This interview took place at the home of Kao Kalia Yang, on July 25th, 2013, near dusk, in Minneapolis.
Cristiana Baik: You start your memoir, The Late Homecomer, by saying, “The feeling that she was Hmong did not happen until the preparations for America began as her family was being processed.” The memoir seems to be focused on that fractured, internalized space created by the negotiations of identity making, one that can be argued as particular to experiences shaped by diaspora.
Kao Kalia Yang: For me, that statement makes a lot of sense, as I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand; it was all I knew. Everyone who lived within that fence was Hmong. We lived within the restraints of Thailand’s “humane deterrence” policy. All of these lines in my life . . . you’re born into it, so it’s natural and it’s normal. But the adults around me kept saying that this wasn’t the world we belonged to, that Laos is across a raging river and that America is this place across the earth. So the feeling like you’re home was being told continually that home is someplace else, a place beyond your imagination. And I only had my imagination, because I didn’t have books when I was growing up in the camp (Ban Vinai). So for example, when I was young, I’d hear so many stories about tigers, yet I didn’t encounter my first tiger until I visited Como Zoo, right here in Saint Paul.
In my writing, this place of homelessness is where I began, because it’s the state that I live. It doesn’t hurt so much when someone here says, “Go home, go back home to where you belong to,” if I believe that I’m homeless! The Hmong have no country, there is no Hmong “land” in the world we belong to. The Hmong land that rises, rises inside my heart, inside the heart of my grandmother, her stories, my mom and dad, their stories and memories. So it’s a place that I’m continually carrying, a place that is also about the act of processing.
CB: How does this perpetual sense of placelessness, strangely enough, ground you as a writer?
KKY: I got a fellowship to study creative non-fiction at Columbia University, and one of the questions asked of me was, “Where would you be now if not for the war?: Would I be in the mountains of Laos, carrying a baby on my back, with a garden hoe in my hand? The second part of the question was: Do you think that wars can lead to good things, and that you’re one of the examples?” And I remember feeling so sad, and saying that I didn’t want their money, because who is to say that something as horrible as war can pave one’s way to literature? It was a strange, hard question to ask.
I don’t think the human heart changes, and I think I would have the same fervent, hurried heart apart from my experiences at the camp. It is this heart that drives me to the page. I write from a place of desperation, and writing is my way of meeting the world when I can’t make sense of it. Otherwise, I’m not so fast with my words! When I talk, you can hear me stumble. When someone says something like, “Get out of here!,” my heart breaks. On the page, I can sew these moments and pieces together and recreate the scene, and stand where I stood, and say the things I believe in. There are so many of these types of scenes and scenarios, they happen to the people around me, they happen to the people I love. So on the page, I can go back, I can unravel these scenes that didn’t make sense . . . it allows me to go beyond the pain, loss, it allows me to claim space and memory.
CB: Why memoir as a first book? It seems like an intimidating category, especially as a first book project.
KKY: When I applied to graduate school, Columbia’s was the only nonfiction program I applied to. For most of the applications, I applied as a fiction writer, because I wasn’t brave enough to owe up to the stories that were really my life.
CB: Were you writing mostly fiction prior to this?
KKY: I thought I was! I was writing fiction with very similar characters to the people in my life, facing the situations we all faced, but stories that didn’t resolve circumstances. I usually ended up killing off my characters . . . so obviously, fiction wasn’t a great form for me. I chose memoir, ultimately, because I understood that I didn’t have to write from my own memories, that I could rest in the memories of those who have gifted me with them.
When I wrote about the first time I rode my bike, I remembered that my mom never rode a bike, and I asked her why. And then my grandmother never even knew what a bike was until we moved here. Memoir became about unraveling these layers. And today, you know, so many details and facts are out there, accessible on the Internet. For example, no one in my family knew the width of the Mekong River at the time of our crossing, but you can find that information through a simple Google search: the monsoon season, how high and wide the river usually gets. So the memoir became a form that allowed me to weave narratives and details together, in a way that fiction didn’t accommodate.
CB: Is there a sense of responsibility you feel when telling the stories of your family, and has memoir become a form/forum to explore and tell their stories?
KKY: I try not to think of it in terms of responsibility, because it’s crippling to be hemmed in that way. The word “author” stems from the word “authority,” and for me, authority lives in the details; it is earned. When I listened to my grandmother’s stories, there was so much authority, and I could rest in that, I could rest in her power, her skillfulness as a storyteller. And that frees me up. So no, I try not to think of writing as a responsibility.
CB: What are you currently working on?
