The story of Xai and Sia is a Hmong folk tale of a young woman’s journey to the netherworld to save her husband and bring him back to life. Bao Xiong, author and founder of Moth House Press, expands on this traditional tale in her new book “Folklore”, where she imagines the story behind Sia’s — the wife’s — courage.
Xiong told producer Hope Kirwan about her take on the traditional folk tale and the power of belief.
I first heard the story of Xai and Sia probably when I was in grade school. Every night my mom would tell us stories. I mean, we would always go to sleep with some kind of tall tale.
“Thousands of years ago, when the stars were young, in the times of gods and demons, old magic and ghostly encounters, the spirits were envious of humans, and fate had often tested lovers. All the odds were against Xai and Sia, two lovers compelled to take a very miraculous journey.”
– Excerpt from “Folklore”
Essentially, Hmong folklore is orally-told stories, not a lot of it has been recorded or published. So it makes it very unique and every time somebody tells the story, it’s a little bit different because they either inherited it from their father or grandfather or somebody from a long line of generations.
So the second time — when I heard the story of Xai and Sia again — it was about two years ago and mom and I were driving at 6 a.m. to the farmers’ market. And I was like, “Hey Mom, you know, the hero of the story is actually the wife.” My mother disagrees with me and she says “No, I think it’s the husband, because, you know, he has supernatural powers and she wouldn’t survive without him.” But I was like, “In the story, the wife saves him and she goes on more than one journey to do that. That makes her the hero of the story.”
As a young girl growing up, I didn’t realize that we had any stories based on strong female characters. This story definitely has one and for years, I never thought of it that way because of the way it was told. Whenever they talk about Sia, they cut her actions or her events short. So I created a hero’s journey for her for the second portion of the story.
I implemented a few different small lores and tall tales and superstitions into the book “Folklore” because I just thought it was important to explore the Hmong culture more, our beliefs more and some of our history that’s rooted into these stories.
There’s a lot of very bizarre supernatural events that happen in the original oral story. I wanted to make sense of it all for the readers. Nobody really knows about our culture and our beliefs so why are all these things happening? So I just wanted to establish in chapter one with this conversation between the two of them.
“We’re close to the village. The locals say these woods are home to the spirits,” said Xai. “Folklore around here is full of cautionary tales. The people believe in them. So, we keep out of these woods.”
“You don’t believe in them?” asked Sia.
“They could just be stories,” said Xai. He glanced over his shoulder to check on his parents in the carriage behind them.
– Excerpt from “Folklore”
Her husband doesn’t want to give into the superstitions because he believes that if you believe in them, they become real. And I think that’s a big part of it, like belief does make things real.
I felt it was important to discover Sia’s background and who she was as a person before she married her husband, Xai. So I dedicated one chapter to her past. I wanted Sia to be a strong woman. I mean, she’s embarking on all these adventures to save the man she loves.
My mom is a very inspirational person and she is kind of like my hero. The more I learn about her, the more I hear her personal stories from growing up, the more I feel like I as a person could not endure all of the things that happened to her. I just wanted this character to kind of resonate a little bit of my mother.
I’m very proud of my mom and her ability to carry all these stories with her. But then again, that’s part of what she loves. She loves storytelling. She’s a storyteller and she loves our culture and our beliefs. She honors them just by practicing them, just telling little stories here and there or practicing small rituals or traditions that she feels are very important to honor our ancestors.
I wrote this book with an intention to help record and preserve some of these stories that I feel like would be lost with the older generations. I would say that not a lot of people, Hmong Americans today who are the younger generation, speak Hmong. And that’s very hard to believe, but not a lot of them do.
But I also want new readers who are just interested in dark fantasies and dark romances and superstition and lore to also discover new stories.
“I don’t understand how an old ghost story can keep elders and villagers out of an entire forest,” said Xai. “Surely spirits of the dead can not wield such power over the living?”
“You may be right, but some of the stories are true,” said Sia.
Xai turned back to his wife. “Did you hear this from someone you know?”
“Yes,” replied Sia. “Someone I knew.”
– Excerpt from “Folklore”
(This story originally aired on March 11, 2021.)
MUSIC: “Trois Gnossiennes 3” by Blue Dot Sessions
“Biplane” by Chad Crouch