You’ve traded all your belongings for a raft barely big enough for your family and are about to shove off into the river when an orphaned child, her baby sister strapped to her back, comes toward you, begging for a ride.
You load your wife and children onto the raft. The girl pleads.
There is no room, you tell her. She tugs at your shirt. Your children look at you, wide-eyed. Soldiers near, guns glinting in the moonlight. You tell the girls you will come back for them.
Halfway across the water, you look back. The girls have disappeared. There is the crackling of gunfire in the trees.
The true stories in Hmong-American memoirist and St. Paul writer Kao Kalia Yang’s collection “Somewhere in the Unknown World” are haunting and vivid. Here, like innocent human detritus of the world’s political storms, the lives of 15 refugees roil, churn, drift and ultimately come to rest on continents far from where they began. Here displaced people travel by boat, train, foot, air — all around the globe in search of peace. They live in refugee camps, hide out in hotels. They apply for passports and special visas, appeal to U.S. organizations that once employed them. They sweat through airport security, fight prejudice and fear.
There is the inclination when reading harrowing tales of social significance to subconsciously shoehorn them onto a timeline, to examine tensions, recall headlines, to categorize details into cultural and political contexts. But that’s knowledge-seeking on an intellectual level often at the expense of empathy.
In this book, there is no avoiding empathy.
Two sentences into the first story, for example, you are a child in Minsk looking forward to your next birthday. You anticipate the white dress you will wear. You wait for bananas to ripen. You play with your sister. Then you find yourself on a bus at midnight.
The perspective of a child — so light, so clear — against the ominous backdrop of adult whispering, classmates disappearing and armed border guards — gives an innocence and charm to these stories that is tender and poignant.
In “Adjustments to the Plan,” a woman uses a judo concept taught by her father as controlling metaphor for how she persevered from Damascus to Minnesota. In “Certificate of Humanity,” a former Afghan USAID worker writes of being treated so poorly that the hurt lives on in him. And in one of the most captivating essays, a happy boy in Eritrea goes from playing soccer on the farm to witnessing genocide in the city to becoming a loving father and eventually an old man who, when making the oath of citizenship in St. Paul, is so filled with gratitude and goodwill it will stun you. “Peace is possible,” he reflects, “if we hold fast to not only the bad stories but the good ones.”
Reading these stories is like opening doors and finding yourself in the living rooms of neighbors you’ve hardly talked to. Thank you, Kao Kalia Yang, for opening these doors.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Twin Cities writer and reviewer.
Somewhere in the Unknown World
By: Kao Kalia Yang.
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 249 pages, $17.99.
Virtual event: Book launch, 7 p.m. Nov. 10, hosted by SubText Books, register at https://bit.ly/3826CZh