Back Forty: A Hmong rice farmer’s journey of ‘war, love, and survival’

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews, and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

Wind-blown rice crop, Fresno, California 2021. Photo by Lisa M. Hamilton.

By Samuel Fromartz

For subsistence farmers, the hungry season is that time of year when last year’s harvest has run out but the new crop has not yet come in. It’s a time of foraged roots, wild game, and lean bellies, a time when the budding rice crop provides just enough anticipation of better times ahead — a sliver of hope amid scarcity.

In Lisa M. Hamilton’s new book, The Hungry Season: A Journey of War, Love and Survival, this yearning serves as a metaphor for the story of Ia Moua, a Hmong rice farmer now living in Fresno, California. Born in the highlands of Laos in 1964, she fled her village as a teenager after the communist regime took over the country, survived years in a Thai refugee camp, then finally emigrated with her family to the United States in the early 1990s. She joined the more than 1.2 million Southeast Asian refugees who settled in and around Fresno in the years after the Vietnam War. 

There, she began growing native Hmong rice in a community farm plot, just as she had decades earlier in the mountains of Laos, forging a connection through work and food with a way of life that had endured for centuries. Holding onto the past had been impossible during the war, but growing rice gave her — and her community — a precious link back. 

Hamilton skillfully weaves this narrative, giving us a multifaceted portrait of a woman, her experience of cultural upheaval, her path of migration, and the story of survival — and maybe even triumph — in a new land. (Disclosure: Hamilton has written for FERN and we served as her fiscal sponsor on grants for this project.) 

Ia’s story can’t be fully grasped without an understanding of historical context. So Hamilton leads us through recent IndoChinese history, explaining how first French rule and later the American bombing campaign and Vietnamese incursion affected Laos and the Hmong people. But she always returns to the protagonist, to her family and community. She immerses herself in Ia’s world.

Hamilton had another challenge, too, for Ia only speaks Hmong. All the interviews were conducted through an interpreter who worked alongside Hamilton for years. The relationship evolved, as Hamilton explains in the end notes, from journalist-subject-translator to three friends who came to know one another intimately — talking, working, eating, and sharing rooms together. “I believe that genuine relationships are what allow you to see a person and her experience at their fullest,” Hamilton writes. “From that intimacy a new kind of story emerges. That was the kind of story I wanted to write.” 

Hamilton hung around as children grew up, graduated from high school, and got married. She participated in multiple rice harvests, through extreme drought years in California as well as bountiful ones. She even traveled to Laos three times to meet Ia’s extended family. 

Still, she was an outsider, a white journalist trying to understand an Indigenous Asian culture that had been forcefully transplanted to a radically different society. But Hamilton’s subject proved to be a welcoming guide, spending hundreds of hours talking with her. Perhaps her most difficult task was trying to see the world the way Ia does, in a culture built around husband, family, clan, community, and ancestors. As she writes:

From a young age, Ia was aware of her place within the larger group. She understood that her body — anyone’s body — was merely a vessel for a soul, and those souls cycled between worlds: first being born into a body, then passing into the land of the ancestors for some years, until being reborn into a new body. This life of Ia’s was just one of many that her soul would live. Knowing this, she understood that her self was not freestanding or paramount — it wasn’t the thing her life was meant to serve. Instead, there was an order to things much greater than her or any other individual person. 

Throughout the book, Ia is forever negotiating with those in her physical and metaphysical orbits: with her parents who stayed behind in Laos; with her husband, who is the head of the family and who at times abuses her; and with her ancestors, who she attempts to appease with offerings — to ensure a good harvest, cure an illness, or assist in a thorny immigration issue. 

This effort to mollify ancestors becomes desperate when her husband falls ill, and Ia tries to divine the source of his severe stomach pains. He improves, then relapses, and neither Western medicine nor spiritual offerings help much. But witnessing his treatment at the hospital — enduring several operations the outcome of which doctors found difficult to predict — one could conclude that Western medicine is no less mysterious than Ia’s rituals. And eventually, miraculously, he does come home. 

From a Western vantage point, Ia’s approach might seem backward, incomprehensible. But without this nexus of relationships, without this understanding of her place in the world, her life is meaningless. Ia says again and again that her biggest fear is being an orphan, of losing her connections and being left adrift.

The Hmong had already faced that fear when they fled their mountain villages, leaving family and rice fields behind. This migration unleashed a state of longing, of looking backward to a pre-war era that many sought to recapture. Some migrants became prey to Hmong hucksters, who promised a return to the homeland if only they could raise enough money for fighters who would defeat communism (never mind that the new regime in Laos now had relations with the United States). Millions in donations were lost to this fraudulent dream. 

Ia knows better and seeks to satisfy her longing for the past through the rented plot of farmland outside Fresno. There she grows rice, smuggled from the homeland, shared among Hmong farmers, and saved from the previous season’s harvest. Working together, sharing stories and lunches in a makeshift tool shed, the farmers achieve — with each new crop — a facsimile of the life that’s been lost.

It’s a story of perseverance in a new country. But in telling the story, Hamilton achieves something else. She gives Ia’s extraordinary life recognition, making sure that she will not be an orphan in her new land.