Author Q&A: Kao Kalia Yang

Interview by Misha Rai 

Kao Kalia Yang is a teacher, public speaker, and writer. Yang is the author of the award-winning book, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (Coffee House Press, 2008) and the book, The Song Poet (Metropolitan Books, 2016). She is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Kao Kalia lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her family. Kao Kalia Yang is a member of the Hmong ethnic minority. Born in Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, Yang is now an American citizen.

At this point I have read The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father four times and each time I have come away astounded by the gentle prowess of the prose. There is a meditative quality to the writing, which stands out especially in sections where the reader is exposed to the turmoil and anguish of war, of migration, of struggle for livelihood and identity in a new country, and I wondered how that writing voice—one that can lull a reader with is poetry, but that same poetry has a sting that reduces the reader to tears very often—came to you as you began work on the book. I am curious too about how that voice more or less holds throughout the course of the narrative arc since the book begins first with you, then goes to your father—Bee Yang—and then back to you ending with chapters that hold both your perspectives. Additionally, melded in the book are other voices too, stories your grandmother told you or what your uncles told your siblings and you.

Kao Kalia Yang

When my readers meet me, they often say, “You are just like in the book.” Sometimes, they’ll add, “You speak in poetry.” I never quite know how to respond. The books are very much the heart of me speaking. I reckon they wouldn’t sound like anyone else? The poetry I know comes from the beauty of the Hmong language, my first language. While English is my first language on the page, long before my introduction to its structure, I had fallen deeply in love with the talk of those around me, particularly the storytellers who held me close. There was the way they created story, how simple words carried layers of meaning, but there was also the accompanying beat of their hearts. We had little privacy in the camps. Each story I was told was shared within the communal and continual noise of life: the flap of birds’ wings, the bark of hungry dogs, the cries of the little ones, the laughter of children at play, an adult voice raised in anger, another whimpering in fear. At each point of my earliest life, I was surrounded, drowning in a wealth of human experience. All these emotions and moments existed together around me and inside of me. The cacophony of sounds and voices have found their way into my understanding of communication. My writing voice, like all of me, is very much a compilation of a chaotic life, first formed in Hmong and then translated into English. My voice on the page is my eyes on the world. They look and see everywhere a convergence of heart and heartlessness.

In the first section, “Album Notes”, you write about how it took you a long time to gain the courage to call your father, Bee Yang, a poet, and as I got to the end of that section I understood why this book was so important for you write. Could you talk about when you knew that your father as a song poet would become the primary subject of your second book? How did you come to decide on the structure of the book?

I remember the day I decided to write my father’s story. He’d been let go from his job. His medicine bottles were emptying. Near the end, he was taking the pills for his diabetes, his high blood pressure, and his high cholesterol every other day in an effort to stretch their reach. My father’s eyes grew red, the lines flaming across the white. He stopped looking at us. He took to looking out windows and doors. On that day, my father was staring out the patio door, at the tall Minnesota prairie grass. He was quiet and faraway. I asked him, “How does a song poet become, Daddy?”—an effort to pull his gaze back toward us. My father told me of his loneliness as a boy, his journeys to other people’s houses, to hear the beautiful things people had to say to each other, and how he would repeat these words to himself, how one day the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born. I told him it was beautiful. I said it lightly, “Maybe that’s the beginning of my next book.” He laughed. He said, “No, why would anyone read a book about a man like me when they can read books about men like Barack Obama, written by themselves?”

I have a stubborn heart. I knew that the world was made up of men like him. I knew that it was men like him who gave birth to daughters like me. I knew that men like him were hardly written of, hardly read. I wanted to write the story of his life. I started remembering. I listened to his old cassette. I thought about the one that had not been recorded because of us, how the money from the sale of his first album translated into the rice in our bowls, the chicken drumsticks in our hands. I knew that I wanted to “write” into being the second album. I wanted to push the form some. Would it work if I wrote the story of my father’s life in songs? I tried it. I cried for it. I kept at it until it was done.

And it’s done beautifully. Can you talk me through the process of writing/transcribing your father, Bee Yang’s section of the book? There are moments in that section where he says, there are things he still won’t talk about or explain to you and your siblings. How did you negotiate those moments whilst helping him provide a full portrait of the song poet that he is? Did you ever just want to push him in order to find out everything he was unable to talk about whether or not those parts of his life made it into the book? What was this journey like for you as both a writer and daughter?

When I started writing the book, I asked my father if he wanted to know what I was writing about. He said no. He told me that when he sings or composes, he hates interruption, that input in-process can be more disruptive than productive. He said he’d seen too many creative projects die in talk. My father said we would talk when the writing was through. The first time my father heard from the book was at its first reading. He sat near the front. He cried silently as I read passages from the book. My father is a talker and a singer. All my life, he’s gifted me with words and stories of his experiences. When I was writing my father’s sections, I listened to his voice from deep inside memory and let it do its work. As a writer, it was a challenge I wanted to do: write from the perspective of an older Hmong man. As a daughter, I wanted to show my father how closely I had listened to him all those years through, let him see how close I had looked, that I, too, was a witness to his life’s story.