KKY: It’s another creative nonfiction work, and it’s going to be more consciously poetic, because I’m telling the story of my father’s life. It’s entitled, Still Fluttering Heart: The Second Album. I’ve been talking about it for a while now. It took me two months to write the skeleton for it, and then it’s taken me a year to do the editing work. You know, when you spend so much time with a work, you lose sight of whether it means anything to anybody else. But I recently submitted the work to the McKnight this year, for a blind reading, and it received a McKnight fellowship. So I feel good about it. I also have an agent, Bill Clegg with the William Morris Agency, and he really believes in the work. I’m hoping the book honors my father’s life and the challenges he’s faced along the way, both his personal, as well as professional, failures. It’s an intimate look at my dad, my family. I think a lot of people are going to read it as a sequel to The Late Homecomer, but in my mind, they’re very different.
What I’m doing now is trying to finish the edits for the book before the baby comes . . .
CB: The baby! You’re due, very soon, right?
KKY: Officially, August 25th is the due date, but the baby has already dropped! We’re hoping that she can wait for at least two more weeks, so that she’s officially full-term. And then, any day goes.
CB: As you speak about your next project, I can’t help but turn back to responsibility. When you’re talking about these projects and writing about the people in your life through such a public venue, it seems like it might be difficult to not feel that weight. But it doesn’t sound like it really affects you this way; it’s a different process and becomes a different literary “product” for you.
KKY: Well, sometimes it does! Sometimes, when I’m writing something, and I’ll share it with one of my siblings, they’ll ask, Why are you writing about me? And then, I feel the weight of it. But the truth is, the things that we do are hardly special. They’re only special because we interpret them. Within the scale of humanity . . . my grandmother always used to say, if we’re any good, we’ll get one line in the book of humanity. And that’s how I contextualize this: It’s about scale, it’s about perspective. Also, a great deal of the writing is about honoring and love. I know that I love every single person that I write about, that the seed of inspiration is about the seed of love.
CB: I read a review for The Late Homecomer, and the reviewer described it as a book that was about honoring your grandmother. Do you agree?
KKY: I think so, I hope so. It started out as a love letter (to her), so I see it as something much more intimate, as a private conversation between myself and my grandmother. To this day, if something happens and I get scared, I speak to her. Even the act of speaking to her, and hearing all the possibilities that she would offer, I think I honor her memory, I honor her influence over my life, my thoughts, my feelings . . .
CB: She was a storyteller as well, right?
KKY: Oh, my grandmother loved stories. She was a shaman, a medicine woman, a healer. She was always teaching us through nature, through her hands and her feet, every component of her being she used for lessons to be learned. Sometimes, I grew tired and became exhausted. Today, I find, even surrounded by her wisdom, without the experience to back it up, I still don’t know how to use most of it. But I come across a day, a situation, and all of a sudden, something my grandmother said made sense. I go back, and I say, How come I didn’t know it then? But, we can’t outgrow ourselves.
CB: Is there a consistent pace and rhythm to your writing schedule? Do you prefer to write during a specific time of the day?
KKY: I wish! I’m actually not a very disciplined writer. At times, what I write is me working out the muscles that would allow me to run the marathon on the page, if that makes sense. For example, if I haven’t written in several days and you write me an email asking, How are you, chances are my answers are going to be pretty long, so I can tell when I’m “unloading” through language. I keep journals, and those I write in more often: They’re hate books, they’re frustration books, there’s nothing literary about them. Rather, they’re documents of truth that allow me to check myself against the standards I have. But in terms of the actual writing, I write when there’s no more time . . . You have to go on the page ready to give it all, and you can’t edit for emotional truth. I can try to work out a sentence a thousand times, but it’s not worth it for me if there’s not a grain of emotion underlying the words.
CB: What do you mean when you say you write when there’s no more time?
KKY: I write before I burst. Everyone in my life knows that if I haven’t written in a while, my whole demeanor changes, the way I encounter the world, it’s altered. And I can feel it, too, it’s like a boiling inside. I have to get to the page before I boil over.
But you can’t really have a consistent schedule when you’re pregnant, because you can’t sit for long! Usually, I write at night, but with the baby, I don’t last long. This morning, I was writing from 9 to 11, and then I had to get up. And then from 2 to 3 I wrote. Today is a good writing day because I did three hours. Usually, these days, I haven’t had a chance to write consistently.
CB: Looping back to the first question, what do you think when/if identity politics gets entangled with how your work is perceived and introduced—and I’m thinking specifically about the ways that reviewers and other writers have approached your work. Some writers say that it’s critical that their work be contextualized within this framework, while other writers say they find it restraining.
