Gaining a voice - Q and A with Sun Ray Library writer in residence Kao Kalia Yang

Author Kao Kalia Yang spent the past month at the Sun Ray Library for a residency. Yang will give a presentation about her residency at the Sun Ray Library on Wednesday, May 6 at 7 p.m. (submitted photo)
Author Kao Kalia Yang spent the past month at the Sun Ray Library for a residency. Yang will give a presentation about her residency at the Sun Ray Library on Wednesday, May 6 at 7 p.m. (submitted photo)

Nationally recognized author Kao Kalia Yang has spent the past month at the Sun Ray Library working on a writer’s residency.

Yang was chosen by the St. Paul Public Library and Friends of the St. Paul Public Library to highlight the newly reopened Sun Ray Library.

Yang is Hmong. Her memoir, “The Latehomecomer,” was the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2009 Minnesota Book Award for Creative Nonfiction/Memoir. Her follow-up, “The Song Poet” (Metropolitan Books, 2016), is a tribute to both her father and to the Hmong tradition of storytelling.

“The Latehomecomer” talks about Yang’s childhood experience as the child of immigrant parents. Growing up, she became a selective mute, rarely -- if ever -- speaking in public. But while she was silent, she developed a voice through written language.

Yang’s “In The Stacks” residency, put on by her publisher Coffee House Press, set out with the goal to “shine a light on the potential of libraries and archives to foster creative work,” says Jay Peterson, spokesperson for Coffee House Press.

“The goal of In The Stacks is to shine a light on the potential of libraries and archives to foster creative work,” he says. “We want to help libraries brand themselves as creative spaces. There’s a lot of energy around turning libraries into ‘makers’ spaces, which is really exciting -- not only for librarians, but for kids and parents and artists as well.”

Yang’s residency concludes with her giving a public presentation on May 6 at 7 p.m. at Sun Ray Library. She will be joined by Rebecca Ryan, manager of the Sun Ray branch of the Saint Paul Library System.

Kao discussed her time at the Sun Ray Library with the East Side Review in this Q and A:

Q: How has your time at the library been spent? Have you been working on any specific writing projects?

A: I have spent my time at the library reading a lot of children’s literature. I went into the residency knowing I needed/wanted a grounding in what’s available for children of diverse backgrounds. The librarians were lovely enough to put together a strong reading list for me. Once I started reading the books -- especially a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I started thinking about my grandmother -- a woman who had never been in a library, who never learned how to read and write, and the stories that she came from, the stories she told me. I started writing the story of her girlhood. We ventured into fiction, trying out different narrative perspectives, testing momentum. My time at the library has produced six chapters, the beginnings to my next big project, a work for young adults based loosely on the life of my grandmother’s journey into being a medicine girl.

Q: What have you gotten out of the experience? What have you found to be inspiring about this particular library?

A: My experience at the library has provided me with essential space and room to position myself for my next project. I was surrounded by books galore. I had big windows to contemplate the quality of the sunlight. I was surrounded by a buzzing community. There were older men at the computers, doing research, chatting away, responding to emails. There were young kids playing games, writing papers, reading books. As a young mother, my time at the library granted me an opportunity to see how much I can produce with slotted, undisturbed time -- a rare gift.
I frequented the St. Paul public libraries as a kid. I loved seeing the many children at the library after school and during spring break. It was the most affirming experiences of seeing how a community can take care of its children -- beyond the network of parents and families.

Q: What have you learned about the Sun Ray community?

A: The Sun Ray librarians were diverse; they represented members of the community who used the library. In addition to the white folk on staff, there was definitely a Hmong man, a Somali woman, a young black woman. This was a major difference from the libraries of my youth, a wonderful, positive difference.

Q: Where are you from? Are you a Minnesota resident?

A: I was born in Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp -- part of the Hmong exodus from Laos in the wake of the genocide against my people after the Americans’ departure from the Secret War in Laos. I was a child of the camps. My family came to Minnesota as refugees of war when I was six years old. Since then, despite short departures for educational purposes, Minnesota has been my home. I am a definite Minnesotan.

Q: Is it true you became a selective mute as a child, rarely speaking in public? How has that informed your writing?

A: I became a selective mute at the age of 7. My mother and I were at Kmart. We needed light bulbs. She didn’t have the words. She asked the clerk for “the thing that made the world shiny.” The clerk walked away from us and did not come back. I decided that if the world we lived in did not need to hear my mother and father, it didn’t need to hear me. I stopped talking. At first, it felt like a revolution. Slowly the rust built up in my throat and came out in my voice. When kids heard me, they would look. The words were trapped inside of me. They had to go somewhere. They found their way to the page. I write without the hesitance I carry when I speak. I write with far more experience than I can speak. My writing is far stronger than my voice.

Q: What advice would you give young people in search of a voice?
A: The hard truth is that we cannot run from the accents that flavor our words, our voices, our perspectives. I say no punctuation mark is stronger than the story dying to live. I say, to old and young writers alike, our stories are our gifts to each other.

Q: What do you plan to present at your presentation at Sun Ray Library on May 6? Why should we go?

A: I’m going to read from the manuscript I have started during my Sun Ray Library Residency. You should come because when I speak I’m interested in talking to you, I want to have a conversation with you. My father says that when I write, I write on pieces of paper. He says that when I speak, I write on the fabric of the human being. I’ll be well worth your time.

For more information on Kao Kalia Yang’s residency, visit www.chpinthestacks.tumblr.com.

— Patrick Larkin

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