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Interview: "Latehomecomer" Kao Kalia Yang
Yang was born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in 1980, and then at the age of seven came with her family to the U.S. She grew up in St. Paul, where she learned to live in two worlds yet remain distinctly Hmong. I was struck by the significance of Yang’s story as an American story and by how it is relevant to me, an Anglo-American. I had the privilege of discussing these matters with Yang in her St. Paul office.
Your book is about the Hmong experience, but is clearly written for Americans. What do you hope the book will accomplish in the vast and diverse American community? I have relatives in Kentucky, for instance. Do you have any kind of a vision for what your book could mean for them?
When you write a book, you hope it’s going to be useful—of course for the subject of the book, but also for the readers. You hope it’s going to transfer in the way they see the world and the way they come through their lives. I think at the core of it, it’s a human story, and if I can show a path into writing for that little white boy in the mountains of North Carolina who’s never [written] before, he will see a path into [writing] as well because what matters to one person matters to the rest of humanity. That’s the lesson I hope the book can teach: you’re writing about life—human life, all of the human life that you know. And that’s the subject of the book.
Also in the Daily Planet, read Mark Weaver on The Latehomecomer and hear an audio excerpt from this interview.
Definitely, because I began writing when my grandmother was about to pass away. She was the first natural death in my family. She was very old and she had this long journey of a life, what everybody would consider a very successful life. I didn’t know how to let go; it was so hard. For me, writing was the way to say goodbye. The book started out as a series of love letters, at first—all of the things that I never wanted to forget.
Do you see that healing property extending to the Hmong community as well?
I hope so. I imagine there’s a little girl like I used to be and she’ll go to the library shelf and she’ll see a book. And it won’t just be an Asian book; it’ll be a Hmong book. She’ll find pieces of herself in it. There’s a very fine line between saying “This is my experience,” and asserting, “This is also the experience of a people.” I never really thought consciously that one day I would say, “I’m writing this book and I’m recording these experiences and it’s going to reflect a whole people.” But it does. So I think it is healing for me and it will be healing for my people, because we’ll see ourselves for the first time in literature written by us.
In the book, there is a very clear sense of celebrating Hmong-ness, of wanting to preserve who you are personally as a Hmong woman and as a people, as a community. How do you strike a balance between that perspective and the pitfalls of nationalism and fascism?
I think the danger of fascism and nationalism is when we forget who we are. When I say I’m Hmong and I love being Hmong and I would not be born anything else but Hmong, I mean it in a positive way. There are all these trends and all these ideas of what is good-looking, what is attractive, and what is to be celebrated—and what isn’t. And when you come from my culture, you’re kind of short, so by default the supermodel is already a totally different scale. It forces you to reckon with who you are and who you want to be on a scale that isn’t [influenced] by media and commercialism. So, it forces me to say, “If I’m already all of these differences, then what is good about being me?” And there was really no way I could be like everybody else already, and so I see it as a very creative approach to surviving: we become who we are and we define “us” in a way that would give us all the tools we need in order to do the work that we want to do in the world. For my purposes, loving Hmong and being Hmong is great because all these young Hmong kids need to see somebody who can live fluently in American culture and say, “I am so happy to be Hmong, still.” When we talk about the dangers of nationalism and the dangers of fascism, we also must talk about the dangers of refugeeism. You have people being dislodged all the time, and so we are talking about a population that is emergent, where their idea of home is founded only on memories. We need to remember the most important element of what makes us heroic, and the power that enables us to be heroic here and now in dealing with all of the issues of the contemporary world. What applies to me and my world, and what am I going to take from it to enable me to move fluently in the world? The power to see your options—that’s wealth. I’ve come to redefine wealth, and I think that’s the ability to see what your options are at any given point in time.
To discover: “Who am I and what am I going to do in this life? What’s my purpose? What does the universe bring up within me? And how am I going to follow that?” Rather than allowing other people to define that for you. Fascism and nationalism are allowing someone else to define that for you.
Whereas, celebrating Hmong-ness is celebrating who you are and what you’ve been given, and finding your purpose in that.
Independently and creatively.
I was inspired by your musing about love as you considered your experiences growing up and observing your parents’ relationship. How does this perspective of love compare to your understanding of how love is presented in the American context?
I feel very passionate about this because I’ve never known romantic love, but I think I’ve never needed to know because I’ve always seen a love that is beyond just man and woman, beyond romance. I say, “I love the way that flower blooms and just the way the sun hits it.” Every day when I see that flower and the way the sun is hitting it, I’m a little in love. You hear so often of these young kids and they fall into what they think is romantic love, and they’re so desperate to be loved and to be accepted, or they’re so hungry and they make all these mistakes because of this need. If they can love like they love a flower and know that love everyday, or if they could look at their mom and dad and feel that love, in the end, love is the same quantity. It’s the act of endlessly caring for somebody and wanting them to be happy. That flower—in this second I am happy; it must love me back. If you can draw this kind of power from your environment, and from all the things that are around you, you become so much more powerful than you know, and so much more loveable because the more in love with the world you are, the more open you are to love in general, and you become more loveable and everybody else, by default, has to love you a little more. Your capacity to be loved is as much as your capacity to love. You control the formula, and you can dictate how it’s going to be. I think that’s the beautiful thing about human beings, the human experience: it always applies if you really listen. Feeling lonely is great. I personally find loneliness to be very romantic within myself because then you come home and you see something so beautiful, like the way the sun hits the water, and you wish there was somebody there. And that wish—it’s a statement that you love somebody and you’re there in the world with them and that you share in this world with them. So, for me, I am as close as I can be to another when I’m alone and I’m missing them. There’s romance in that. There’s poetry there.
Feeling lonely is great. I personally find loneliness to be very romantic.
I was struck by the love and devotion your family members have for each other. As an American, this seems almost like fantasy. I know you’re immersed in this culture, but I don’t how much you know the emptiness that pervades American family life. In light of the closeness and love you felt in your family, what are your thoughts or perspective about American families?
When I was younger, when we lived in the McDonough Housing Project, [I thought] all families had meetings, and you all talked about how you were going to become better and how you would stay involved. But as I grew up, I realized that the adults talked so often about how to stay meeting each other and how to stay loving each other because that was their fear. That’s what they saw in American homes; that’s the one danger that they wanted to hold all of us away from. In my family, I can honestly say our fathers have succeeded. They’ve raised generations of children who feel strongly that they are Yang—Yang versus Moua. My mom is a Moua, but because of the structure of the Moua family, my father was able to keep us closer knit to his family. So, we have a very strong sense of the Yang identity; it’s very powerful. At the same time, I have adopted grandparents now—Stanley and Connie Heginbotham. They’re Caucasians. They live in Denver and New York City. And I also have Rietta Turner [mentor and friend], who is African American. And I have to say that the way they have opened up their hearts and their homes to me is so American. And it only works in America. It’s the idea that you can take people in and make them yours. It’s the idea that you can cross races, cross cultures, cross ages, and say, “You’re my family, too, because I choose you.” It’s so different, but it’s so American. So, in the flux of all that is negative about American families, and all the distance, I’m beginning to see how mainstream culture is really reaching out, and right now there’s a hungriness for family again. We try to learn from other cultures. This is going against all of the tradition that we’re used to, right? You’re questioning the structure of the white family. That is so healthy, and I think if you can take [anything] from the Hmong culture, it is this respect for the elders, and from where you come from, and for the blood that flows in your veins. We live in the same time, the same world practically, and if it’s possible for one structure, then why can’t that model work for another?
To what degree would you attribute the love and devotion in your family, and perhaps in the Hmong community, to the suffering you have undergone through exile and emigration, poverty and struggle—and how much is an inherent part of Hmong culture?
[The Secret War in Laos] came and killed two-thirds of our people…When we talk of that experience, it necessarily binds because it is so poignant and powerful. If you talk about the history of America, when you talk about the break with England, everybody feels it, right? There is a memory that goes beyond just living it. I was not alive when my family was fleeing the war, but I remember. We’ve never gone though this experience, but the body remembers, and the body knows. Once you’ve been through something, even if you haven’t gone through it [personally], that experience seeps into who you are; it seeps so deep beyond the fabric of a new body coming out into the world; [it’s] written into the DNA.
Joseph Campbell talks a lot about the hero’s journey in mythological tales. Do you feel your story, your family’s story, and the Hmong story fits the parameters of the hero’s tale?
When you talk about “hero,” you talk very specifically. [Like] Hercules—we think of all these figures and just one person embodying the rest. But I think in my story, if I had to say there was a hero, I would honestly say it is my grandma because she has done so much with her life. I am not a hero, but I am the granddaughter of a hero, and so I feel her so poignantly and I know the journey as well as she could have told it. I also think it’s the people that are heroes—the Hmong people. So, I think we’re expanding the conditions of heroism to a people. The men and the women that I see on the street are the heroes of the book because I am the child of heroes. It is hard to say I am the hero because my obstacles never compare, but the fact that I come from a heritage that is heroic enables me to be heroic too.
The fact that I come from a heritage that is heroic enables me to be heroic too.
There was a moment in the story when you were dealing with what appeared to be a spiritual sickness, which was remedied by the elephant bracelet your grandmother gave to you. In terms of your life so far, how does that episode fit in with the direction you see your life going now?
Lupus, according to doctors, is a ghost disease. It’s incurable; they don’t know how it happens, but when it happens, your body just fights against itself, and you slowly degenerate, and it only gets worse; it doesn’t get better. But the elephant bracelet took it all away. It didn’t matter whether it was lupus or something else; I got better. That was the fact. And you realize in the throes of such an episode: I could die tomorrow or I could die today; it doesn’t matter; nobody knows. The cancer patient could live much longer than the perfectly healthy little boy who is just opening his eyes up to the world. So, what’s there to be afraid of, right? I could die tomorrow or die today. If I die, I will still be remembered the same way—that I tried to do good. It’s not that I succeeded, but that I tried and died. It’s sets a really high bar for the standard of your conduct and the way you go about living your life. But if we don’t have a high bar, then what’s the point anyway? It’s so easy to waste a life, and it’s so very easy to open up your eyes one day and see all this time has been lost. I’m going to live a worthwhile life. If I die tomorrow, if I die today, I’ll die living a worthwhile life. You make a memory a day. Imagine three hundred and sixty-five days—that’s so many memories. When you’re very old, and the world has moved on and passed you by, you can use those memories still to fuel you forward. When I’m sitting in that rocking chair looking into the sunset, I’ll be so happy.
Mark Weaver (mrkdwvr [at] yahoo [dot] com) grew up in Fairborn, Ohio and then embarked on a life journey that has taken him across the U.S. and around the world. He has spent the last ten years teaching linguistics and English as a second language at colleges and universities in Texas, Minnesota, and California. Before that, he worked with a linguistics organization in Ethiopia. He is currently a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.
©2008 Mark Weaver