Kao Kalia Yang, a Hmong-American author, didn’t speak until the day her first book, “The Latecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,” came out.
“Everytime I tried to speak, the other kids would laugh because the words had gotten so rusty in my throat,” she said. “And so I came to a place where I couldn’t speak anymore.”
Yang said she was a selective mute all throughout high school and college. She simply nodded and used other body language, beginning to whisper a bit in graduate school.
In 2008, when her first book was published — the first literary novel by a Hmong-American published in the United States — she spoke to about 300 people.
“The day it came out was the first day in my whole American experience where I spoke to be heard. I’d grown up predominantly as a selective mute in (English),” Yang said. “I can speak Hmong so easily; it is a song on my lips.”
Yang read portions from “The Latecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” and another one of her books, “Somewhere in the Unknown World,” which chronicles the stories of refugees in Minnesota, on Monday evening to a crowd of about 20-30 people, at an event organized by the Asian and Asian American Resource and Cultural Center.
Audrey Middaugh, a freshman in the College of Health and Human Sciences, is reading the book for an Asian American Studies course and said it’s her favorite book she's read so far in the class.
“It's extremely moving, and I don't read many memoirs,” she said. “I don't read a lot of nonfiction, and I adore the book.”
Middaugh and other audience members agreed with Yang’s emphasis on sharing stories.
“What I took away was how she was a voice for marginalized communities,” Katriel Lin, a freshman in the College of Liberal Arts, said. “She was inspired to use her gift of storytelling to inspire the younger generation like us.”
Yang, herself, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, living there until she was about six-and-a-half, when her family came to the U.S. as refugees from the war in Laos.
Her first book was a “love letter to her grandmother,” Yang said, adding later that all of her writing is “a love letter to someone somewhere.” She has also written a memoir about her father, and she is working on a book about her mother.
In addition to these stories, she has written multiple children's novels, and her Young Adult novel titled “The Diamond Explorer” is scheduled to come out in 2023.
Reading from her work, Yang spoke about the lack of Hmong representation, not only in history, but in literature as well. She emphasized the importance of sharing her words and story.
“Barnes & Noble and Borders, they said, ‘We don't want to carry this book. Who wants to visit one more sad chapter of the Vietnam War?’” Yang said, “But then those teachers who had taught me went into the stores, and they said, ‘We want this book.’”
That's how Kao Kalia Yang’s books entered into the big box stores.
Yang read from her book, part of which told how she learned to explain who the Hmong were, saying, “Hmong is an ethnic minority. We don’t have a country. We’re here looking for a home.”
After her first book was released, she said she would have refugees come up and ask her to write about their stories.
“We live in a world that is creating more and more refugees every minute,” she said. “And because I came from a marginalized space…I said ‘No, let me go teach writing, so that your children can write your story, so that your brother, your sister can write your story.”
After former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, she said she knew the world was changing and took on the task of writing her collective refugee memoir.
She read an excerpt from that book about an Afghani man. The story recounted an Afghani man’s attempts to leave Afghanistan after receiving threats from the Taliban.
“What happened in Afghanistan is so similar to what happened to my people,” Yang said, referencing the recent Taliban takeover after the U.S. withdrew from the country. “The Afghanistan story is the Afghanistan story; the Hmong story is the Hmong story, but we represent some parallels in world history, in the lessons that have never been learned about humanity.”
Yang said recently, after the takeover, the Taliban came asking the man’s family of his location. The Taliban threatened to beat the Afghani man's father, and the man reached out to Yang looking for humanitarian assistance for his family.
“This is a living, breathing story,” she said. “I do the work I do because I believe that our stories have the power to change forever and better our human lives.”