Orphans of History

The future of the Hmong will fall on the shoulders of hundreds of young people like Julie Chang who straddle two worlds often at odds. (Photo Credit: Sacramento Bee/Anne Chadwick Williams)

This special report by The Sacramento Bee was part of an insightful narrative series on the Hmong people and their attempts to cope with American culture while trying to retain their own identity. Senior writer Stephen Magagnini received the American Society of Newspaper Editor’s distinguished writing award for diversity for this series.

A lot of the work of journalism involves ending the day knowing the most arcane details about a subject that you knew nothing about when you went to work that day. Writing history at the speed of life, though, can make it hard to write accurately about groups that are different from you, especially when that difference is as profound as it was for Magagnini.

What Magagnini shows in “Orphans of History” is that it is possible to use the tools of narrative writing to render the stories of others in an authentic way. He does so by first learning what he can about the group through research and interviews. Then, he tells the story in a way that cuts to the core of what makes the Hmong people of Northern California the same as anyone else while exploring the things in their culture that make them profoundly different. In that way, he creates characters with whom readers can relate as they are propelled toward the end through a tale rich with insight and surprise.

We selected a story,“Hmong Teen Builds Future in Two Conflicting Worlds,” to illustrate his work. Also read Magagnini’s essay on on Julie Chang and her journey to become an American but live within the expectations of her Hmong culture.

Orphans of History: Hmong Teen Builds Future In Two Conflicting Worlds

This story on Hmong student Julie Chang is the final installment in the “Orphans of History” series. On top of all her responsibilities at home, Julie, 16, was a star at Burbank High School, where she helped teach the Hmong language class, led the She Club (an Asian girls’ club), and maintained a 3.5 GPA—even though she’d been in the United States less than five years and had learned very little in the Thai refugee camp where she had grown up. Read Story

Reporter’s Journal: Writing Orphans of History

Stephen Magagnini began writing about the Hmong in the early 1990s, around the time he became the Sacramento Bee’s race and ethnicity reporter. Magagnini shares his experiences from the “Orphans of History” series. Read Essay