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.

Celebrating Temple University Press Books at the Association for Asian American Studies conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we spotlight our new Asian American titles, which will be on display at the Association for Asian American Studies conference, April 25-27 in Madison, Wisconsin. Several Temple University Press titles will be celebrated at a reception for new books on Thursday, April 25, at 6:00 pm in the Madison Concourse Hotel.

But wait, there’s more!…

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Temple University Press is hosting a reception at 2:00 pm on Friday, April 26 to celebrate 50 years of publishing. Our Asian American History and Culture series editors are expected to attend.

 

Temple University Press titles in Asian American Studies for 2018-2019

From Confinement to Containment: Japanese/American Arts during the Early Cold Warby Edward Tang, examines the work of four Japanese and Japanese/American artists and writers during this period: the novelist Hanama Tasaki, the actor Yamaguchi Yoshiko, the painter Henry Sugimoto, and the children’s author Yoshiko Uchida. Tang shows how the film, art, and literature made by these artists revealed to the American public the linked processes of U.S. actions at home and abroad. Their work played into—but also challenged—the postwar rehabilitated images of Japan and Japanese Americans as it focused on the history of transpacific relations such as Japanese immigration to the United States, the Asia-Pacific War, U.S. and Japanese imperialism, and the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans.

Anna May Wong: Performing the Modernby Shirley Jennifer Lim, re-evaluates the pioneering Chinese American actress Anna May Wong who made more than sixty films, headlined theater and vaudeville productions, and even starred in her own television show. Her work helped shape racial modernity as she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and, more generally, “Oriental” women between 1925 and 1940. Lim scrutinizes Wong’s cultural production and self-fashioning to provide a new understanding of the actress’s career as an ingenious creative artist.

America’s Vietnam: The Longue Durée of U.S. Literature and Empireby Marguerite Nguyen, challenges the prevailing genealogy of Vietnam’s emergence in the American imagination—one that presupposes the Vietnam War as the starting point of meaningful Vietnamese-U.S. political and cultural involvements. Examining literature from as early as the 1820s, Marguerite Nguyen takes a comparative, long historical approach to interpreting constructions of Vietnam in American literature. She analyzes works in various genres published in English and Vietnamese by Monique Truong and Michael Herr as well as lesser-known writers such as John White, Harry Hervey, and Võ Phiến. America’s Vietnam recounts a mostly unexamined story of Southeast Asia’s lasting and varied influence on U.S. aesthetic and political concerns.

Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory in Asian American Narratives of Return, by Patricia P. Chu. In researching accounts of diasporic Chinese offspring who returned to their parents’ ancestral country, author Patricia Chu learned that she was not alone in the experience of growing up in America with an abstract affinity to an ancestral homeland and community. The bittersweet emotions she had are shared in Asian American literature that depicts migration-related melancholia, contests official histories, and portrays Asian American families as flexible and transpacific. Where I Have Never Been explores the tropes of return, tracing both literal return visits by Asian emigrants and symbolic “returns”: first visits by diasporic offspring. Chu argues that these Asian American narratives seek to remedy widely held anxieties about cultural loss and the erasure of personal and family histories from public memory.

Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire, by Cynthia Wu, examines representations of same-sex desires and intraracial intimacies in some of the most widely read pieces of Asian American literature. Analyzing canonical works such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, as well as Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Yankee Dawg You Die, Wu considers how male relationships in these texts blur the boundaries among the homosocial, the homoerotic, and the homosexual in ways that lie beyond our concepts of modern gay identity. Wu lays bare the trope of male same-sex desires that grapple with how Asian America’s internal divides can be resolved in order to resist assimilation.

Why Another Book about Muhammad Ali?

This week, in North Philly Notes,  Michael Ezra, author of  Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Iconwrites:

Many people sent me their condolences about the passing of Muhammad Ali, but I told them all that they should be happy for him. For the past thirty years, almost every act Ali has done has been with getting into heaven in mind. Nobody I’ve ever known was more prepared for death than he was; I honestly believe he was looking forward to it. He suffers no longer, and his legacy will live on for many years. The introduction to my book Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon explains what the book is about and why I wrote it.

For almost thirty years, Muhammad Ali has held the Guinness World Record as the most written-about person in history. Although John Lennon once claimed that the Beatles had become bigger than Jesus, Ali is the one who really deserves such distinction, at least in a literary sense. Why, then, would anybody have the temerity to think that he could add something to this already overflowing mix? What makes this book worth reading? Though library shelves may buckle under the weight of the Muhammad Ali literature, there is surprisingly little written about key aspects of his life, such as his pre-championship boxing matches, the management of his career, and his current legacy. I concentrate on these three important themes.

