Kao Kalia Yang writes down her story
“My impatient heart has been the most difficult thing to contend with as I wrestled for the time and the place and the emotional space to unravel the stories that made us cry.” – Kao Kalia Yang
Publishing newcomer Kao Kalia Yang explores these and other questions in her stunning book, “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,” released by Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press.
Yang’s memoir tracks her family’s progress from 1975 to 2007: She details the story of how part of her family was captured by the Khmer Rouge and eventually rescued by her father and uncles. She explains the family’s journey to Thailand, their immigration to America when Yang was 6 years old, and the subsequent struggles of adaptation. Yang’s family settled in St. Paul, and there are glimpses of her family’s life settling in on the east side, where the children were sent to public schools.
Creating a memoir is a momentous series of tasks. Yang said that the hardest thing was that, “from the very beginning, the writing had to catch up with my articulated and expressed goal to write a book that would matter to me, to my family, to my people, to the world. My impatient heart has been the most difficult thing to contend with as I wrestled for the time and the place and the emotional space to unravel the stories that made us cry.”
Yang’s grandmother is the true heart of this book. Yang refers to the family matriarch as “a rebel with a cause … her strength in keeping her family together. She is a hero in my eyes and the eyes of so many of my family members. Grandma never tried to fit into each of the places she’s had to call home. In each place, she found a way to work for healing, never to hurt [and] found her own pace to live her life. I have tremendous love, respect, admiration, and dedication to her memories and the tenets that held her life together, above all: never to criticize the faiths of others. It can only weaken one’s own.” It is a deep and poignant story. Confronted with her grandmother’s death, Yang said, “I said I would love her forever even though she is in a new world and I remain in the old one.”
The book brings the Hmong American experience in memoir form into mainstream literature. Yang reported that her family “is so proud of the book: It is their story, contextualized with meaning. It is the story-whose consequences they’ve lived so long with, without being understood. It is a testament of their journey and their dreams.”
Words are Yang’s business. She and her sister, Der, founded and run a St. Paul-based organization called Words Wanted, which began as an outgrowth of helping family members fill out forms in English. “Currently, we are serving people who do not speak and/or write English very well but they need a way into the language to access information, opportunities and ideas,” Yang said.
Her next project “is to write my next book, and it will be called ‘Still, Fluttering Heart.’ I believe my plan is to do lots of things so that I can keep writing the kind of stories I believe in.”