Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Kelly Stewart, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Kao Kalia Yang about her book The Song Poet (Metropolitan Books), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
It’s no surprise Kao Kalia Yang is making history with her latest book, The Song Poet. Inspired by her father’s song poetry, or kws txhiaj in Hmong, the book provides its readers a powerful, in-depth look inside the Hmong culture and is the first book by a Hmong author to be recognized as an NBCC Finalist. Yang brings her father’s story to life throughout the pages of The Song Poet, offering her readers an open window into the often unknown history of Hmong refugees in the United States. Through her father’s eyes, she writes of her family’s struggles in fleeing their homes in Laos, living in a refugee camp in Thailand and, in the late 1980s, making a new home in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Yang about her book earlier this month. Here’s a look into our conversation:
Kelly Stewart: Since this book is a story so personal to you, one you carried with you and wanted to tell for so long, when it was out and you found out you were an NBCC Award finalist, what were your emotions?
Kao Kalia Yang: When you write a book and you put everything you have in it, and when you’re a little known writer from Minnesota, there’s a big likelihood your book will get overlooked, but I was hopeful that it would get at least some positive reviews and that it would be seen enough to do something, so this was really one of those hopes coming to life. It was really exciting and still is. I’m one of the first Hmong writers to be published in America and to speak forth for our community, this is history making for us. We’ve never been here before, and it’s exciting to be there.
This is my second book. After the first one, at the book launch of the The Late Homecomer, someone asked me, “What’s coming next?” and I remember answering, “Whatever it is, something is going to come out because I’m worth more than one chance.” As a writer, there was some pressure. I wanted to write a book that I was proud of, and a book that I loved, and I think The Song Poet is a more mature writer at work. I think the skills that I played with with The Latehomecomer are more fully realized in this book, so it’s truly more complicated. It’s tracing my art; you can see my growth and my development in The Song Poet. I don’t want to take anything away from The Latehomecomer, because that was my first baby, it’s like your children, when I had my first baby I was like, ‘Oh my God, how did she happen?’ now I have my boys and it’s like ‘How did they happen?’ It’s just amazing.
KS: In the book, you quote your father saying, “Who would read a book about a man like me when there are books about presidents, men like Barack Obama, written by themselves?” What does he think of the book now that his story is in the public eye?
KKY: When I told him that I was writing the book, he said “OK,” and I said, “Daddy, do you want to know what I’m writing about?” He told me, “As an artist I hate it when people interfere with my process, so I’m not going to interfere with yours; I’ve watched too many works of art die through talk, we’ll talk when the writing is through, when the book is out.” It was tremendous freedom but also tremendous responsibility. I think when the book first came out, he was nervous. The night of the launch was the first time he heard me read from the book.
KS: You write the entire first half of the book from your dad’s perspective and you pull it off flawlessly. Was it challenging to write through his character’s eyes?
KKY: The narrative perspective of my first book was very much my own, so I wanted to push myself as a writer. I knew with my second book, I wanted it to work as dual perspective. I asked myself, “Do I have enough creative capital to own my father’s stories?” It was the creative part of creative nonfiction.
My father doesn’t have many memories of his own father, so he’s gifted me with all these words. It was easy to conquer his voice, a voice I know so well. But then, it is my own voice too, I know my father’s past, so it was just closing in and really focusing on the background and leaving myself out. The danger of memoir is that it can be claustrophobic; I had to leave myself out so I could hear him. I wanted to let my father own the first half, let him tell his story.
KS: You share so many incredible stories from his past and so much about him in The Song Poet, do you feel that you really grew to know your father better in writing this book?
KKY: Yes! Nobody has asked me that yet in all of the interviews that I’ve done, but that’s exactly what happened in this process. Because first he’s yours, he’s your father, but then you realize he belongs to a people, he has a plan and a family beyond you. In writing the book, I understood what it was like for him.
When I got married, when I fell in love with my husband and we were waking up to the same alarm clock every day and he was a PHD student and I was a writer working from home and we had lunch and dinner together, it was then that I realized, Oh my gosh, my parents never had that. All those years, when they worked different shifts, how lonely it must have been. My grandma used to say, “Surrounded by wisdom without experience, you don’t know how to use it,” and I didn’t. I didn’t know these things in their lives until I had gone through something myself, then I got it. This book allowed me to pull all of these ideas together. This is what what you and I get to do in creative nonfiction: we get to reflect on our memories and make meaning of everyday moments.
