Author Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang spent the first six years of her life in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand. Her large, tightly-knit Hmong family escaped the 1980s war in Laos and stuck together through years of starvation, loss, and hope for better days. Kalia’s father, Bee Yang, kept their dreams alive without losing stories of life in Laos through song poetry. The song poet, a traditional Hmong role, tells stories of love, loss and history. As Kalia says in The Song Poet, “The only way I know how to describe it in English is to say: my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of traditional Hmong song poetry.” The Song Poet tells Bee Yang’s story from both his voice and Kalia’s—a story, like song poetry itself, of love and loss and history. The book is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Minnesota Book Award, and has been featured on several “Top Books of 2016” lists.
What inspired you to write a memoir about your father?
When my dad was out of work, he’d stare out the window every day. He was sad, so I asked him—hoping to divert him—how he became a song poet. He said a long time ago his mother had several kids to feed, and his father died when he was just two years old, so he used to go from one house to the next collecting the beautiful things people had to say to each other. One day, a song was born. I thought that was beautiful. I told him maybe that was the beginning of my next book. He said maybe it was the end. He laughed and said, "Nobody wants to read about a book like me." Not when you could read books about men like Barack Obama that they’d written themselves. He loves Barack Obama! Then, something in my heart clicked.
My dad has always been the talker. My mom doesn’t talk very much. She’s nonfiction, but my dad’s the poet and philosopher in the family. He’s gifted me with all these stories of his life. After my grandma died, my dad stopped singing. My dad sang all my life. It was the backdrop for everything. When he stopped singing, there was this new silence, so I started writing the book hoping to trigger his songs.
The book is a memoir written in songs about my father’s life. It is the life of a blue-collar factory worker, a refugee in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, and the war in Laos. But to me it’s a story about a fatherless boy who becomes the father he imagined for himself. When I was growing up, he wasn’t working from examples, just hopes and dreams. My father would say that at his best and worst he was nothing more or less than the father he imagined for himself.
What is your father like, and what has changed about your relationship as you’ve grown up?
Long before I rode a bike or drove a car, I saw the world from my daddy’s shoulders. My dad has these broad shoulders, and I’d sit on them and pull his hair. He’d walk me all over the camp compound. In the midst of this starving place, with hungry dogs and chickens, my dad would walk me through the shimmering trees. He’d say, “Look. The sunlight is dancing on your arm, it loves you so much.” My daddy makes the world beautiful for me; he makes it beautiful for my siblings. His poetry has always shielded us from the poverty of our lives. I thought he was this incredible person, and then in America I was faced with his humanity. I saw the weakness in my father. I saw that he couldn’t speak English and that he was afraid of this world we were living in. I saw him bow his head again and again before the racism and brutality of others.
But I would rise on his broad shoulders, and I know this so keenly. A long time ago, I told my dad that I wanted something better than this life he’d given me, that I was tired of the house we lived in, that I deserved more. He looked at me and said that he’d choose me all over again. A long time ago, when I was high up in the clouds, I saw a young woman and a man walking without shoes, and I had the courage to choose them. My daddy said that life was going to teach me the strength of the human heart, not of its weakness or fragility. He was right.
I’m watching my father age now. I’m 36, I’ve become a parent, and I know he’s trying to do it gracefully for me. He wants to teach me how to age gracefully, as he’s taught he every step along the way how to love. I’m very lucky. I’m very much a daddy’s girl.
The book is half-told from your father’s perspective. How did you ensure you’d stay true to his voice?
I couldn’t have written it without the understanding of my own marriage. I couldn’t write the parts about my mother and father without knowing the love of a husband. It needed a deeper life understanding. Grandma loved to say that surrounded by wisdom, but without the experience to back it up, you won’t know how to use it. I think this is one of those examples. I’d just gotten married. My husband and I were waking up to the same alarm clock every day. Then we’d have breakfast together, and sometimes we’d have lunch and other times dinner. One day I realized my mom and dad never saw the same sunrise, and except for rare weekends, they never got to sit opposite each other at the same table. The loneliness of their marriage came sweeping in.
Gathering the information for the book has taken all of my life. I remembered the stories he’d told us for the first part of the book. He talked about his past very easily with us. The second part, which deals with contemporary events, I could see as they were happening. It was deeply experiential.
I asked my dad when I was writing if he wanted to know what I was writing about. He said he hated it when people interfered with his art, and he wouldn’t do that to me. We’d talk when the book was finished. That’s a big task, right? I knew he trusted me, so the responsibility that he generously gifted me with was nerve-racking. But last spring, when we launched the book, he was there in the audience. It became a conversation between my father and me. It was incredibly moving. He cried; I could see the tears falling. I didn’t want to look too closely.
You mention your own silence and selective mutism often in the book. How has writing given you a voice?
I’ve always felt comfortable on the page. It was public speaking that really forced a voice into the world. Because I didn’t talk much in school and in English, I used to talk all the time in Hmong. I started public speaking in English because I’d written a nonfiction book about people that most of the world has no understanding of, and I needed to speak about it to make the story real. I discovered a speaking voice in that process. Even today, to my ears, I will never sound the same way in English as I do in Hmong. I speak in Hmong everywhere I can.
When I stopped talking, I started writing in English. My stories got longer and longer. They were always about monsters coming out of the closet; they were horrid stories. When they became more real, they were about young people who wanted to get jobs so they could buy houses for their mom and dad. All the problems I was dealing with ended up on the page. I started writing first for my teachers, and then at age 12 my mom got me my first journal. She saw on Oprah that if you buy kids journals, writing would let them express themselves and they’d feel better. Between writing for myself and my teachers, I strengthened my voice.
The book is incredibly timely. What knowledge or understanding can people gain from reading your family’s story?
To be a refugee child is to live without a homeland. Stories when I was younger were about Laos and an imagined future in America. I wanted to write a book that would speak to our times. I wanted to talk about the economic depression. What was happening to my parents was happening all over the country. People were losing their jobs. They were being asked to feed, clothe, and educate their children without living wages. I could see it.
When I was going to graduate school in New York, my parents couldn’t visit because they never had the money. I missed them, and I used to go looking for them. I found them in the basements of restaurants all along Broadway. All the Mexican men had strong shoulders now bent by time and rough hands that would hurt if they combed through your hair, just like my daddy’s. I wanted to speak from their perspective. I wanted to respond and show what refugees do in this country.
People are forgetting that the only thing we can garner from life is a deeper understanding. For me, that’s the gift of stories. I hope that readers who pick up The Song Poet will read it with such an eye and ear and open heart. Not just my story, either, but every story out there where a writer has wonderfully and courageously put forward the truth of their lives.