ART IS... Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong-American writer. She is the author of The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet. In the fall of 2019, Yang will debut her children’s book, A Map Into the World, a collection titled What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Indigenous Women and Women of Color, and a work about refugee lives in America called Somewhere in the Unknown World.

AIRED: May 07, 2019 | 0:06:37

(gentle guitar music)

- [Koa Kalia Yang] We've come here as strangers.

Our sons have learned their letters

and our daughters have learned their voice.

But their mothers and fathers miss,

we miss, miss the act of carrying water

and the motion of harvesting wild greens.

Miss how the badia birds fly in their flock.

98 different flowers bloom

and 78 insects cry in their very voices.

Writers hold the human heart steady

because the human heart flutters

and sometimes it flies away.

That's the gift of writing for me,

that's what the writer does.

We reach in deep when you're not looking

and when your heart is shaking, we make it steadier.

My name is Kao Kalia Yang.

I am a Hmong refugee, a new american,

a writer, a mother, a daughter, a wife,

all around small human being.

So this is the youngest photo we have of me.

Looks like I'm in diapers, but no, this is all natural.

And I look just like my son.

I grew up with a deep love of stories

and I come from an oral culture, so all the adults around me

had these incredible stories to tell.

So I was born in Ban Vinai refugee camp

and I would get scared,

so I'd run and press my ears against any willing adult

and say tell me a story, take me away from here.

And so they did.

So words were these stories, you know?

That broke down the fences we live behind,

that traveled across rivers and oceans.

Rivers back to Laos, oceans across the world

to this place called America.

And so growing up, they were the thing that was free,

the gift that was free that kept on giving.

(acoustic guitar music)

This is my first home in America,

the McDonough Housing Project.

I grew up in the house right behind us, the town home.

In many ways,

life in America was lonelier than we'd ever experienced.

You know, in the refugee camps we were surround

by people all the time.

You know, 40,000 people at 400 acres,

we were on top of each other.

In here, there are these walls that we could hear through,

but there were these walls

and these adults who had things to got to,

like American english classes.

You know, where mom and dad learned how to flush the toilet

and turn on the stove and things like that.

And so there was all this time

and we had to fill up that time.

And I think it was every Thursday,

my older sister and I would hold hands

and we'd walk up Timberlake Road to the book mobile.

And I remember this day and the librarian,

I asked her if there were any books about people like me.

She found me a book about the Chinese and the Japanese

and she looked and looked

and she found one about the Vietnamese.

And she came down and she said,

I'm so sorry there's no book about your people.

About the people you love you.

And I muttered beneath my breath,

words that she heard very clearly as well,

I said one day a little girl is gonna come up here

and find a book about her people, about my people,

about the people who love her best.

And I didn't have the courage to say to the world,

or even to myself, that that's what I wanted to be.

It wasn't until my grandma died,

my senior year at Carleton College, I started writing.

Writing, I thought, my last love letter to my grandma,

but it became my first book, The Latehomecomer.

And in the process,

I realized that it was also me taking the Hmong story

to the bookshelves of a bigger world.

It's exciting

because The Latehomecomer is now a National Endowment

of the Arts Big Read's selection.

It's replaced the likes of the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

It is an American classic in

that it deals with the American life as we know it.

I'm at an incredible place in history.

Everything that I write gets to become part

of the body of literature for our people.

Not many writers can say that.

(gentle piano music)

Being Hmong, being born

to a people without a written language for so long.

To belong to a people

that the history books have been just fine doing without.

That fuels me, in a way.

The people from the Central Intelligence Agency

of the United States of America came

to the high mountains of Laos.

When they make the decision to commission 32,000 men

and boys to fight and to die on America's behalf,

when that war went south and they decided

that they would take off into the sky and fly home again.

They never imagined that there would be a Kao Kalia Yang,

rising right here, from the heartland, from Minnesota,

telling these stories.

We were supposed to have all died in that war,

that war that the world would never learn about.

That simple reality, the reality of my life,

I think, is my biggest fuel.

It is the engine that keeps me running.

(gentle guitar music)

Okay, you ready?

A Map into the World by Kao Kalia Yang.

The first time we saw the swing and the slide

and the garden of the green house, with the big windows,

my mother sat down in a chair in the backyard

and said she did not want to get up.

I walked into the garden

and she pointed out the tomatoes, the green beans,

and a watermelon, round as my mother's belly.

I have twin boys, who are three,

and a little girl, who's five.

And my days are built around them.

I want to be a writer

that a child can grow up with and grow old with.

Those are the writers that I love the most.

So, this means that it's not enough for me

to do creative non-fiction work.

I want to do children's literature and I am.

Next fall, my first children's book will come out,

followed by seven more

that have already been written and sold.

I want to do middle grade writing.

Because there is no middle grade novelist who's Hmong,

writing for Hmong kids of that age.

So it's kind of, like, what we need.

I'm doing what needs to be done.

And so I'm continually pushing at the boundaries

of what people think I can do

and who I am and where my work is useful.

(gentle guitar music)


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