"I try not to think about the bricks in front of me. I look out the window and I see where I want to go." — Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand and moved when she was six with her family to St. Paul, Minnesota, home to the largest concentration of Hmong in the country. They began their life in the U.S. living on welfare in public housing until her parents took on multiple jobs to feed their family. To fill her time, especially during the long winters and because she couldn't afford to attend movies or concerts, Yang would read. "There'd be a bookmobile that would come every week [to the projects where we lived]. Because we didn't own a VCR, my older sister used to hold my hand and we'd go to the library and check out books and then she would create elaborate stories for me with the books that would make me cry and weep. I called her the human VCR.... I fell in love with the library. It is still one of my favorite places on earth."
While she loved books like the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Yang recalls asking the librarian for books about people like her. "She gave me a book about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Vietnamese, but she couldn't give me a book about Hmong kids." That was one of her first callings to write, which was easier for her than speaking English. "When I tried to speak, kids laughed. So I stopped completely. But I was a kid and the words had to go somewhere. So they went onto the page" where her voice grew stronger and more natural (Minnesota Public Radio). "Everyone in my life knows that if I haven't written in a while, my whole demeanor changes," she told The Conversant. "I have to get to the page before I boil over."
Yang is a natural storyteller having grown up listening to tales in Thailand, where her family painted a world beyond the walls of the refugee camp and told stories of mythical tigers and real ghosts. Her uncle "would stretch out his arm and say every freckle was a lake, every piece of hair standing up was a person. His knuckles were the rise and fall of the mountain ranges. The rivers were the veins flowing through." "That," she said, "was my first introduction to an illustrated picture book."
Yang was a pre-med student at Carleton College before she started writing what would later become her first book, The Latehomecomer (Coffee House Press, 2008). "My mom and dad taught us that we needed doctors and lawyers," she said. "Lawyers can protect the rights that we've never had enough of; doctors can heal what is broken in the bodies around us." Her sister told her she'd become a lawyer, so Yang went the route of becoming a doctor until her grandmother passed away and she pursued her dream of writing. "My favorite professors, my friends, nobody knew that the most important person in my life was gone," she said. "So it was important for me to ... tell the world that a woman who never learned how to read or write had ... walked through history and left all of us behind to miss her." On the day she buried her grandmother, Yang says, she got news that she had been accepted into Columbia University's MFA creative writing program.
Since the publication of her first memoir, Yang has been an avid public speaker on such topics as literacy and education; race, class, and gender; and the refugee and immigrant experiences. She has made a deep impact on the lives of, among others, Hmong readers and American Vietnam war veterans who have come to her readings. She co-founded with her sister Words Wanted, a company dedicated to helping immigrants in the Twin Cities, MN, with writing, translating, and business services. Her short film, The Place Where We Were Born, documents the experiences of Hmong-American refugees. Her second book, The Song Poet (Metropolitan Books, 2016), is an homage to the Hmong tradition of song poetry and her father's effort to document the times and places where the Hmong have searched for belonging. "I'm not even five feet tall," she said, but "my dad has always said that the size of my hands and feet would not dictate my life's journey, that I was not a child of war, poverty, and despair; I was hope being born. I want his words to be true."
Yang lives in St. Paul, MN, with her husband and their three children, and her younger sister and brother. She depends on the love and support of her extended family. "All of them make me feel more human, more connected, more than just alone in the world" (Coffee House Press). When she had difficulties giving birth to her twin sons—her heart stopped, doctors rushed in—her sister, unasked, helped take care of the babies during Yang's recovery. "My husband and I wake up to the same alarm clock every day. We sit opposite each other for breakfast with our babies in our arms and sometimes we even manage lunch and dinner, and I thought about all of those years when my dad worked the night shift and my mom stayed during the day, and they never saw each other except to say hello and goodbye in between. For the first time I understand how long those years were for them."
Asked if she has returned to the site of the refugee camp in Thailand, Yang said she returned in 2001 to the haunting vision that there were no remnants of her life there: "The great mounds of my youth were gone, leveled by the wind and the earth" (The Conversant). "If my citizenship papers are true," says Yang, "if indeed I am now a naturalized American, if my brothers and sisters, born in America, and so many of their friends are indeed American, then perhaps, at long last, we are home" (Coffee House Press). Asked what her grandmother would say if she were with us today, said Yang, "Me Naib, Pog zoo siab heev rau koj os mog. Your grandmother is so happy for you" (Coffee House Press).