, Editor

Give: Chia Youyee Vang and Pao Yang’s Prisoner of Wars : A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life is at the top of my “to give” list. A book that is truly vital, Prisoner of Wars is both accessible and essential to the wide reading public outside of scholarly writing, making every single page count in telling its deeply impactful oral history.

Get: I am hoping to see Hannah Eaton’s most recent graphic novel, Blackwood, under my tree this season. Eaton’s debut graphic novel, On Monsters, was equal parts hauntingly human and fantastic, so I can’t wait to see how her second work utilizes her singular illustration style in a new story.

Ryan Mulligan, Editor

Give: The Defender: The Battle to Protect the Rights of the Accused in Philadelphia tells the story of one of the country’s leading public defender offices. Unlike most states, Pennsylvania leaves it to its counties to fund its public defender offices, leaving Philadelphia’s public defenders to fight for the life of their office alongside the lives of its clients, achieving breakthroughs on both fronts that pioneered the future of justice reform across the country. It’s perfect for readers interested in how law and order has arrived at this point, what we have overcome, and what remains.
Get: Thanks to the dystopian overtones of the past year and the trouble of making meaning and enjoyment after so many sources of both have been shut off have had me thinking often of the traveling artists of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven. She has a new novel, titled The Glass Hotel, that I’d love to check out.

Kate Nichols, Art Manager

GiveModern Mobility Aloft: Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America by Amy D. Finstein. Having formerly lived in both New York and Boston for extended periods of time, I loved seeing the photographs and reading the text as I worked on the book.
Get: The Overstory by Richard Powers. (Although in full disclosure, this has been in my possession for some time. My reduced attention span over the last few months has me reading mystery thrillers. Any recommendations….?)

Ashley Petrucci, Senior Production Editor

Give: Health the Commonwealth because it is historical but relevant to the current moment.
Get: Henry James Turn of the Screw because I watched The Haunting of Bly Manor and liked it.

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

Give: I’m chocolate, you’re vanilla.  I’m black and you’re white.  As children, we learn distinctions based upon what we look like. As adults, we sometimes act upon those distinctions subconsciously and judge people, even children, by what they look like. To help parents, teachers, or anyone interacting with black children, I’d give Do Right By Me, a book that reads like a primer on raising black children in white spaces.  The resources the authors provide in their thoughtful exchange will guide in the development of potentially healthy life outcomes and provide some necessary tools to help black children and their caretakers navigate this biased society.
Get: I hope someone gives me Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok. I’ve heard it’s a gripping portrait of a Chinese immigrant family, filled with mystery and secrets—just what I need to fill the time. 

Nikki Gallant, Marketing Assistant

Give: Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right, by Michael Smerconish, because my family is a huge fan of CNN. When I found out Michael Smerconish had a book with the press, I immediately ran to my dad to tell him. He is also from Doylestown, PA, which is a short drive away from my hometown.
Get: I love classic British Literature and believe that you can never go wrong with a classic for the holidays. I want to read Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Wuthering Heights and Mansfield Park. I would also love the rest of Patti Smith’s books that I have not read. 

Irene Imperio, Advertising and Promotions Manager

Give: With lively photos and club histories, Life, Liberty, and the Mummers feels like the perfect gift this year for transplanted Philadelphians and for those missing the parade this year. 
Get: I’m hoping to get Amboy: Recipes from the Filipino-American Dream to supplement my mom’s “add a little ___ if you like” or “just add ____ to taste!”

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

Give: Given that we all want to getaway this year, Getting Away from It All, Karen Stein’s book about vacations and identity seems most appropriate. It explains how we are who we want to be when we don’t have much responsibility other than to ourselves. And that can’t be any timelier in these stressful days.

Get: I just received Bryan Washington’s novel, Memorial, which I am planning to read over break having enjoyed his short story collection Lot earlier this year. So if someone wants to get me Swimming in the Dark, by Thomasz Jedrowski, I’m anxious to read it next!

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: