Hmong author Kao Kalia Yang’s family escaped from Laos to a Thailand refugee camp, where, 27 years ago, she was born. When she was 6, the family came to the United States and lived in a 900-square foot house in St. Paul.
“Every night we converted the dining room and living room into a bedroom,” she said. “Our Thanksgivings were Meals on Wheels, our Christmases were Toys for Tots.
“I said to my father, ‘I didn’t choose this life.’ He said he would choose me all over again, if he could.” He spoke of the Hmong fable about babies: before they are born, they live in the sky where they fly among the clouds. He said that I was flying high in the sky and saw my mother and father walking in the jungle without shoes. I chose to come down. He said life would teach me how strong the human heart is.”
Yang’s 2008 book, The Latehomecomer, A Hmong Family Memoir, begins with the story of her mother and father in Laos and chronicles her own life in America, which includes graduating from Carleton College and Columbia University. It won two 2009 Minnesota Book Awards, for memoir/creative nonfiction and Readers Choice. According to Wikipedia, it has become Coffeehouse Press’ best-selling book.
At her April 26 presentation at the St. Anthony Library, Yang said , “I am a Hmong writer, a Minnesota author, and an American writer.” Minnesota is one of the most literary states in the nation, she added, and as an American writer, she realizes that through her work, she is contributing to world literature.
She said she had asked her mother how, when her family was hiding from soldiers in the Laotian jungles, she could have fallen in love with her father during such troubled times. “My mother said, ‘When you’re young, you think about life. Surrounded by death, you reach for love.'”
Her book includes the stories of other family members, including her grandmother. Revered in her native land as a healer, the older woman swam across the Mekong Delta with the rest of the family in their flight to freedom. Towards the end of the book, Yang writes of her death.
“My grandmother’s death was the first natural death in our family since 1975. It was the outcome we had been struggling so long for: a chance to die naturally, of old age, after a full life. The funeral would take us back to before the war, before the refugee camps of Thailand, before the life in America, all the way up to the clouds again.”
Yang said that since her book was published, she has been on many speaking tours. “Very few people know who the Hmong are. In Florida, they know about them because of ‘Gran Torino.'” (In the 2009 movie, star Clint Eastwood becomes involved in the lives of the Hmong family next door.)
Yang said that when she came to the United States, she had intended to become a doctor and her sister Dawb planned to become a lawyer (which she did). “We thought we needed someone to protect the rights we never had.”
She became a writer instead, she said, because “I want to use words to heal.” Speaking has become a mission for her, she added. “I think I write, so I can speak. Writing for me is the only way I know how to reckon with life in its thoroughness, its complexity and its beauty. If I cannot touch into who you are, I’m just wasting oxygen. You will make me believe that I can really change the world.”
Yang will be a writer in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the fall, which she said will be a bit difficult because she is a football fan who roots for the Vikings. “I am prejudiced against the Packers,” she joked.
She is the co-founder of Words Wanted, an agency that helps immigrants with writing, translating and business services. She made a short film, “The Place Where We were Born,” a lyric documentary about Hmong American refugees’ experiences. She said she is now working on three creative nonfiction children’s books and a book of poetry. Her website is www.kaokaliayang.com.