KKY: I’m always introduced as “Kao Kalia Yang, the Hmong writer.” Or sometimes, the Hmong-American writer. And the truth is, I know I am a Hmong writer, and I’m really proud of that. Yet I’m also writing as a writer from Minnesota, one of the most literary states in the country. I also know that I’m an American writer contributing to world literature. In my mind, there’s no confusion or limitations.
Whenever I go speak, there’s an internal fight that happens before I feel like I can win the respect of the audience. Most of the time, I don’t dress professionally when I read—I don’t really want to, you know, wear a formal outfit, part my hair to the side. I used to love high heels—I’ve always wanted to be three inches taller than I am—but ever since I became a writer and started to give readings and speak in public, I don’t really wear them much. For me, it’s a more valiant fight when I’m closer to the ground.
In Minnesota, I get, “Well, Garrison Keillor doesn’t get an honorarium, so why should you?” And I’m like, if I was as wealthy as Garrison Keillor, I wouldn’t need it! We live in a place where people don’t understand the humility of asking, that it’s humbling as a writer or an artist to ask to be paid to go somewhere to share your work. It’s a humbling act. But often, for me, it’s not received that way, and I think that has to do with the fact that I’m Hmong, I’m young, and I’m female. I’ve spent the first four years of my career fighting through every door, just to get through.
I’m 32 now; I began speaking publicly about my work when I was 27. Writing doesn’t pay me, it’s the public speaking that affords my writing. My father once told me, you know when you write on the page, you’re writing on paper, but when you speak out loud, you’re writing on the fabric of the human being. So I think about it this way . . . it’s a different book every time I talk, which is why I don’t write speeches, because there’s no point. Speaking to groups of people, how do you anticipate what they want to learn, what they want to hear? You can’t.
CB: Have these interactions with audiences become more productive for you?
KKY: Well, I really value this interaction we’re having right now, because you’re asking such good questions and giving me the opportunity to think about the things that matter to me most. It’s a generous gift, in so many ways.
There are questions that I get tired of; for example, when people ask me, “Why did you title your book The Late Homecomer?” I have found all these different ways of answering that question. Every time, I’ll give a different answer, depending on how I feel. And none of them are lies, they’re all true and valid. Also, when people ask, why are you a writer, I come up with a different reason every time.
CB: While reading your memoir, I noticed that much of the writing is focused on physical terrains and descriptions of landscape. As the voice on the page navigates through different physical terrains, emotional states also shift. Is landscape an important aspect of your work, usually?
KKY: Today, it’s a hot day, I’m sitting outside, because I want to feel the heat of the day on my skin. I like windows open, and when I wash dishes, I don’t wear gloves, because I want to know the slipperiness of the soap, the smoothness of the plate. Smells also draw me to spaces. I’m a visceral, physical person, and that’s reflected in my work. Some writers are really good at living within their heads, but I live, first and fully, in a 4′ 9″ body, I live close to the ground. I don’t do well in high elevations, I can’t breathe, and I am not good by the ocean, because the sea makes me dizzy. Minnesota is a blend of rivers and lakes, where hills become mountains. So there are parts of my body that has acclimated.
CB: How has Minnesota affected and shaped you as a writer? You spoke previously about the literary scene here and the writers who come out of the state.
KKY: You know Louise Erdrich, I went into a creative writing program because of her work. A long time ago, I read a book, in 9th grade, my English teacher made us read a book by her. She had a line in the book that read something to the affect of, “A girl cries and wipes the church down. The church weeps with her.” And to me, then, the language exploded; I felt I knew every word by heart and experience and emotion. And at that point, I wanted to write like her. Minnesota also has the tradition of great public libraries. I remember we had bookmobiles that came to the projects, places where I spent a lot of time during my youth. That helped. In Minnesota, I grew up reading a lot, because we couldn’t afford movie tickets or going to concerts. We didn’t have a VCR forever, so my sister was my walking, human VCR for a long time. Minnesota winters are long and dreary, and you can only spend so much time outside. I think all of these factors and circumstances moved me toward stories, writing stories, and finding peace in stories.
But really, my original training goes back to the refugee camp in Thailand. People painted a bigger world so I could see beyond the world of the refugee camp, which is where I was born.
CB: You left when you were four?
CB: And those memories obviously still resonate strongly with you.
KKY: Very much so, my ideas of family, my fear of death and disease, poverty and hunger, it’s all a part of me. I think I will always be a kid from the refugee camps. Knowing that the refugee camp I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore creates a kind of . . . adrenaline inside, to preserve that place in writing for others to see—for me and the 40,000 people who lived in there with me.
