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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Across the Mekong River: A Hmong Novel Written by a Caucasian Author

By Amy Doeun

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Elaine Russell
Courtesy of Elaine Russell
From the opening of the Prologue of her new book, "Across the Mekong River," author Elaine Russell pulls you into a tale at once fascinating and engaging. The Prologue reads: "Truth is an illusion. It is only something we create from memories and wishes and fragments of dreams. The truth is what we want to believe. And sometimes lies are so essential they become part of that truth."

While the novel recounts one family's experience during the Secret War and directly after it. Following them on their escape through the jungle; life in a refugee camp; and finally America, Russell strives to produce a story that goes beyond one family or one culture's experience and explore more about the human condition. "Russell spins each story strand seamlessly into a moving, deeply person, and yet universal portrait of the immigrant experience of leaving one's homeland to begin anew in a strange and foreign country," reads one review of the book.

At first I found the movement between different members of the family a bit disconcerting. While the Prologue begins in the voice of the daughter, Nou, the first chapter is in the voice of Pao, the father, followed by Yer, the mother. After reading several chapters though I found that this format worked extremely well introducing the reader to each of the characters in a way the third person could never accomplish.

HMONG TIMES spoke with Russell, who lives in Sacramento,CA, about the experience of writing the book. She shared that she "always wanted to write. I dabbled in it when I was younger, wrote some op ed pieces but I had to earn a living." For Russell the opportunity to pursue writing came when her son was younger and she was only working part time. It was through her son that she was first introduced to the Hmong community through his classmates.

"My community has quite a large Hmong population. I didn't know anything about the Hmong." Russell confided that it was through her son's schoolmates and a reading of Anne Fadiman's book, The Spirit Catches you and you Fall Down, that she became interested in learning more. "I travel a great deal and have always been interested in other cultures. I am a great reader and love learning about other cultures."

Still the idea of writing a book about the Hmong hadn't entered her mind. "I thought maybe I would do a short story or something, but then one thing after another happened that kept me on this path. It all snowballed and I realized there was a lot more to tell than just a short story." She shared about a co-worker of her husband's who loved sharing her culture, getting involved with the non-profit organization, "Legacies of War" and traveling to Laos.

"I wanted to get all the cultural details right." She added and was careful to check all her facts and have her work previewed.

In the end you have an intensely engaging book that rings true of some of the deepest human emotions. How for instance would you deal with the absence of your husband and the constant fleeing from place to place or the death of two of your children in one quick sweep of a searchlight. Nou shares her own difficulties as she becomes Laura, but still considers herself Nou, and how she must decide on the path of her own versus the path of her parents.

While the story is not new to many Hmong, many non-Hmong will read the story with new eyes. Russell has undertaken a huge task in sharing the Hmong story, one that may not please everyone. However, she has done it with respect to the human story and a love for her work. It is a very worthwhile and entertaining read.

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