Niam, the Hmong mother who comes to vivid life in Mai Neng Moua’s new memoir, is an unlikely poster child for girl power. As a young woman in Laos, she broke the rules, running away with a suitor even as male relatives negotiated with another would-be groom. As a young widow caught up in the Hmong migration to America, she raised three kids largely on her own.

That back story lends poignant irony to Moua’s classic culture clash tale in “The Bride Price.” When Moua and her husband-to-be break with the age-old Hmong practice of paying a bride price, their decision pries opens a deep rift between the author and her strong-willed mother.

Moua, a Twin Cities writer and editor, is upfront about her generation’s blind spots in fully comprehending their elders’ refugee experience, in which culture was a force that hampered, grounded and sustained. The draw of her story rests in the author’s willingness to dwell in contradiction.

She indicts cherished traditions steeped in patriarchy without pulling any punches, pausing only to warn her readers she is bound to offend. She also allows herself to be vulnerable in describing the loneliness and displacement she feels in stepping away from community and tradition.

The Hmong are “complex characters,” she writes, “who don’t need to be translated so others may understand us.” Ultimately, her book gets at how universally fraught mother-daughter relationships can be.

Raised in the United States, Moua recoils from a practice she feels symbolizes an insidious patriarchy modern Hmong must reject: The groom’s family pays the bride’s parents.

“I would not let anyone tie that bride price around my neck, a noose ready to strangle me,” she writes. “Never would I let anyone wonder if I was worth the price they paid for me.”

But for Niam, there’s much more tied up in that tradition: respect, security in times of upheaval, a sense of belonging. More than a year after Moua’s wedding, mother and daughter are still not speaking.

The repercussions of Moua’s decision ripple across her entire clan. Complicating matters is her earlier bout with grave illness, when a near-stranger rather than her family members offered a kidney for a transplant.

Moua’s prose is crisp and beguiling in its simplicity; her sentences unfurl with melodious rhythm. Nestled inside matter-of-fact, staid exposition are moments of poetry and humor. (Hmong clans, Moua writes, can be a bit like the Borg in the “Star Trek” series, the shadowy collective whose members move in mindless lockstep.)

In the first part of the book, the narrative sometimes jerks back and forth in time, needlessly disorienting the reader. Moua’s attention to detail and storytelling skill really come through in the later part, when the author sets out to repair her relationship with Niam. It’s a tentative, sometimes painful coming together that gradually fleshes out a central insight of the book: Even in societies and situations that don’t give women a lot of opportunities to speak up, strong females will somehow find their voices.

 

Mila Koumpilova covers issues of immigration for the Star Tribune.

The Bride Price
By: Mai Neng Moua.
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 230 pages, $16.95.
Event: 7 p.m. May 11, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.