Hmong memoirist Kao Kalia Yang is on the neverending book tour

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A year ago, with her new memoir, "The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir" (Coffee House Press), in hand, it dawned on Kao Kalia Yang that her work on this book was only beginning. As one of the first-ever published Hmong writers (the Hmong people did not have a written language until the 1950s), she found herself on a book tour that, like Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour, just keeps on going. Her intense schedule includes near-daily appearances, and in classrooms, auditoriums, and homes across the Midwest, she’s taken the sometimes-uncomfortable position of explaining and defending her people.

“This year and a half has been perhaps the most challenging year of my life so far,” says the expressive young woman who wrote about her childhood in a refugee camp in Thailand, about moving to an incomprehensively different country, and fighting to not just learn English, but to attend college — Carleton College and Columbia University, no less. She wrote about families torn apart by war, and the terror of living in safer but unwelcoming communities. But the real hot seat, she found, was in Midwestern living rooms.

“I visited a book club (and I love book clubs), and a woman has a question for me: How is it that a man, so ‘uneducated’ as my father, could speak to such wisdom? And I had to fight myself against defending the sure intelligence and heart of the man who loved me and had raised me for the work I was doing, and to slow down so she could appreciate the depth of the education life offers,” she says.

At a high school event in Wisconsin, she was warmly received by the English Language Learning classes. “The regular ones, however, didn't quite see what I had to offer them. In the auditorium, the closing event of my visit, the very last question of all comes from a hand in the far back, a Hmong girl, one of the new refugees, asking in Hmong why I hadn't written the book in Hmong so she could read it, too. I responded in Hmong — that was the only way to get at the meaning,” she says.

Suddenly, English voices begin chattering throughout the audience, tuning out. “I had to ask, ‘How can we begin to be aware of a bigger world, if we cannot hear ourselves? Is this really how short your patience is with languages other than English?’ It was hard. I said words I hadn't expected from myself. In the end, I was shaking — I saw how much work I had to do yet, and also, its impact.”

At the end of the event, she says, there was a standing ovation, “and a long line of young people — across different cultures and languages — who had understood.” And so the tour goes on.

St. Catherine University, Women of Substance Series, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10, O’ Shaughnessy Auditorium. Adults $10. 651-690-6700.


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