As a child, Choua Xiong had always wanted to be an artist. As an adult, her passion, talent, and determination have led her to illustrate a recently published Hmong fairy tale, Puag Thaum Ub: Hmoob Xeem, written and told by Dr. Brian V. Xiong.
Pursuing an art career is something Choua always dreamed of doing, but it is also a career that is suppressed by many Hmong parents and families - whereas medical doctors, lawyers, and scientists are more preferable choices. “I’ve been drawing ever since I could remember as a child. In my journey, I went through various phases of wanting to be a mangaka (Japanese comic artist and author), animator, and illustrator because of my love for the arts and storytelling. However, pursuing art as a career was discouraged in my family, so I aspired to be a veterinarian or zoologist as a child.”
Despite being discouraged from a career in the arts, her siblings saw and admired her talent. “My main influence was from watching anime. The first anime I watched was Sailor Moon, which inspired my siblings and me to begin drawing. My siblings played a big role in introducing me to drawing, which I have continued to practice throughout my life. I was later influenced further by various artists like Nobuteru Yuki,” said Choua.
There aren’t many Hmong children books out there, and the kind of illustration projects that Choua was most interested in, was to produce more Hmong characters that touch on Hmong children and culture. As Choua described it, “I am most interested in producing manga about Hmong characters. I want to create stories that touch on Hmong culture. I also want to create stories that address experiences and issues we face in the Hmong community. I have several projects in mind already, which have been in the works for years.”
Puag Thaum Ub: Hmong Xeem is a rich fairy tale, traditionally shared through oral, and Hmong origin story. It is said that in the beginning, there were heavy rains and water flooded the world. There were no other humans and animals, but only two siblings hidden in a drum. Lushly illustrated with traditional watercolors, Choua brought these siblings to life from their journey of the flood to the creation of the Hmong 18 clans. “I enjoyed bringing the characters to life step by step; from penciling the line art to finishing off the illustrations with watercolors. I remember reading this story as a kid when I was researching various Hmong folktales for inspiration to make my own manga adaptation. Quite frankly, I was initially put off by this story. But with age, I have come to recognize the eccentricities of this story, just like any other cultural folktales and myths. It’s a strange feeling to see how I have brought this story and these characters to life years later. I enjoyed painting life into these characters and this story, because now our parents and grandparents who grew up hearing this folktale can visually see these characters and their interactions,” said Choua.
As a master student, Choua enjoyed producing this book for the Hmong community. The whole project actually took about nine months to complete. “It took me around eight to nine months on and off because I was busy balancing graduate school and work. Drawing out the line art took up the most time, while water coloring was a breeze for me. But what I love most about the illustration process of this book are painting the landscapes and backgrounds. I have always been focused on drawing and painting human subjects, so drawing and painting non-human subjects was out of my comfort zone. However, this project forced me to take a dive into what I am not familiar with. Despite this challenge, I learned a lot and had fun with painting things like water, mountains, and foliage. Painting such things is quite different from painting human subjects,” said Choua.
Artists have their own journey and support system, but for Choua, her family, friends, mentors and partner are her biggest supporters. “These individuals have believed in me and pushed me to pursue my artistic endeavors when I didn’t believe in my own skills. I have faced a lot of discouragement, but these individuals have never failed to see the potential in me that I don’t see myself. And for that, I am forever grateful to their endless support for my artistic growth and aspirations” said Choua.
Choua believes that individuals are unique in their own way, and being an illustrator has helped her understanding more about other people’s feeling. As Choua stated, “Being an illustrator has helped me be more sensitive and understanding in my interactions with others. I am often observing people’s gestures and expressions because I love to study faces and poses for my own reference in my artistic endeavors. This has inadvertently led me to take a more understanding approach in my interactions with the people around me. Even so, I am still often perplexed. The human mind is complex, and every individual is unique.”
When Choua is not illustrating, she loves to immerse herself in the beauty of nature through hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities. “I enjoy identifying the wildlife and vegetation around me. I also enjoy playing various musical instruments in my pastime. Lastly, I enjoy spending time with my family and animal companions,” said Choua.
When asked about her future plans in the field, Choua hopes to be a more successful manga author within the next five years and creating manga stories about Hmong characters that individuals from all walks of life and cultures could enjoy. “My first goal will be to finish my anecdotal graphic novel about my Hmong American experience, and then work on different fictional or non-fictional visual stories that people will love and appreciate,” said Choua.
Choua would like to thank HER Publisher for providing a space for Hmong artists and for the opportunity to illustrate this fairy tale traditionally shared through oral story for the community. She further expressed her gratitude to all the fans and supporters out there for their continued support of Hmong students and artists. “Thank you so much for all the support. Words cannot express my gratitude,” said Choua. If she could give one advise for our Hmong youth and future artists, she offer the following: “Those of you who are thinking about pursing art seriously, I highly encourage you to do it. We must show our support to our fellow artists and see our community grow in the arts.” If you would like to know more about Choua and her work, please feel free to follow her Instagram at tshuax or facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tshuax/