KS: You mentioned you were one of the first Hmong writers to publish a memoir about your experience. How has the response been from the Hmong community for this book?
KKY: Just last week my dad and I had our first public performance ever together. My dad sang and I read from the book. It was organized at the Hmong museum, a very cool innovative museum without walls. There were a lot of Hmong people in the room, and there were so many people in tears. They came up to me and they asked me to sign my book, asked my dad to sign my book and his CD of song poetry, and it was really moving for me.
KS: That is such a special thing to share with your father!
KKY: I know! But I was so nervous! My dad sounded so good! He did fantastic.
KS: I'm curious about the setup of the book. Did you plan to have it set up like an album with its "sides" and "tracks" before you started working on the story or was that something that came later?
KKY: That was actually one of the first things I knew about the work. Before I even made it to the page I knew I wanted it to sound like a record and I wanted to play with the form a little bit. It gave me that freedom to create songs that were not necessarily chronological. I knew that first thing.
KS: I thought it brought so much to the book, I liked it.
KKY: Thank you! I’m glad you liked it because it was a little bit of a risk.
KS: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in writing The Song Poet?
KKY: Thinking back, in the process it didn’t feel like it, but I wrote the first draft in just two months. I had been carrying the book inside of me for so long. After the Late Homecomer, I was on this never ending book tour. So, the first draft released so quickly. Every time I sat down I would churn out a chapter. I think I was flooding the page. It took me a year to finish the book; that was with the feedback of my first editor, my agent Bill Clegg and then Riva Hocherman, the editor of The Song Poet, the final set of eyes on it. The beautiful thing about it is, once a book is on its way into the world, you can trust that there are other people to catch you when certain elements are unclear.
I think so many emerging writers are so hard on themselves, we don’t understand that all we have to get is the story told and get the emotional gravity on the page and then other people make sure it all comes together. It’s very useful to have your whole team, people putting energy into something like this, they stand behind it and you have a whole team of people pushing the book.
KS: So what’s next? Are you working on anything right now?
KKY: I am! You actually caught me during my writing process. I’m working on a third book, titled roughly “Medicine Girl” or “Shell by the Sea.” It’s a book about healing and rape. It’s fiction. I imagine it as a book for young children, because when we first learn about sex education we learn about sex and we learn about abstinence, but we don’t learn about rape and for most young girls, you don’t learn about rape until you’re raped. So in many ways it’s my personal response to what happened in California with Brock Turner, I wanted to create a response to that so I’m in that process that right now.
KS: Is it difficult to switch from nonfiction to fiction?
KKY: You have to disconnect in a more thorough way if that makes sense. In non fiction, I’m beheld to the truth, so I’m telling stories that are already structured and crafted, but in fiction I have to completely dissociate from real life to make it real.
KS: Do you have any closing thoughts?
KKY: I’m super lucky to be living in the state of Minnesota. The Star Tribune does a wonderful job with books. Laurie Hertzel reviewed my book initially. It was the first author interview of the book’s emergence, and I think that her voice is critical to the voice of the rest of the nation. I want to pay tribute to the wonderful literary state that I live in and to the people who love books here. I’m very fortunate in that, though very few people know me across the nation, in the state of Minnesota I have a strong leadership and strong audience for my work and I can be encouraged to go beyond Minnesota’s borders.
Kao Kalia Yang is the author of The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, which was a finalist for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award and the Asian American Literary Award, and received the 2009 Minnesota Book Award. Her work has been published in Longreads and the Virginia Quarterly. Yang, who has taught at Columbia University and Concordia University-St. Paul, among other places, lives in Minnesota.
Kelly Stewart is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing, focusing in Nonfiction, at The New School in New York City. She is working on a memoir about her father, the late U.S. Army Colonel John M. McHugh. Stewart previously worked as a sportswriter with K-State Athletics and has freelanced for Sports Illustrated, The Associated Press, The Kansas City Star, The Manhattan Mercury, and The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @kellystewart01