Andover author Kao Kalia Yang awarded for family memoir

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Kao Kalia Yang was the recipient of two awards during the 21st annual Minnesota Books Awards ceremony April 25. She received top honors in the Memoir and Creative Non-Fiction category and the Readers Choice Award. Her book “Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” tells the story of her family’s escape from Laos, their time in a Thai refugee camp and the transition to American culture in Minnesota. Photo by Eric Hagen

Kao Kalia Yang, 28, was born in a Thai refugee camp and stayed there for over six years until her parents were able to come to Minnesota 22 years ago.Yang, who now lives in Andover, pulled from the memories of her family, herself and many others to write “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.”

The story reveals the hardships her family went through escaping from Laos and living in a refugee camp and the joys that came when they moved to America.

A panel of judges for The Friends of the St. Paul Library and readers across Minnesota thought very highly of the story and Yang’s writing. The book won top honors in the Memoir and Creative Non-Fiction category and the Readers Choice Award during the 21st annual Minnesota Book Awards April 25.

“In my mind, writing has always been a reckoning of experience,” Yang said. “There are of course the memories that we have and then there are the memories that we’re born into and then there are the memories of a bigger world.”

The book is about how the Hmong were impacted by United States’ bombings and covert operations in Laos and the Laotian Civil War between the Royal Laotian government and the communist Pathet Lao.

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army used Laos as a staging ground and supply route to attack South Vietnam. The United States responded by bombing the North Vietnamese positions in Laos and it supported anti-communist forces and an invasion of Laos by the South Vietnamese Army.

According to a Dec. 3, 2008 newspaper article published in The Guardian, an average of one B-52 bomb-load hit Laos every eight minutes between 1964 and 1973.

The war in Laos resulted in heavy casualties and many Hmong fled the country in hopes of finding a better life. Yang said more than 100,000 of 300,000 Hmong in Laos died during the war.

“How much of the world remembers? What is the cost of forgetting? What are the consequences of our stories untold? That is what the book is about,” Yang said.

Yang’s parents and their families fled into the jungles of Laos during the late 1970s to escape the armed Pathet Lao soldiers and bombings. They crossed the Mekong River into Thailand in 1979 and went to a refugee camp where Yang was born in 1980.

It was not until 1987 that the family was able to get out of the refugee camp and go to America. Yang was six years old at the time.

Writing the book

When Yang went to Carleton College in Northfield, her plan was to become a doctor. By the time she graduated in 2003, she felt that what was more broken were people’s spirits and not their bodies. Writing would accomplish her healing goals, she determined.

Yang went to Columbia University in New York to earn her master of art s degree in creative non-fiction writing and during this time started to organize her thoughts and her notes.

The manuscript eventually became “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.”

“I didn’t know that it was going to become this book, but all of the people who taught me knew,” Yang said. “They knew about the potential reaches of the work. They knew about the story waiting to come forth. They didn’t know what it would be, but they knew there was one there.”

Yang loved to read at a very young age. Unfortunately, she had trouble finding books about the Hmong. Once when she asked a librarian for books about them, the librarian came back with books about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans and the Vietnamese. There were no books about the Hmong.

Yang wanted to write the book so that one day another little girl could find books written about the Hmong’s history.

Coffee House Press published the book in 2008.

Yang has been a guest speaker at various workshops on the craft of creative non-fiction writing. Last month, she was one of three speakers at the Loft Memoir Writing Festival in Minneapolis.

Yang has shared writing tips with countless students as an adjunct professor at numerous institutions such as Columbia University in New York and Concordia University in St. Paul.

Yang will be the writer-in-residence at Century College in White Bear Lake this fall.

“About 4,000 (people) of the school will read the book, from the janitor all the way up to the president,” she said.

The book is also utilized by professors at Century College, Winona State and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she said.

St. Paul Public Schools has expressed interest in including the book in its curriculum. She has also heard of individual teachers at junior highs, high school and universities including the book in their curriculum.

An additional 25,000 books are being printed, Yang said.

Eric Hagen is at


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