CB: Have you been back to Thailand or Laos?
KKY: I have; in 2001, I went back, right when the World Trade Centers went down, I was in Thailand. I had an opportunity to go back to the camp I was raised in, and it was no more. I saw what nature had done, how nature had taken over . . . the great mounds of my youth were gone, leveled by the wind and the earth.
CB: Did that feel strange to you, the way nature had razed down this place that no longer exists but still so strongly resonates in your writing?
KKY: I’m haunted by the ghosts of the place; I felt a loneliness there that I have never been able to feel elsewhere in my life. It isn’t fear, it is an encounter, an encounter of the heart and soul. It was more than strange, and the place haunts me still. Knowing that you can give birth to a child in a place, and that place can just disappear, and that the only remnant of the place that remains is within the memories of the child, the memories of her mother and father, and that they’re all aging everyday . . .
CB: Talking about ghosts . . . I was completely frightened by the chapter, “The Haunted Section 8 House”! I notice, as we talk, that there’s an underlying sense of other-worldliness that shapes viewpoints, perceptions, your stories. For example, you start off the memoir with the Hmong mythology of how babies are born. Do you see these tracings in your writing and through your other works?
KKY: It’s such an important component to the Hmong culture. When you talk to someone who is Hmong, inevitably, they have a ghost story to tell you. If it’s not them, it’s their cousin, or their little brother or sister. When I was writing that chapter, I didn’t think it would be one of the more controversial components of the book. I thought people were going to take to issue with the history or the politics that I was relating. But, that section fell into the category of “immigrant lore” and superstition. But for me, I didn’t want to say otherwise and to lie about the culture that I was raised in and one whose beliefs I feel and very much believe in. There’s a belief when Hmong children point to the moon, the moon slices the ear. It’s a real slice in the ear . . . when you take a shower, your skin stings, and sometimes there’s blood on the pillow. For me, it’s not other-worldly, it’s just reality. If you point to the moon, you have to lick your finger, wipe your ear, and say, “I’m washing my ear, pig poop and chicken poop,” so the moon doesn’t slice your ear! It’s a cosmology and a way of life.
CB: What criticisms did your book receive?
KKY: I think Booklist said that the memoir was a “splendid contribution to American ethnic literature,” except for the part where I talk about the “shenanigans” of ghosts and fall into, you know . . .
CB: The trappings of writing about “ethnic culture”—
KKY: Exactly, and immigrant lore is how they had worded it. But I get that a lot during academic conferences; people want to know why I went there, when the book was so important, on many foundational levels. It’s because I believe in it! I don’t want to go to certain buildings, I don’t want to enter certain spaces. I can feel the hair on my arms and the back of my neck go up, and I know it’s better not to enter those spaces. So I live in a world where these things exist, they’re real.
CB: You mentioned the politics of the memoir. Could you flesh this out and speak about the research that went into the memoir when speaking about this? Beyond speaking to family members about the camp and what you experienced . . .
KKY: During graduate school, all my professors at Columbia emphasized research, research, research. So I read pretty much everything out there that I could read in English about the Hmong. It sounds like a lot, but it’s actually not. There hasn’t been much written about what happened, about the secret war. I made sure I knew the documented facts, the realities portrayed. Then I pushed that aside, and I did my work. At some point, research becomes repetitious, and that’s when you know you’ve done enough, it’s time to back off and see what you can contribute. I did that, along with a lot of formal research, and many hours of reading.
CB: You mentioned that when you go to academic conferences, people comment on the political dimension of the book. I can guess the kinds of questions that come up . . .
KKY: Well, there’s the politics of the war. A lot of people are not familiar with the history, and they don’t know about the Hmong, outside of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. So people are not familiar with the Secret War in Laos, the circumstances and facts. I did a book tour in Florida early on, and the only reason people came to my readings was because Clint Eastwood’s Gran Tarino had just come out, so people thought the book was somehow connected to that and a work of fiction. People question what happened and don’t realize that Laos was the most heavily bombed countries, per capita, in the world . . .
CB: That’s reminiscent of what occurred on the Korean peninsula, how it was razed down by U.S. napalm. Yet despite such terrible destruction, its sad epithet and how it’s remembered is literally the “forgotten war . . .”
KKY: Yes, exactly.
Kao Kalia Yang, author of The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (Coffee House Press, 2008), is the co-founder of a company dedicated to helping immigrants with writing, translating, and business services. A graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University, Yang also co-hosts a weekly radio program focusing on the Hmong community and has recently released The Place Where We Were Born, a film documenting the experiences of Hmong American refugees.