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.
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