About the Author:
Born in 1980, Kao Kalia Yang, author of The Latehomecomer, 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.
Kao Kalia Yang in conversation with Annie Choi
Annie Choi: What compelled you to write a memoir? Why did you decide to write your story as nonfiction, as opposed to fiction?
Kao Kalia Yang: So many of the early pieces that would make the beginnings of this book were written from memory. I wrote about my grandmother first. She had died. I couldn’t pull her into my life, pull her into my story, but I could look at my hands and write. I saw the way the dust reflected in the sun and I remembered how it had shone in our world a long time ago, and so I wrote about how I had sat on a brown-beige carpet, my grandmother’s foot in my lap, carefully maneuvering the toenail clipper around the bark of her nails, faded but strong, tough. The memories are real, real life and real people and real moments, and so it can only be nonfiction. To call it fiction would be a lie to all the people who lived those memories with me. It is a more honest book because it is nonfiction. It is memoir by default.
Annie Choi: How did you come up with the title for the book?
Kao Kalia Yang: I was reading a series of short stories by Mavis Gallant. I was looking for a way into my work. I came across a short story called “The Latehomecomer.” She explained that the word was German and that it was used to described the Jews who had returned late from the internment camps, back to homes that were no longer so. I saw the relevance of it to my work immediately. My grandmother, who died at perhaps ninety-three years old (if the estimates are right) and perhaps older (if she had been right), would be the last one to return to her long-ago home. Her mother, her father, her brothers and sisters had all died long before. She always told me that when she died, she would be leaving me for those who loved her before me. She would be The Latehomecomer. So are the Hmong.
The Hmong have been searching for a home for a long time, since we left China, then the mountains of Laos and the camps of Thailand, for the planes to America and the rest of the world. If my citizenship papers are true, if indeed I am now a naturalized American, if my brothers and sisters, born in America, and so many of their friends are indeed American, then perhaps, at long last, we are home. It is a homecoming that has been a long time in the coming. So long, perhaps, that our visions have blurred, and although we are looking at it, we are no longer seeing it clearly: the reality of home. The Latehomecomer captures the desire to believe that we, human beings, find what we are looking for in the world, even if we can’t see it, or know it—even if it no longer looks as it had in our memories.
Annie Choi: What was your greatest challenge in writing the book?
Kao Kalia Yang: Structure. I wrote the book the way life feels to me—jagged and sometimes imperfect, sometimes broken; sometimes the Hmong sentiments are wrapped in English and it is awkward on the tongue, foreign to the conception. I feel the work on the sentence level. I feel it on the emotional level. The writing is not so hard, getting the words on the page, streaming the ideas along, exploring moments in time and out of it. I don’t dance. I’ve always imagined that when I’m typing, my finger tapping on the keyboard so fast, that I know what dancing feels like to those who love it, who are so good at it, who are free within it. The writing is fine. But then the structuring—the trying to make sense of it, to comprehend it within a framework—is the challenge for me.
I don’t think about bones. I rarely see bones. I am all caught up in flesh, in blood, in skin, in muscle, in fat, and in the components that touch the world, are exposed to it, respond to it. I know that bones hold me up. I have tiny bones—very very small—so I don’t give much credence to them. This same bent of mine is in the book. I am writing from what I know, what I can see and touch and smell and feel. The structures—the bones—I know they need to be there. Sometimes I look at a skeleton and I try to find the parts within me. Sometimes I read Nabokov and I try to find the structure within his work. It’s a challenge for me—a constant need to remind myself, or else I forget—that a structure is necessary, that without bones, I’d be like a worm. Without structure, the book will have no place for the reader to catch hold.
I think structure is going to be a lifelong process for me. At some important point it becomes a question of deciding whether to allow your challenges to stop you from going to where you want with a piece, a sentence, a poem, a paragraph, a story, an entire book or just trusting that what you are doing well is working and will compensate enough for the challenges. I read the books of George Orwell, who I think is one of the most important writers in the English language, and I see how he changes. In the early books, Burmese Days, for example, he portrays the experience of a young man in foreign India, and then later, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he creates a whole world, and the man that inhabits the world of Big Brother is older and scrawnier and wiser—perhaps much as the author himself had aged. I think the best books reflect the development of the writer.
I believe that this book is an important marker of where I am as writer and a person. I feel a sense of urgency in getting the book out to the world. I want us represented in literature. I didn’t think the book could wait for me to make it perfect.
Annie Choi: When did you first get involved with writing? Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
Kao Kalia Yang: Officially, I learned how to write in the Saint Paul Public School system when I learned the alphabet. I was six years old. My first memory of writing, though, is described in the book: a series of connected zeros on the page, a little girl, half in the sun and half in the shade, lying in a doorless entryway trying to tell the stories she’d been told all her life. This is the moment in my memory where my writing began.
I became involved with writing like it is a love affair the moment I chose to leave safety behind (the promise of medical school and a career in “helping” people) and let myself entertain and enter the idea of becoming a writer. This happened at Carleton College, in my junior year, after a study abroad program in Thailand studying “Global Development and the Rural Poor.” It is one thing to be poor in your life and then to be directly challenged by the poverty of others. It tests your abilities and your fears. When I came back to America and college, I knew I could survive poverty in my life without being selfish. This is how I knew I could write. This realization really empowered my exploration of paths to becoming a writer—one of them was the MFA program at Columbia University.
