Ra Noe, A Woman of Valor
By Jessica Goudeau
(Photos by Kelsi Williamson)
For our Women of Valor series, we’ve been partnering with the talented artisans of Hill Country Hill Tribers. For our final installment, Executive Director Jessica Goudeau honors one of them. (*Check back in the weeks to come for additional guest posts from essay contest finalists.*)
Ra Noe is one of the more than thirty brave and resilient artisans we work with at Hill Country Hill Tribers. These women have endured more in their lives than I can even imagine: they left everything to flee ethnic cleansing from the junta in Burma, ended up in refugee camps marked by extreme poverty and hopelessness, and then moved their families to this new country so their children can have education and a future.
It’s hard to tell the story of the refugee women we know. Mostly it’s difficult because we don’t want to sensationalize them or make them less than what they are—friends we respect. They are not objects of pity or “poor people” or inspirational tales. They are real women with real lives and real stories. There are details in the story of Ra Noe, of how she was widowed and the journey from Burma to her apartment in Austin, that make her one of the strongest, bravest women I know. But I don’t want to share those details; they are hers, part of a story she should share in her own voice. I want to tell the story of a special scarf she just made, one that demonstrates both her artistic ability and what she is overcoming in order to create a new life in Austin.
Ra Noe is a consummate artist. She is a weaver whom we met last fall; she brought several samples of the types of scarves she could make and we had never seen designs like hers. She quickly became one of our leading weavers.
Ra Noe is the mother of five children and several grandchildren, some of whom live together in their two-bedroom apartment. Like all of our artisans, her apartment is full of family—children sleep on rice mats all over the house, dinner is multi-generational, and everyone who can work contributes to pay for rent and buy food. Ra Noe shows pictures of her family members proudly—she is a widow, a well-honored matriarch, the hub of her home.
Ra Noe is being supported primarily by her children. Her eyesight is failing and she’s had a hard time learning English. Selling her woven products is one of the only options she has to earn some income.
Because Ra Noe is such a deft weaver, she was part of a special project this summer. For the last few years, Hill Country Hill Tribers has sold whatever our artisans have made. We love that each of the pieces for sale on our website is one-of-a-kind, but it’s meant that some really beautiful pieces go quickly and others, with perhaps more eccentric color choices, remain behind in our inventory closet. We hate that the women waste time weaving products that may never generate income, especially since it can take a woman up to two days to make one of their gorgeous scarves. This summer we chose a few of our best artisans, including Ra Noe, to begin the process of replicating scarves, so that we have 10 to 20 of some of our more beautiful designs rather than just one.
Because Ra Noe reads very little in her language and no English, we can’t print up instructions for her. Instead, we give most of our artisans pictures. My co-founder, Caren George, printed up a picture of a scarf that we loved and took all the right colors of yarn to Ra Noe to replicate.
Caren’s printer was running out of ink. One line of the printed picture above was slightly lighter than the rest. She took the picture to Ra Noe and carefully, with the help of Ra Noe’s daughter, asked her to replicate the scarf exactly like the picture. Her worry was that Ra Noe would get a little too creative and mix up the colors—we wanted the exact combination of teals, greens and purples in the picture. Caren didn’t really notice the printer-stripe line. When she went back a couple of weeks later to pick up the scarves, Caren and our friend Lindsay pulled them out to admire them. Running through the dark teals and purples was one thin line in lavender and light mint. It was odd, a mar in the design.
When Caren asked her why she had changed the design, Ra Noe grabbed the printed page. She brought back scraps of yarn she had, the lavender and mint green she’d carefully included to replicate what she had seen.
Ra Noe had woven the printer stripe into the scarf.
The artistry that it took to exactly reproduce that stripe is staggering. And it reveals how many strikes are against Ra Noe adapting to this new culture. She is brilliant in a world that doesn’t value her gifts; she is inexperienced in a world where everyone recognizes and understands technology that is outside of anything she has ever encountered.Ra Noe has been uprooted and is helping her children put down roots here. She is dealing with a world that is wildly beyond the scope of her experience with grace and aplomb. She is like the woman in my favorite Rainer Maria Rilke poem, “She who reconciles the ill-matched threads / of her life and weaves them gratefully / into a single cloth.”
The life Ra Noe left and the life she is leading now don’t match. And still she weaves. Ra Noe made two printer-stripe scarves and Caren and I each bought one. They are priceless. They are Ra Noe’s bravery and pluck, her artistic answer to uncertainty, woven in one thin lavender line among the greens and teals.
For the artistry it takes to weave the ill-matched threads of her life into an intricately beautiful design, I honor Ra Noe as a Woman of Valor.
Jessica is working on her doctorate in Ethnic and Third World Literature from the University of Texas in Austin, where she also teaches English as an Assistant Instructor. She taught ESL in Thailand in college and traveled to hill tribe villages where she first met Karen Hill Tribers. She and her husband Jonathan lived in Brazil and Chile, where they developed a passion for economic and community development. They have two small daughters who love their Burmese friends. Shop Hill Country Hill Tribers.
This post is part of our Women of Valor series. Eshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone. Great women of the faith, like Sarah and Ruth and Deborah, are identified as women of valor. One of my goals after completing my year of biblical womanhood was to “take back” Proverbs 31 as a blessing, not a to-do list, by identifying and celebrating women of valor. To help me in this, you submitted nearly 100 essays to our Women of Valor essay contest. There were so many essays that made me laugh, cry, and think I’ve decided that, in addition to the eight winners to be featured this week, I will select several more to feature as guest posts in the weeks and months to come.
The winners of the Women of Valor contest, will receive a flower necklace that is hand-made by the artisans of Hill Country Hill Tribers, a non-profit helping Burmese refugee women in Austin earn supplemental income and learn marketable skills. The necklaces and other new products in their fall line are available on their website now. I enourage you to read the stories of these women of valor in their Artisan Profiles and find out how you can become a Hill Triber Patron to support the artisans in their work.
Read the rest:
Mrs. Foster - A Woman of Valor by Jenn LeBow
Rebecca - A Woman of Valor by Cheryl Cash
Sarah - A Woman of Valor by Jenny Everett King
Sky - A Woman of Valor by Jonathan C.
Sofia - A Woman of Valor by Emily Allen
Mala - A Woman of Valor by Joy Bennett
Hulda Nite - A Woman of Valor by Liz Myrick
Dr. Chaney - A Woman of Valor by Hope Estes, Claire Nieman, and Heidi McElrath
"I am a woman of valor"