Kalia Yang: Lyrical storytelling from Hmong refugee camp

“When one dreams in the right direction, the dream never dies, one never wakes, it always only grows bigger and bigger.”
– Bee Yang, father of Kalia Yang

Words cascade from Kalia Yang, soft and slightly rushed. Whether gently chatting in Hmong to her 3-year-old daughter, or in a conversation in English about language in the cacophony of a St. Paul coffeeshop, the 35-year-old shares family stories as easily as if she had experienced them yesterday.

Maybe that is how her second memoir, “The Song Poet,” a first-person narrative in the voice of her father, Bee, spilled out on the page in two months.

Yang’s father also was a curator of words. In the confines of the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand, where Kalia was born and lived until she was six, he collected beautiful words that people said to each other for his own work composing poems that are presented in Hmong oral tradition as songs.

The first song she heard her father sing publicly was at a St. Paul Hmong American New Year’s celebration in 1989. As she wrote in “The Song Poet” of her nine-year-old self, “I was one with a people who had lived for a long time, traveled across many lands, a people clinging to each other for a reminder, a promise, of home, that place deep inside and far beyond where the Hmong people had hidden our hearts so that we could heal.”

“He understood the power of words and story to transport,” she says. “His brain is his heart.” After his mother died in 2003, “all the words he had stored leaked out and he no longer remembered them. He stopped singing.” However, he recorded an album of his song poems in 2014.

As a graduate student at Columbia University, Yang walked to campus every day, seeing men like her father, “their shoulders pushed down by gravity,” going to work in the basement of restaurants. She knew she wanted to write her father’s story next. He told her, “No one will want to read about someone like me.”

She wrote it anyway, sharing Hmong stories of his earlier years in Laos, refugee camps and coming to the United States. He worked the overnight shift as a machinist in the Twin Cities for 15 years until he and a group of Hmong laborers were let go because they wanted, ironically, to use their words to advocate for improving their work conditions.

“Words are like currency to the world,” Yang says. “Writing is for me the truest expression of human experience. It is a collection of emotions expressed in moments. I write for stability. I write as a response to the world, as a way to be in it. Writing is, for me, a conversation across space and time, the barriers and boundaries that keep us captive.”

In November, Yang received a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant to help her develop her third memoir, “Return of the Refugee,” that explores motherhood in times of war, where “some things are worse than death,” she says. Post-traumatic stress disorder, rape, separation, loss of culture and homeland – these are all common experiences of refugees. Yang’s mother was 16 the last time she saw her mother, walking away – “a nightmare she can’t wake up from.”

Finding the words

Yang’s first book, “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,” was written as a love letter to her grandmother. Separated as a child from her father’s mother, who could not read and write, Yang thought if she pressed hard enough on the pages her grandmother could read her heart. After her grandmother’s death, the letters were found in a suitcase. Her grandmother had loved the words and touched them so often that the ink had come off of the papers. What was left, Yang says, were “the indentations of love left on the paper.”

Yang was an undergraduate at Carleton College at the time. No one knew of her deep loss. What began as a 36-page love letter developed into a narrative so that “others could love her and miss her with me.”

Today, Yang lives in St. Paul with her family that includes a three-year-old daughter and one-year-old twin sons. She teaches writing at Carlton College in Northfield and gives an average of 150 talks each year about her books and the Hmong refugee experience.

“The Latehomecomer” was a success, winning a 2009 Minnesota Book Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 PEN Award. She was nervous when asked to speak in front of an audience of 300. For 20 years, Yang had been a selective mute, rarely talking in English-rather choosing to only communicate to her family, and in Hmong. Her father took her hands into his rough, machinist hands – “hardness giving birth to softness,” as she tells it. He said, “If you speak, if the winds of humanity blow, then maybe our lives were not lost.”

FFI: www.kaokaliayang.com