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home : community : community Friday, October 20, 2017

6/7/2016 3:19:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
Kao Kalia Yang Launches New Book

Amy Doeun

Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang is probably best known for her family memoir, The Latehomecomer. In this book she honestly, poetically and sometimes painfully shares her family's story with a focus on her grandmother. Now Yang is turning her craft to a new book entitled, The Song Poet.

On April 21st Kao Kalia Yang launched her second book, "On April 21st, The Song Poet made its first appearance into the world at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, the Center for Immigration History and Research hosted a launch and discussion of the new book because the country, the world, is swept up in refugees."

Erika Lee, the Director of the Center, Mai Na Lee, a history professor at the University, and Saengmany Ratsabout, a Lao refugee and member of higher education, joined Kao Kalia Yang, to discuss an outline for the evening. "None of us could know how having my father in the audience would influence the trajectory of my talk. I don't write speeches. I'm not interested in speaking at people. I want to be in conversation with them. The night became that, a conversation before an audience, between myself and the man whose life has inspired my new book, whose poetry has created my literary understanding of the world, and whose silence in English gives me voice to speak the language on both our behalf. It was a special night for all involved."

Hmong Times asked Yang more about the process of writing her book.

Hmong Times: How would you describe this book?

Kao Kalia Yang: This book is Bee Yang's story. Bee Yang was a fatherless boy in Laos. He was a young man who had to learn the hard lessons of leaving home, country, friends, family, and pieces of him. He spent most of his adult life in the factories of America supporting his children with the speed and steadiness of his hands. He watched those hands grow rough, fall apart, the muscles torn, ligaments broken. This is a story about growing older, reckoning with life and time. More than a memoir of the Hmong experience, The Song Poet is the story of a poor man struggling to survive in a country that does not speak his language or care for his life; it is a love song from a daughter to her father. Structurally, the book is inspired by my father's first album of Hmong song poetry, so it is his voice and then my own coming together in songs of his life. For me, the book is the truest and bravest account of Bee Yang's remarkable life in a world that overlooks men like him time and again. It is a humbling, honest pursuit of recognition for my father and his art, kwv txhiaj, for men like my father everywhere, men who carry the weight of their families on their shoulders, people who have found in poverty, the beauty and gift of poetry."

Hmong Times; Describe your writing process for the book please.

Kao Kalia Yang: I have been carrying this book inside of me for a long time. After The Latehomecomer I found myself on an intense and long (for the first three years after the publication of my first book, I did over 365 talks a year) book tour. In the currents of speaking, I could no longer write. I was caught in the storm of a great depression that hit from all sides, the housing market crashed, the unemployment rate grew, and I experienced the storm hitting my family, first my mother and then my father, and when they could no longer shield us, my siblings and me. I wanted to write a book about all of this. I found myself in exhausted talk, trying to wrap myself up in a story covered in the poetry of my father, but it was not until I asked my father how he became a song poet that the beginning of the story was born. He told me about being a fatherless boy and belonging to a woman who took to the mountainsides to feed her children, he talked of his loneliness, how he went from one neighbor to the next collecting their beautiful words to comfort his heart, and how one day the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born. I told him that his words, his story, were the beginning of my second book. He told me that no one would read a book about a man like him when you could read books about men like Barack Obama written by themselves. I started thinking and feeling my stubborn heartbeat. Wasn't the world comprised of men like my father? Didn't their stories matter? Shouldn't they? The Song Poet grew inside of me, fast and strong. In two months, prompted by my husband, the bones of the story came together. It took a year for the flesh and muscles to work themself over the bones, for the skin to develop.

Hmong Times; Was this more difficult than the previous one? If so how?

Kao Kalia Yang: The Song Poet was a faster writing process than The Latehomecomer. From a writing perspective, it was harder because I could no longer just tell the story via my voice. I took on my father's. I had to imagine my mother the way he saw her. I had to enter their relationship, with the experience of my own to guide me. My parents worked different shifts for years. They clung to the edge of a queen size mattress with three kids in between them each and every night those years through. I wake up to the same alarm clock as my husband. Together, we greet the rising sun. I did not realize how lonely those gray mornings were, when my mother got up before the stretch of dawn to go to work, how hard it was to leave our house into the snow, her thin jacket protection against the night. I never understood how it was to be my father, to come home at two in the morning, the dead of night, the house asleep, children and wife caught in their private dreams. To write these things, I had to feel them, and feeling all those years, the exhaustion in their bodies, the exhaustion in their hearts is tough. As well, structurally, The Song Poet demanded a less traditional approach; it is organized like a song album, with tracks instead of chapters. I had to do research. How does an album work? Hmong song poetry. How do I describe that when I can't do it? How do I feel it when I've only felt it as a song poet's daughter? Like Thelatehomecomer, The Song Poet demanded that I be an excellent student.

Hmong Times: Please share your thoughts for other writers.

Kao Kalio Yang: I'll limit myself to three thoughts:

1. Write honestly, bravery will come in the process, and authority will be established. You need authority if you are to be an author.

2. The less excuses you come up with for why you can't write, the more writing you can do. The more writing you have, the more material you have to build with. Writing is a creative endeavor we must build. If you have nothing to build with, you stand no chance at being a writer.

3. The best writers I've ever read are not afraid to be themselves. There is nowhere to hide on the page unless you're hiding from yourself.

Upcoming events with Kao Kalia are listed below.

Thursday, May 12, 2016 * 5:30 PM

Friends of the St. Paul Public Library & Center for Hmong Studies

Concordia University

Buenger Education Center

1282 Concordia Ave

St. Paul, MN 55104

Sunday, May 15, 2016 * 2:00 PM

The Loft Literary Center

Target Performance Hall

Open Book

1011 Washington Avenue South

Minneapolis, MN 55415

Wednesday, July 6, 2016 * 10:30 AM

Celebrate Asia

Brooklyn Park Library

8500 West Broadway

Brooklyn Park, MN 55443

St. Paul, MN



Minors Asia

St. Croix Marine & Power


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