Kao Kalia Yang on “Flowers of the Sky”

In a poetic new essay, author Kao Kalia Yang considers the many meanings of Paj Qaum Ntuj, or “flowers from the sky”—from the name of a Twin Cities business that makes joss paper arrangements to be burned at Hmong funerals to the title of Pao Houa Her’s Walker Art Center solo exhibition. For Yang—the author of Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, among others—the phrase references “a real place, though it exists beyond a measure of geography. It is the space of ancestral reunions. It lives somewhere between the American notion of heaven and the Hmong understanding of an Afterlife. It floats above the highest clouds; it is individual and it is all-encompassing at once, a moment that lingers and loves endlessly, a generous figment of time that continuously gives and forgives as a site of eternal belonging.”

Pao Houa Her, untitled, Mt. Shasta series, 2021–2022.

More recently, she’s learned of another connotation for the Paj Qaum Ntuj: cannabis flowers, and the green rush that many Hmong Americans have embraced as a route to prosperity and stability. This pursuit has brought wealth to some, and death and sadness to others, she notes, from Hmong cannabis farms getting bulldozed in Siskiyou County, California—near the landscapes Her documented in her new Mt. Shasta series—to marijuana farmers dying from carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to stay warm.

She writes:

There is a saying in Hmong about the separations caused by the earth and the sky. Those who adventure in one direction cannot turn back to the other. What begins as choices become decisions and these are the true markers of one’s life trajectory; our decisions decide who we walk with, who we race by, who we wait for, who we carry, who we fail, and how we fall.

Pao Houa Her: Paj quam ntuj / Flowers of the Sky is on view at the Walker Art Center through January 22, 2023.