Kao Kalia Yang was just a tiny girl, her father used to
put her on his shoulders and walk around their
neighborhood in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand,
where she was born. As they walked, he talked.
father pointed out the world to me," she said.
"He told me stories about creatures — like tigers
— that could not enter the camp, drew landscapes I had
many years, the Yangs moved to America and settled in
St. Paul, Minn. The family grew. No longer a farmer,
Yang’s father now had an overnight job in a factory, a
job that damaged his health and ground him down. But he
continued to tell her stories.
is the voice I hear when I think of my home," Yang
said recently over a cup of steamed vanilla milk in a
St. Paul coffee shop. So when she decided to focus her
second book on him, those stories were already a part of
Song Poet," to be published in May, is a memoir of
her father’s life. It comes eight years after
publication of her first book, the hugely popular
"The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir," a
top seller for Coffee House Press and the only book ever
to win two Minnesota Book Awards.
that first book, "I was trying to wrap my head
around my history," Yang said. "It is my
grandmother’s story. But with ‘The Song Poet,’ I
was writing my father’s story."
she told her father about the new book, his response was
typically humble: "He said, ‘Nobody wants to read
a book about a man like me.’ "
remembers when she first became aware of her father as a
figure outside the family, a man with his own identity
as an artist.
1989. The Yang family was at St. Paul Civic Center for
the Hmong New Year celebration — everyone dressed up,
her mother in a beaded sweater, her father dignified in
his black Men’s Wearhouse suit, 8-year-old Kalia
furtively checking her poufed bangs, which she had
sprayed stiff with her mother’s hair spray. And then
she heard voices calling her father’s name: "Bee
Yang! Bee Yang!" Her father was persuaded up onto
the stage, accepted a microphone.
my father began to sing, I watched him as a stranger
would," Yang wrote. "The song was a cry for a
New Year that once was a time for rest after the
bountiful harvest. … People started weeping."
Yang had been a song poet — the keeper of Hmong
history — since age 12, composing and singing poems
about life, history, politics, family and love.
sang about the Vietnam War and the way the Hmong people
were pressed into helping the American soldiers. He sang
about the Americans’ departure and how the Communists
spilled into the mountains of Laos, searching for Hmong
to capture and kill. He sang about how he and his family
and thousands of others fled into the jungles to hide,
eventually making their way across the Mekong River to
Thailand, where they were penned in refugee camps for
I began singing song poetry I discovered I could share
our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair,
of anger and betrayal," he said in "The Song
the Civic Center on that November day, little Kalia
watched and listened. "There were words that I
wanted to say but did not know how," she wrote.
"I didn’t tell my father that I’d finally
listened and found meaning in his songs. … I did not
want to tell my father that his song had shook my
GROUNDING OF FAMILY
graduating from Carleton College, Yang went on to earn
an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University.
"I decided I wanted to write about the things that
matter," she said, and for her, that was family.
who is now 35, lives in St. Paul with her husband, Aaron
Hokanson, their three children, her younger sister and
her younger brother. Hmong families are traditionally
very large, and very close. "With the Hmong
history, which is such a difficult history, we’ve
always depended on each other for survival," she
feels this in her own life, every day. When she gave
birth to twin sons last fall and died in the maternity
ward — her heart stopped, doctors rushed in — it was
her mother’s voice calling her name over and over that
brought her back. Her younger sister stepped in,
unasked, to help care for the babies while Yang
Yang’s little brother wanted to attend school in St.
Paul instead of in Andover, where he lived, she and her
husband took him in. Their mother missed him so much
that she moved in, for a while, with Yang’s sister
think in this country, so many young people are looking
for what matters," Yang said. "I feel so
needed all the time, and I feel how much I need them,
and I think that grounds me as a person, and it grounds
ONTO A LARGER STAGE
carried the story of her father inside her for many
years before her husband told her she needed to stop
doing public speaking, stop teaching, just sit down and
write. It took her two months to produce a draft, which
she sent to Coffee House Press. Publisher Chris
Fischbach accepted it, and Yang spent a year revising.
when she sent it back to him, he didn’t respond.
"And I said, ‘Chris, don’t you like it?’ And
he said, ‘Come and meet with me.’ "
worried that he had changed his mind. Instead, he told
her that he thought her work would play well on a larger
stage. Coffee House is a small nonprofit press, and,
"I realized that we could only do so much for
her," Fischbach said in an interview. "She’s
a wonderful writer and a wonderful performer. She’s
got a lot to say, especially in regards to the immigrant
experience, and that should be told as widely as
sent an email to literary agent Bill Clegg, who agreed
to represent Yang. Five New York publishers were
interested in the book, Clegg said, and in the end it
came down to Scribner or Metropolitan Books. Yang talked
to editors at both houses, and chose Metropolitan.
the St. Paul coffee shop, as Yang tells these stories,
all around her is the clatter of dishes, the hissing of
milk being steamed, the scrape of chairs pushed back on
the hardwood floor. She doesn’t look around. She is
focused and intense. She repeats an earlier thought:
"My father said, ‘Nobody wants to read a book
about a man like me.’"
pressed her hand to her chest and leaned earnestly over
the table. "Fortunately, I have a stubborn