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Abstract

This essay examines Hmong story cloths exhibited on the HmongEmbroidery.org virtual museum in order to consider 1.) transnational Hmong diasporic experience post-Vietnam, 2.) the problems with interpretation as a critical mode of scholarship seeking mastery, and 3.) the work of digital archives in accounting for displacement and loss. The Hmong, an indigenous group originally living in East Asia, created many of the story cloths exhibited on HmongEmbroidery.org in Thai refugee camps following the Vietnam War, during which they assisted the United States CIA against the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao. Displaced by enemy forces from their homes through violent means and surviving in precarious conditions, Hmong women embroidered their stories onto cloth. Because Hmong language did not become an alphabet until the 1950s, and because traumatic accounts often exist outside of language, the story cloths largely remain uninterpretable, even as they account for Hmong experience. Interpreting the story cloths, in most cases, would only project exterior frames of reference onto their meanings. In this way, Hmong story cloths account for Hmong experience, history, and displacement while revealing the poverty of interpretation when taken up as a critical reading strategy assuming mastery. This essay reads closely in a descriptive mode, showing how HmongEmbroidery.org’s story cloth exhibits demonstrate the importance and urgency of digital humanities projects that archive experiences of displacement and make them accessible to transnational audiences vis-à-vis the internet.

Note on the Author

Corey Hickner-Johnson is a doctoral candidate in English and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is currently at work writing her dissertation on mental disability, affect, and misfitting in 20th century literature by women, as well as teaching disability studies and literature in the Department of English and consulting with students in the university Speaking Center.

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