In the chapter, “Doctors and Lawyers”, the burden (somehow this word seems inadequate and too simplistic to convey what I want to in response to the way you write about this subject) of parental expectations is heartbreakingly explored and I found myself taking photographs of excerpts and sending them to friends who were first-generation immigrant students. A lot of them wrote back to me immediately, telling me how accurate and beautiful and painful the truths you explored were. How they too had realized that they would have to become those things—doctors, lawyers, engineers, writers etc.—alone. For so many immigrants, and people around the world, education is the only way to better one’s lot in life and yet it often creates a chasm between the people who succeed at it and those who, in a way, get left behind. Can you elaborate a little more on this subject?

I was twelve years old when I noticed my profile passing by a store window. I thought it was the ugliest profile I had ever seen: my forehead pushed so far back, my pointed nose, my small chin, stubbornly jutting. I hadn’t done well on a test that very same day. When I got home, my mother and father were leaving for work. They admonished their everyday admonishment, “Take good care of your brothers and sisters.” I was heart weary and my self-esteem, already a fragile thing, was coming undone. I went into my mother and father’s bedroom, saw the tape recorder he had set up. I pressed record. I cried. I spoke to myself (and them). I said I was the biggest failure they did not know how to anticipate, the disappointment they could not see coming. I spoke of how small I felt in the big world, how unsuitable I was for the big hopes and dreams they had shared. Days later, when I had forgotten of the moment, my father pulled me aside after school. He wiped my hair away from my face. He told me that big or small, smart or stupid, I was his best card going forward, one of the only cards remaining in his hands for the play at life. I was his best chance. These words give me the courage to act and to create, still. I knew that I did not write my father’s story, no matter how limited my ability to carry the depth of his poetry, no one else would. There have been many moments when I have felt the weight of my mother and father, of my community’s expectations, but each time I realize it is also the gravity that anchors me to the earth. I live purposefully. There is meaning in the things I do. This gives me faith to build a life based on our furthest dreams not our founded fears. The same is true of education, even as I venture far, I find myself adventuring back. As lonely as I have been, I am lonely in the act of writing; as alone as I am on the road of learning, I know that I won’t be alone when I’m home with the lessons inside. Love is the elastic in our lives, the force that keeps pulling us back to ourselves and each other, the stretching room we need to grow.

I can’t not mention the very next chapter of the book—“The Son Must Rise”—where the same ambitions for a child to have a better future through education pivots, furthering the distance between child and parent for completely different reasons. I found some of the most poignant writing of the book in this section and wanted to know if it’s challenging to delve into not just your own past but the past and present of family. Do you talk to your subjects before you write about them? Do you let them read the work once it’s done?

I come from a family and a people that have lived for far too long without the world’s understanding on our side. When I wrote my first book, The Latehomecomer, every time I met an older Hmong person they would say, “You’re telling our stories, too. Finally, the world will know.” This, too, is the case with my close family. Young men of color like Xue have been judged for the things they’ve not said, the things they’ve not done, the failure of institutions big and small. They carry our disappointments and our tears. Why not let the world judge Xue for who he is? A tender-hearted boy who is trying his best to live in a world that is actively pushing them down, piece by piece, locking them up, killing them one by one. I write to reckon. The people I love know this. They know whose team I am playing on. And yes, while I give copies of my book to each member of my family, I find that for many of them the book is too hard for them to read. As is true of life: our reckoning cannot be theirs. Each in her own time, as her heart allows.

In “Dreams and Nightmares” you write, “We reminded him gently that we didn’t live in Grandma’s world anymore,” and in the previous chapter—“Songs of Separation”—there is a scene in which your grandmother is visited by her mother’s ghost. To me it seems that in your work the old world and the new, with all its beliefs of tradition and science, coexist without anyone having to anguish about choosing sides. The best of both worlds can be had. Do you think this is an accurate assessment? If yes, how has this been made possible in your life? How does Hmong culture build into your identity as a Hmong-America and how does your American homeland feed into your Hmong-American self?

