Last summer, when Sunisa Lee won the women’s all-around title at the Olympics, Minnesotans roared with tearful joy, and a simple — perhaps tardy — question emerged on Google: What is Hmong?
Meanwhile, author Kao Kalia Yang was cheering at home on the east side of Saint Paul.
“Sunisa is also an East Sider,” Yang said. “My little girl was delighted to see her; we don’t see a lot of Hmong people in the news. There’s also this super naughty little boy” — she shakes her head, talking about her son — “who’s always doing flips off the railing, and I wonder, ‘What is he preparing for?’ The light with which I see my community has changed.”
When Saint Paul hosted a parade in Sunisa Lee’s honor last August, Yang served as the keynote speaker to set the celebratory tone and contextualize Lee’s achievement. But in uplifting the Olympic gymnast, it is important to realize, Yang said, that “all of us are not Sunisa Lees — and it’s far too easy to say we are.”
According to 2019 data from the Pew Research Center, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are the nation’s top metropolitan areas by Hmong population.
Yang’s debut, “The Latehomecomer,” published in 2008, is the first work by a Hmong American to be distributed nationally. She brings to American literature the story of a community that, as Angela Vang of TIME magazine writes, the U.S. “left behind” during the Vietnam War.
The C.I.A. recruited ethnic Hmong in Laos as part of the Secret War, to fight communist forces like the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. This operation made Laos the most bombed nation in world history, and civilians in Laos still experience that impact today: a third of the American bombs did not detonate, endangering people who still live in unexploded zones. The withdrawal of the U.S. from the war meant that many allies, such as the Hmong in Laos and the South Vietnamese, would be prone to persecution: escape was paramount. Despite these footprints, the Secret War receives little coverage in history classes on the Vietnam War, and the Hmong story was buried in a time capsule that is slowly being dug up.
Yang’s creative nonfiction, spanning continents, follows this historical context through the lens of personal experience. In 2020, she authored “Somewhere in the Unknown World,” a collective refugee memoir. Yang told the stories of 14 other refugees through her artist’s eyes.
The book’s genesis “wasn’t a coincidence. I’d been asked for a long time, ‘Would you write my story?’ And I said, ‘Let me teach the children from your community so they can do it themselves.’ But after Trump’s election, I could hear the winds shifting, around refugees, around questions of citizenship.”
Whenever writing feels daunting, Yang remembers her grandmother’s words: “Kao Kalia, you’re gonna build your life because of your faith, not because of your fears.”
Even with the nation’s praise of Sunisa Lee and the wide admiration for Yang’s writing, the struggle for Hmong recognition is ongoing. Yang recalled an experience she had during a reading at a bookstore: “A woman approached me and said, ‘I almost voted for your relative, Andrew Yang’… And I replied, ‘Andrew Yang is Chinese. I’m Hmong.’ [The woman] laughed it off.”
Preserving culture is important to Yang. She sees the value of her role in her own family: “I have a brother who can’t speak Hmong the way I can.” Her younger siblings navigate the world with greater confidence, she said, because “they know their older sister is here. I think, in many ways, they have more safety nets.”
She will return to the University of Minnesota to teach creative writing in the fall, where she guides both undergraduate and graduate students. People of color, as well as women, primarily compose her classes.
“I want to be there for those students who’ve been waiting forever,” she said.
From the housing projects on the east side of Saint Paul, Yang sees parallels between her life and the traditional idea of the American Dream, which doesn’t paint, she said, an accurate truth.
“I think there’s a dream of America — the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us envision. But the reality is that 51 migrants just died in a semitruck in San Antonio…You have to have one foot in the air and one on the ground.”
Grappling with societal turmoil, Yang’s work brings forward her own voice, as well as others’. Yang wrote her first book, “The Latehomecomer,” in 2008.
“It was my first book. I could do what I needed to do in my voice to a truer extent than any others, though I do start entering my grandmother’s voice, when I’m translating from Hmong to English, which she never spoke,” she said.
Then, when Yang started “The Song Poet,” a memoir of her father, in his voice, she began to also understand her father, “a machinist, as a poet.” Kwv txhiaj, traditional Hmong song poetry, can be duets: the voices of fathers and daughters knitted together, she said. Instead of joint singing, Yang realized that they “could perform on the page.”
“The media talks about me in light of the refugee work I do, but few people pay attention to the elements of craft I partake in. ‘The Song Poet’ really pushes the envelope on creative nonfiction; I moved away from chapters, and entered into tracks.”
Her literature has been a changing force in the arts at large, too. Before the pandemic began, the Minnesota Opera contacted her to adapt “The Song Poet” into a stage opera. A librettist submitted a draft, which she felt didn’t represent well the people of her community.
“If this opportunity had come 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say that. The proposal came to a slightly more mature writer,” she said.
Yang accepted a request to be the librettist — a title she initially felt uncomfortable owning — and selection is happening now for an Asian American cast. The show will have its world premiere in March 2023 at the Luminary Arts Center in Minneapolis.
She also has co-edited an anthology on miscarriage and infant loss, an experience she is intimate with and isn’t afraid to speak out on. She also authored five pandemic books, each of which entered the scene quietly.
When she publically reads from her work, Yang experiences an assortment of moods: “Everybody tells me my stories are sad! But there’s also joy, and gratitude, and love, and anger…We house them inside of us, how can they not have room?”
Throughout the tumult of recent years, Yang has never strayed from her focus on the next generation. During this same period, her fifth children’s book, “From the Tops of the Trees,” found its seat on store shelves.
“I have a child’s heart,” she said. “I’m like my mom: When the seat’s too high, my legs start singing. The little girl in me hasn’t died. She will go when I go.”
Currently, Yang is editing “Waiting for the Blooms,” a manuscript kindled by her family. During the pandemic, Yang’s husband and children planted a rose garden for her.
“The Frida Kahlo rose bloomed, and Celestial Night and Pillow Fight — the Fourth of July rose just wasn’t coming. Long after the other flowers had died, right close to the fall, one single rose was popping up: the Fourth of July. So, metaphorically, the rose was there, to speak to the moment, of George Floyd, of the pandemic — the steps of waiting we were all in,” she said.
Nonetheless, Yang has spent much of her life in solitude — across the country and across intersections of identity. A boy in her high school biology class once wrote “Kao is the loneliest person I’ve ever seen,” in a note that Yang happened to see. She felt embarrassed — but now sees her loneliness differently.
“I couldn’t have written ‘The Latehomecomer’ without isolation; in New York City, I was lonely the entire time for graduate school,” she said.
Minnesota writers like her, Yang noted, should not be intimidated by the literary sphere of places like New York City, and recommends that writers build relationships with big and small publishers. Navigating these various environments “forces me to learn and grow in many directions,” she said.
“When an editor looks down on me, I want to understand where they’re coming from,” she said, noting that to move with dignity, to have trust in oneself, is a survival tactic.
After all, isolation can be more than just physical.
“I think I’m among the loneliest writers I know,” she said. “How many Hmong and Southeast Asian writers are there?”
What she will pass on to the next generation of Hmong Americans, writers and human beings remains at the forefront of Yang’s thoughts. Wondering what will happen when she dies, her son approached her recently:
“Mommy, will your ghost linger on?”
“No, no, no,” she replied. “I don’t want to haunt anything. When I go, I’m gonna go real fast.”
“But your love will live on, right?”
“In your books. When you’re gone, your words will be there for me again.”
“Yeah…” — Yang’s eyes begin to well up — “My words will be there for you, for all the ‘yous’ I don’t even know.”