I’ve always liked writing. I never believed I was particularly good at it but I had teachers who showed me I could be. Grammatically I was and continue to be a little suicidal. I’m recklessly courageous on the page, perhaps because English is my second language, perhaps because I know that perfect punctuation, though beautiful and easy on the reader, is not necessary to communicating. I grew up with people who slaughtered English because it was the only way to try at being understood. I believe that when we use language, we are trying to do something more important than writing or speaking perfectly proper. I knew how important language was all along. When I spoke, especially in the early years, not everybody had the patience to listen to my halts and my hesitance. On the page, those problems were gone.
Annie Choi: In The Latehomecomer, you write about experiences unique to you and your family, but you address universal themes of family and love. How do you and your family’s experiences represent those of the Hmong community and how do they not?
Kao Kalia Yang: This is an excellent question, a hard one. My family is very Hmong. I know that when I write of us, I write of a Hmong family. As much as we are Hmong, we are humans, we live in the world, we have come to it and cried to it and we have tried unsuccessfully to turn from it, so the themes are universal. The Hmong community is rich with diversity, with texture, with difference. But because we are Hmong, I am reassured. When I write of us, I write of an important segment of the community. There are over 300 of us now—directly traced to my grandma. That isn’t all the Hmong community but it has allowed me to interact directly with so many members of the Hmong community, from so many clans, that I feel confident in the representations I set forth in the book. Everything I say I think and I feel and I am belong to a Hmong child, a Hmong young woman. I am sure that some readers will be able to point out where the representations diverge individually and from clan to clan and perhaps from the rest of the community. For instance, I see the wrestling matches that our family used to gather for as potentially unique. At the same time, I know other families may have gone on picnics and played volleyball—different activities but the same impetus.
Annie Choi: Did writing the book bring a stronger understanding of yourself, your family, and your culture?
Kao Kalia Yang: That’s definitely one aim of the book, an honorable one.
Annie Choi: Your family’s story is one of strength, survival, and triumph. It speaks of the “American dream.” What do you think is the American dream and do you think your family has achieved it?
Kao Kalia Yang: The American dream is the fight to believe that coming to America was better than staying where we all were. It is a continual fight. In theory, the dream is accomplished once the house is bought, the cars carry no dent, and comfort is established. My family is far from that. We are still in the fight. There are days when the checks bounce and the bills pile up and I yearn for some evidence that it isn’t just a dream carrying us on. But right now, I’m happy to belong to the fight, to belong to the dream.
Annie Choi: What has your family taught you?
Kao Kalia Yang: My family has taught me everything I first knew about the world. The heat of the sun, the cool of water, the taste of rice, the texture of polyester shirts and cotton skirts, the sound of plastic flip-flops, the wet of the earth, the waiting for life to begin. They taught me all the essentials. They taught me how to welcome life and how to fear death. They taught me that hunger is a feeling and that despair is a life. They taught me that happy is a moment and that happiness is a memory. They teach me so very much every day. Some of the lessons make me stronger, some of the lessons make me weaker. All of them make me feel more human, more connected, more than just alone in the world.
Annie Choi: You grew up much faster than most children. By eleven-years-old, you and your sister were already taking care of babies. How has that shaped your life and your outlook?
Kao Kalia Yang: I learned how to love babies very early. I learned how to take care of them, when I wanted to and when I didn’t particularly, and how to be there for them. I think this is an important life skill. John Mayer has a song lyric, “Women become lovers, and then mothers.” It makes sense. But I think mothering is the act of caring, looking for and looking toward. I think if John Mayer is right then I have learned how to love, as an act of giving, early on—beyond just the getting. It’s an important perspective.
Annie Choi: In the book, you talk about the spirits and ghosts around you when you were growing up—some that sparked fear and others that protected you. You even spent much time living in a haunted home. How do you translate between a world of ghosts and the one you live in day to day?
Kao Kalia Yang: I am scared of ghosts. My experiences haven’t been very comforting. But I like the idea that they may exist. It humbles me. I feel no need to translate between my everyday world and the world of ghosts. There are points when I did and I can go back to them and try to explore, but for the most part these days—and I think I speak on behalf of many who have experiences with ghosts or allow for their possibilities—that there’s no need to translate. We all speak the universal language of existence in a shared world. This is enough for me.
Annie Choi: What is your family’s reaction to your book?
Kao Kalia Yang: My mother and father, my aunts and uncles, my community—we are all so excited. We’ve waited for a long time. We hope that the book will be read and that Hmong will be a part of American literature, American life—for a long, long time.
Annie Choi: If your grandmother were with us today, what do you think she’d say to you?
KKY: Me Naib, Pog zoo siab heev rau koj os mog. Your grandmother is so happy for you.
Annie Choi is the author of Happy Birthday or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee and Other Family Disasters (HarperCollins), an acclaimed memoir that Booklist recommends for its “indelible, poignant, and often riotously funny scenes of a daughter’s frustrations and indestructible love.”