When Kao Kalia Yang was just a tiny girl, her father used to put her on his shoulders and walk around their neighborhood in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand, where she was born. As they walked, he talked.
After many years, the Yangs moved to America and settled in St. Paul. The family grew. No longer a farmer, Yang’s father now had an overnight job in a factory, a job that damaged his health and ground him down. But he continued to tell her stories.
“His is the voice I hear when I think of my home,” Yang said recently over a cup of steamed vanilla milk in a St. Paul coffee shop. So when she decided to focus her second book on him, those stories were already a part of her.
“The Song Poet,” to be published in May, is a memoir of her father’s life. It comes eight years after publication of her first book, the hugely popular “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,” a top seller for Coffee House Press and the only book ever to win two Minnesota Book Awards.
In that first book, “I was trying to wrap my head around my history,” Yang said. “It is my grandmother’s story. But with ‘The Song Poet,’ I was writing my father’s story.”
When she told her father about the new book, his response was typically humble: “He said, ‘Nobody wants to read a book about a man like me.’ ”
Yang remembers when she first became aware of her father as a figure outside the family, a man with his own identity as an artist.
November 1989. The Yang family was at St. Paul Civic Center for the Hmong New Year celebration — everyone dressed up, her mother in a beaded sweater, her father dignified in his black Men’s Wearhouse suit, 8-year-old Kalia furtively checking her poufed bangs, which she had sprayed stiff with her mother’s hair spray. And then she heard voices calling her father’s name: “Bee Yang! Bee Yang!” Her father was persuaded up onto the stage, accepted a microphone.
Bee Yang had been a song poet — the keeper of Hmong history — since age 12, composing and singing poems about life, history, politics, family and love.
He sang about the Vietnam War and the way the Hmong people were pressed into helping the American soldiers. He sang about the Americans’ departure and how the Communists spilled into the mountains of Laos, searching for Hmong to capture and kill. He sang about how he and his family and thousands of others fled into the jungles to hide, eventually making their way across the Mekong River to Thailand, where they were penned in refugee camps for years.
“When I began singing song poetry I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,” he said in “The Song Poet.”
At the Civic Center on that November day, little Kalia watched and listened. “There were words that I wanted to say but did not know how,” she wrote. “I didn’t tell my father that I’d finally listened and found meaning in his songs. … I did not want to tell my father that his song had shook my heart.”
The grounding of family
After graduating from Carleton College, Yang went on to earn an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. “I decided I wanted to write about the things that matter,” she said, and for her, that was family.
Yang, who is now 35, lives in St. Paul with her husband, Aaron Hokanson, their three children, her younger sister and her younger brother. Hmong families are traditionally very large, and very close. “With the Hmong history, which is such a difficult history, we’ve always depended on each other for survival,” she explained.
When Yang’s little brother wanted to attend school in St. Paul instead of in Andover, where he lived, she and her husband took him in. Their mother missed him so much that she moved in, for a while, with Yang’s sister nearby.
“I think in this country, so many young people are looking for what matters,” Yang said. “I feel so needed all the time, and I feel how much I need them, and I think that grounds me as a person, and it grounds my writing.”
Pushed onto a larger stage
Yang carried the story of her father inside her for many years before her husband told her she needed to stop doing public speaking, stop teaching, just sit down and write. It took her two months to produce a draft, which she sent to Coffee House Press. Publisher Chris Fischbach accepted it, and Yang spent a year revising.
But when she sent it back to him, he didn’t respond. “And I said, ‘Chris, don’t you like it?’ And he said, ‘Come and meet with me.’ ”
She worried that he had changed his mind. Instead, he told her that he thought her work would play well on a larger stage. Coffee House is a small nonprofit press, and, “I realized that we could only do so much for her,” Fischbach said in an interview. “She’s a wonderful writer and a wonderful performer. She’s got a lot to say, especially in regards to the immigrant experience, and that should be told as widely as possible.”
Fischbach sent an e-mail to literary agent Bill Clegg, who agreed to represent Yang. Five New York publishers were interested in the book, Clegg said, and in the end it came down to Scribner or Metropolitan Books. Yang talked to editors at both houses, and chose Metropolitan.
In the St. Paul coffee shop, as Yang tells these stories, all around her is the clatter of dishes, the hissing of milk being steamed, the scrape of chairs pushed back on the hardwood floor. She doesn’t look around. She is focused and intense. She repeats an earlier thought: “My father said, ‘Nobody wants to read a book about a man like me.’ ”
Yang pressed her hand to her chest and leaned earnestly over the table. “Fortunately, I have a stubborn heart.”