Needles and Dust comprises the first part, approximately 20,000 words of a novel in progress. In the summer of 1988, Thao Dena, a twelve-year-old girl in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand, befriends the picaresque Vang Neng, who enchants Dena with stories of their homeland and promises of adventure. Their friendship progresses quickly to romantic attraction, which troubles Dena because of cultural taboos and the strain that their clandestine relationship has on Dena’s relationship with her mother, who is both indulgent and guarded. After an escapade to the Mekong River, Dena is introduced to Chao Fa, a messianic Hmong resistance group that promotes a writing system similar to one her own mother uses in her personal writings. Hoping to learn more of her heritage, Dena studies the pahawh system, but finds both her mother and Neng disapprove the pursuit. As Dena navigates the different demands of family, romance, and the self, she becomes increasingly independent and confident in her own ability to decide her future. The sentiment is jarred, however, when she learns that Neng will be returning to Laos and subject to an arranged marriage.