A Conversation with Author Kao Kalia Yang

By Xeng Moua

I had the special privilege of being able to interview an award winning author, Kao Kalia Yang who wrote The Late Homecomer and The Song Poet among many other books and articles. Her answers to my questions were sensitive, honest and pure poetry.

Kao Kalia Yang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand called Ban Vinai in the province of Loei. She helped take care of her younger siblings and looked out for them. They came to America where they faced racism, language barriers, and many other challenges.

However, they worked together to overcome these challenges as a family. Kao is incredibly close to them. She lists her grandmother as her biggest influence and inspiration for  why she became a writer.

My grandmother’s life and her love inspired my first book. She was a woman with much to teach–despite the fact that she’d never been formally schooled. She had learned from the old ways…how to cook, how to clean, how to work a field, how to run a home, how to become a healer, a medicine woman, and a shaman. She was incredibly educated to me and had always been…an inspiring alternative to the life in America. 

My grandmother’s biggest fear was that she would be forgotten. She had never learned how to read or write. She’d never been to school. My first book began as a love letter to my grandma, grew to hold the breadth of the history she occupied, the gift of her story that she’d left behind. Once that first book was written and published, I was hooked into the life of the writer.         

Kao states that one of the challenges she faced as a writer is being one of the first Hmong writers since there’s never been anyone there before her.

I’m often the first, there are a great deal of walls and barriers that I’m continually crossing. This is a lonely journey, not for the light of heart. It is harder to survive in America as an artist than it is to become a professional athlete (think: the National Football League or the National Basketball Association). Artists are often not compensated for their work. To make a living, to garner enough skills across the language spectrum, to stand and say I’m worth every penny; I need to survive, take a lot of guts, a lot of courage, a risk taker.

However, the rewards are greater than the challenges which makes it worth it. She is continually meeting new people and talking and learning from them.

It is tremendously gratifying to see my books being taught in classrooms across the nation. I travel often across the nation, and more and more outside of the country as a public speaker and a writer. I’ve been on an adventure in that I meet new people every single day of my life. I get to interact with them, respond to their questions and ideas, tangle with my own. All of life becomes my garden. I’m continually harvesting for meaning. This is a gift. It is a dream life.

Her advice to all the aspiring writers out there:

Exceed expectations each and every time an opportunity is granted. It is not enough to do enough. You must give more than what others believe you can give. You must push your boundaries regularly and often. You have to grow in your knowledge of yourself and the world. Do not let the distractions of life weigh so heavily on you that you lose sight of your big dreams.

Those are incredibly powerful words. Kao Kalia Yang is a true testament to survivors of war and overcoming challenges to rise above and keep reaching for the stars. She never lost hope of her dream. She has future books set out for the fall of 2019 titled Somewhere in the Unknown World and A Map into the World.

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