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Dust of Life: A True Ban Vinai Love Story (Novel)

by Dr. Gary Yia Lee

It was 1977 and Ban Vinai had just been set up as a refugee camp for thousands of Hmong who fled the new communist regime in Laos to the safety of Thailand. Mua, a young Hmong man, had recently completed his university studies and was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Mua was asked by Pafua, a Hmong girl in Ban Vinai refugee camp, Thailand, to help sponsor her and her family to settle in the United States. Although he hardly knew her, Mua travelled to Thailand to see what he could do. It was agreed that if they got on well, he would marry her and apply for her and her family to come and live with him in America. In the meantime, he went to work on a Thai government project with Hmong opium growers in Chiangmai where he met a young Thai woman named Phorn. She was the opposite to the Hmong girl in many ways and he became inadvertently involved with her.

After a few months of visits and courtship, Moua asked Pafua for marriage. To his dismay, her mother refused him her hand. Hurt and disappointed, he turned to Phorn but would soon learn that she was very different from what he understood her to be. Shattered by these events, he returned to the US where he continued to work for Hmong refugees. It was not until many years later when Mua went to Australia, where Pafua and her mother had gone to live, that he discovered the awful truth about her refusal to marry him - a discovery that would profoundly affect him for the rest of his life.

This novel is both a mystery and a love story. It is about the Hmong as much as the Thai people and their cultures. The author, who is an anthropologist, has woven many facts into the book that will help the reader appreciate different facets of life among the poor in Thailand, the recent history of the Hmong refugees from Laos, their difficult life in the refugee camp of Ban Vinai and their rich traditions. The novel can also be seen at a metaphorical level as a representation of the Hmong people who, like the male protagonist in the story, live in many different worlds going from one country (or woman) to another and never feeling fully welcome. He wants to become Westernised to be accepted in America but loses his Hmong heritage in the process – again like the Hmong in the diaspora who are forced to assimilate into other cultures only to lose their very own.

“Dust of Life, great book! Well written for a first time Hmong author. I fell in love with Pahua. I found myself in Mua. The descriptions were amazing and poetic. 4/5 stars”. - Dai Thao

“I stayed up and read it until 1am. It was very well written and easy to read. The poetry is beautiful. I was so absorbed by the story. Is it based on the author's own life? I could not forget it for 4-5 days after I finished the book. I told my friends about it and they all want to read it. We are so pleased it was written by one of our very own" - Manivong

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