A while back, Kao Kalia Yang raised the idea of chronicling her father’s eventful life. Although there was a lot to work with — after a childhood in war-torn Laos, he and his growing family spent almost a decade in a Thai refugee camp before settling in Minnesota — Bee Yang gently discouraged her: “Who would read a book about a man like me when there are books about presidents, men like Barack Obama, written by themselves?”
There’s a lesson here: Sometimes a writer needs to ignore parental advice.
“The Song Poet,” Kao Kalia Yang’s remarkable new book, is about art, resilience and the opportunities and indignities that come with life in a new country. Yang, a Minnesota resident, dealt with some of these same subjects in her prizewinning debut, “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.” Her follow-up reaffirms her status as an exceptional storyteller, one whose work reminds us that big, timeless truths reveal themselves when we pay attention to small, specific details.
The book’s title is a nod to the elder Yang’s talent for Hmong song poetry. In 1992, five years after he and his family arrived in the states, Bee Yang released a six-song recording. “They were songs of love, of yearning, of losing home and country,” Kao Kalia Yang writes. Over time, a fair number of Minnesota’s sizable Hmong population bought the album, and the money he earned paid for school supplies for his children.
A second album didn’t materialize, and this book, she says, contains some of the stories her father hadn’t widely shared. “The Song Poet” proves uncommonly mindful of the link between geopolitical turmoil and domestic tribulations.
In perfectly paced chapters about Bee Yang’s boyhood, the book recounts his birth sometime in early 1958 (“No one looked at a calendar or wrote down the date”); his life in Laos’ “high mountains,” where everyone rose before dawn to prepare food and tend gardens, and his father’s death, a loss young Bee coped with by climbing trees: “All I knew was what my older brothers had told me, ‘Father is on a mountain that is in the shape of an uneven rectangle rising out of the treetops.’ ”
Internecine fighting and the escalating Vietnam War made Laos increasingly dangerous, and after a period of displacement in their native country, the Yangs left for Thailand in 1979. There they spent eight years in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. It was a period of important highs (Kao Kalia was born there) and demeaning lows: On several occasions, gun-wielding drug dealers forced Bee to deliver illicit opium.
The Yangs immigrated to the U.S. 29 years ago, and the book’s second half mostly concerns the family’s life in St. Paul and Andover. This section of “The Song Poet” contains many different threads. In part, it’s a moving testament to spousal devotion, as Bee recalls some of the many moments when he felt adoration for his wife, Chue Moua: “I loved you when you asked me, ‘When are we going to get a washing machine now that we are in America?’ ” At other points, things get much darker, as the family’s mailbox is defaced with racial slurs and Bee Yang loses his job during a disagreement over working conditions.
Amid the hardships, there are scenes freighted with unmistakable meaning. A few years ago, before a return visit to Southeast Asia, he got a U.S. passport. “I looked at the way I had signed my name at the bottom, the small letters, all connected, like Lao and Thai and English script all at once,” he says. “I saw in it a brief glimpse of the story of my life.”
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
The Song Poet
By: Kao Kalia Yang.
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 271 pages, $27.
Events: Book launch, 5:30 p.m. May 12, Concordia University, Buenger Education Center, St. Paul; 2 p.m. May 15, Target Performance Hall, Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.; 10:30 a.m. July 6, Brooklyn Park Library, 8500 W. Broadway, Brooklyn Park.