My feet are planted in the Hmong world that raised me. My arms are stretched high above me, reaching for the world that I must move in beyond the walls of my Hmong home. I am in an interracial marriage. I am raising interracial children. I was raised in a traditional ancestral worship home. My husband is the son of two ministers of Christianity. Our children go through hand-tying ceremonies; they have all been baptized. I don’t go to church. The few times I have, I’m often the only person of color. I don’t like it. When I was a kid, my cousins, my sister and I, along with other kids from the McDonough Housing Project, were bused to a local church. We went thinking that Christmas was coming and to believers of Christ, it could be a ripe time for gift giving. We, kids of color, weren’t given seats in the pews, each Sunday the congregation had us walk down the aisles and stand in front of the congregation. Everyone looked at us and their bibles and the cross at the alter. We pretended to sing along to their songs when everyone knew we couldn’t speak English. Most of us were children from the refugee camps, we had already learned to bear a lot, so we stood there Sunday after Sunday. When Christmas finally came, we each got a notebook and a pair of pencils. We stopped going the very next Sunday. This is one of many things/situations/circumstances I’ve been in where I was shifted between worlds, willingly and unknowingly. Because I’m poor, because my parents don’t have much by way of a Western education, because my people have been absent from many of the written books, because I came from an often unknown tradition, because I’m stateless and international all at once, old and young, I have always lived in other people’s worlds. The only place I find true, 100 percent comfort in, is in the homes where my mother and father have hidden our spirits, showered us in love, among my siblings. This means though that I know very much who I am. I’ve had to define myself from my earliest memories, make definition in a world where being me means very little. Now, I face the struggle: how to teach my children what I have always known–we belong to the people who love us and want the best for us, we belong to our ancestors and the young ones we can’t even imagine yet, we belong to time and culture and space. My home is in Hmong. My world functions in English. My children must learn both somehow to make peace with themselves. My identity as a mother will demand more than I’ve needed to offer as a daughter of multiple worlds.

In “Return to Laos” you write about Barack Obama’s election and what his win meant to your family—Max walking around declaring, “That’s my president,”—and for your parents to have cast a vote for the first time. It’s eight years later and a very different presidential mandate governs the U.S. so I can’t help but ask how does this volte-face of the American electorate affect you as a writer and woman of colour? How did your parents react to this new change in regime?

My family loves Barack Obama. We love Michelle, too, and their daughters. We believed firmly that each move the President made, whether we liked it or not, agreed or disagreed, was a move motivated by a caring heart, an intelligent mind, and a person who understood our personal struggles with belonging. We knew he could not be our president forever. When his term was ending and there was talk of candidates, we were for a moment divided between Hilllary Clinton (we have more women of voting age in our family than men) and Bernie Sanders. It did not take us long, within the family’s debates and discussions, to come to a clear consensus: Bernie was the more radical candidate, he had more heart, we would have a better chance surviving in America with him as our president. Unlike the general media, we did not think Donald Trump was a joke. We watched news of him with trepidation. Our family saw Trump’s election coming with the killing of black people, the violence toward brown people, the personal experiences of racism we were undergoing in our own lives. We saw it in the Trump signs doting the highways of the Midwest. Our father tried to give us heart. He said, “When Trump wins, we hide, like the ants in a long winter. If we help each other and we forage and we find enough food, we can survive and come out again when the weather warms.” Our mother who does not hate anyone other than the entire North Vietnamese Army and the Pathet Lao Soldiers who had decimated her family and her country said, “I hate that man.” We knew that she only hated the things she feared, our fearless mother. We are taking this like we’ve taken everything hard that has come our way. I’m personally thinking about it like childbirth: the baby is inside of me, time is up, the baby has to come out, I have no choice but to proceed as gracefully as I can, to take help where it is offered, and to push on, one contraction after the other, believing that when the baby comes, if I live to see it, to love it, to hold it, I will grow the best human being I can, give it all it needs so that humanity can flourish.

The last sections of the book are bittersweet and still there is a flicker of hopefulness. Despite everything your father and your family endure—not being able to enter Laos because your father was turned away at the airport, your father losing his job, not having any money—with each breath he draws, your father still finds songs in his heart to give to the world. I noticed that same sensibility in your previous book The Latehomecomer. Where does this spirit of looking outward into the world with hope come from for you?

Hope is the thing that lives inside this endless wishing that I do each time I see an airplane slice through the sky. It is the stuff of which my life was made. My mother and my father, like all refugee parents, folk who walk from war and despair, from death itself into some clearing of a new dawn, carried life inside. When I was born, it would have been easy for my mother and father, my aunts and my uncles, my grandmother, to talk to me of sorrow and pain, but they did not. They cloaked me in a blanket of love, sheltered me with moments of joy, and they pointed toward beauty for me to train my gaze. Our life has not been easy, but it has been full. We have yet to have a dull year, an undramatic/untraumatic month, a season of comfort. Year in and year out, we have exercised at our best and our worse, care for each other. This gives me tremendous evidence of hope, how hope can keep life going, keep possibilities coming, offer salvation, buy another day, get one through the long night. I am a deep believer in hope. I don’t know how not to be because it was the origins of me, the original source of my being.

Misha Rai is the first-ever PhD in Fiction to be awarded the Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies for her novel-in-progress, Blood We Did Not Spill. She is also a 2016-2017 Edward H. and Mary C. Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University and has been the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. Her prose has appeared in Indiana ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review and The Missouri Review blog. Misha Rai was born in Sonepat, Haryana and brought up in India. She currently serves as Fiction Editor for The Southeast Review and as Associate Reviews Editor for Pleiades.