East Side author Kao Kalia Yang is finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award

Yang and her father to perform at Arlington Hills Community Center

Author Kao Kalia Yang, known for her award-winning memoir, “The Latehomecomer,” will be performing at the Arlington Hills Community Center, 1200 Payne Ave., with her father, Bee Yang, on Thursday, Feb. 9, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Her new memoir, “The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father,” was recently published by Metropolitan Books and focuses on Bee Yang’s life story and his practice of the Hmong tradition of being a song poet.

The Yangs will be performing for the first time together, with Bee reciting his song poetry and Kao Kalia translating from Hmong to English. 

Kao Kalia’s “The Song Poet” memoir is a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award, sharing the recognition with authors like Zadie Smith, fellow-Minnesota author Louise Erdrich and Ann Patchett, among others.

This is the first time a Hmong author has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. 

“The book is going where no Hmong person has gone before. We are making history; it’s living history,” Kao Kalia said.

The new book is also a finalist for this year’s Minnesota Book Award.

“Personally, it’s just lovely because I grew up admiring Louise Erdrich. It’s like a dream come true to see my name alongside hers as finalists for both of these awards.” 

She received the 2009 Minnesota Book Award for her first book, “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.”

Kao Kalia and Bee’s performance is a part of the Hmong Chronicles series from the Hmong Museum. The Hmong Museum’s mission is to acknowledge all things Hmong, both Western and traditional Hmong arts, including song poetry like Bee’s.

Mai Nhia Vang, board chair and founder of Hmong Museum, said making performances like Bee’s and Kao Kalia’s accessible to everyone helps to “keep oral traditions alive.” She added the Hmong Chronicle series, which began during the summer of 2016, “is changing the way people see Hmong culture and history.”


“We are the descendants of artists”

Kao Kalia was born in 1980 in Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. Her family was a part of the Hmong exodus from Laos in the wake of reprisals against the Hmong after the American military departed from the region. 

Hmong soldiers had been trained by the CIA and secretly helped the Americans fight Vietnamese forces. Once the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War in 1975, many Hmong fled to Thailand. 

Kao Kalia’s family came to the U.S. in 1987 and settled on St. Paul’s East Side. She graduated from Harding High School, earned her bachelor’s degree from Carleton College and received her master’s degree from Columbia University in New York City. She still calls the East Side her home. 

Kao Kalia said she wrote “The Song Poet” because she was inspired by her father’s song poetry. In Hmong culture, a song poet, or kws txhiaj in Hmong, is a person who captures Hmong history by creating poems about families, life, politics or folk tales, and then singing them. 

It was an art her father learned at a young age while living in Laos. He would sit and listen to other adults sing and picked up the meter and rhyme.

“He said to me he used to go from one neighbor’s house to the next collecting the beautiful things that people have said to each other,” she said.

“We are the descendants of artists. Artists aren’t just made; you don’t just arise out of nowhere, especially in my case. I grew up in a culture and a people surrounded by art. My writing is a byproduct of that love and that appreciation of language,” Kao Kalia said.


The book

She explained that “The Song Poet” is organized like an album -- each chapter is a track. “Each track is stand-alone, but it is organized as a chronology of [my dad’s] life story and life work.”

She said the process of creating the memoir of her father was interesting in that he did not share his feelings or thoughts about the project while she worked on it.

“My father said he witnessed too many artistic projects die in talk. So he said we would talk about it after I was done with my work,” Kao Kalia said.

As a result, her father was unaware of the contents of the book until after it was released.


If you go... 

Kao Kalia Yang and her father Bee Yang will be performing together at the Arlington Hills Community Center, 1200 Payne Ave., on Feb. 9, from 6 to 8 p.m. Light appetizers will be provided followed by a book signing.

The art of refugees

Kao Kalia said she doesn’t know how she will feel about their shared performance at Arlington Hills until after it happens, adding that it will be difficult to fully translate the beauty of her father’s poetry into English.

“I know I could never do full justice to my father’s poetry in English, but I also know that I’m as close as it got. If I don’t do it, who would? The answer is no one, so you do your best work and you put it forward.”

Vang, from the Hmong Museum, said, “Providing space for stories from people advances our understanding of history, where we came from, and how we can do better in the future. 

“Bee’s story provides the human aspect of larger narratives like poverty, war, and refugee status. It’s powerful to see someone and hear that person tell his and her story; it’s hard to ignore when you can literally touch them,” Vang said. 

Kao Kalia said the performance will be especially relevant because her family came to the U.S. as refugees, and so much national attention has been focused on immigration policies under the new Trump administration. 

“We live in a time where there is so much conversation about whether refugees should enter the country or not. This is the art of refugees. This is the art of hard lessons learned and hard lives. I think it will send a powerful call for refugees and those who support refugees,” said Kao Kalia. 


Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.


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