Understanding Ali’s transformation from a controversial to a revered figure takes knowledge of his entire life in the public spotlight. To comprehend this phenomenon, one must look at Ali’s career holistically, from his appearance as an Olympic champion in 1960 to his present incarnation as an iconic international hero. The problem for readers is that so much is already written about Ali, and so much information is at hand, that one must wade through everything to find events and trends that have enough representative clout to get at key meanings without drowning in detail. Although this book spans nearly fifty years, from 1960 to the present, it is hardly a comprehensive account of Ali’s life. Instead, Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon is a distillation of crucial paradigm shifts in how Ali has been perceived by various segments of the public.

EzraAt the heart of this book is a study of the relationships between Muhammad Ali’s cultural image and its commercial manifestations. The central concept that I use to get at these meanings is what I call moral authority, a term I use throughout this book. My thesis has two parts. First, the most significant way people have made meaning of Muhammad Ali over the years has been through their understanding of him as a moral force, both positive and negative. Second, the crucial way many Americans have arrived at their moral understanding of Ali—his cultural image—has come from their perception of who is making money by associating with him—the commercial manifestations. This book traces the relationships between public perceptions of Ali, the economic entanglements  surrounding his career, and the cultural meanings that have emerged from such connections.

The idea that Ali’s moral authority is intimately bound to the economic consequences of his public life and career is a new one. The dominant interpretations of Ali usually tie his moral authority to his political or racial symbolism. The generic Ali Story explains his transformation from an oppositional to a mainstream figure as a product, among other things, of his stand against the Vietnam War or his being a member of the Nation of Islam. As these versions go, Ali’s moral authority and cultural image crumbled as he took an unpopular political stand in challenging the Vietnam War and turned toward black nationalism by joining the racially separatist Nation of Islam. But over time, the public began to reject the war, Ali renounced the Nation’s core tenets, and he became a morally authoritative cultural hero. There is much more to the process, however; namely, the economic aspects of these seemingly racial, political, and moral changes. My argument is that Ali’s relationships to the Vietnam War and the Nation of Islam, as barometers of his public moral authority, were important not primarily because of their political and racial content, but because they represented who had economic ownership of him. What brought Ali infamy during the 1960s was not necessarily that he was a politically oppositional force, but that he threatened to generate wealth for the wrong people. The public’s sense of Ali’s moral authority has always been a function of its perception of who has economic ownership of him.

I have divided this book into three parts, each of them a response to the ever-evolving question “Who owns Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali?” Part I, “Louisville Sponsoring Group,” details Clay’s rise as pugilism’s biggest box-office draw under the management of the millionaire boys’ club known as the Louisville Sponsoring Group. Part II, “Nation of Islam,” explores the difficulties he encountered as his cultural image and commercial viability plummeted when the black nationalist religious sect took control of his career. Part III, “Good People,” is a study of the fighter’s rebirth as an admired cultural icon representing corporate interests.

Before I begin the narrative, I want to make four points that will help readers understand my perspective and goals. First, you may have noticed that I treat the words Ali Story as a proper noun. The reason for the capitalization is that I consider history to be primarily art rather than science. The Ali Story, although certainly based upon fact, is a construct: part fact, part myth, part interpretation. Like all history, my version of the Ali Story leaves out far more than it includes. This book is neither definitive nor comprehensive. Instead, Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon is a plausible interpretation of how people have made meaning of Muhammad Ali’s life and times. The book is truthful but is not the truth. Second, this study bucks the trend of most Ali literature that insists upon making moral judgments about him. I view Ali as neither great nor wicked, but rather a person with both strengths and weaknesses. This book is neither a sentimental celebration of Ali nor an iconoclastic attempt to knock him off his pedestal. What I have tried to do instead is explain how people have come to invest or divest moral authority in the rich and multifaceted cultural symbol known as Muhammad Ali. I will leave the fool’s errand of identifying his true and essential nature to others. Third, my protagonist changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali shortly after winning the championship from Sonny Liston in February 1964. When I discuss the pre-championship man I refer to him as Cassius Clay. When I discuss the post-championship man I call him Muhammad Ali. Fourth, this book explores the economics behind the boxing matches of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. It is often difficult to figure out exactly how much money had been made and by whom. I relied on newspaper reports for the most part to do this work, but such reports are often conflicting and inconsistent. Whenever faced with contradictory information, I have done my best to honestly and accurately follow the money.

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