A Conversation with Kao Kalia Yang, Author of Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir

Interview by Lara Lillibridge

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Headshot: Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang

About the Author: Born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980, Kao Kalia Yang immigrated to Minnesota when she was six. Together with her sister, she founded Words Wanted, a company dedicated to helping immigrants with writing, translating, and business services. A graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University, Yang has also produced a short film on the Hmong American refugee experience. She’s published seven books for both children and adults (with more on the way!).


Kao Kalia Yang’s creative nonfiction includes:

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir which was a finalist for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award and the Asian American Literary Award, and recipient of the 2009 Minnesota Book Award. It was also a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read Title and won the Jeannette Fair Memorial Award for Distinguished Writing, was a PEN USA Literary Award for Nonfiction Finalist, the Minnesota Readers’ Choice Award Winner, Skipping Stones Honor Award Winner, and the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award Winner in 2008.
Book Cover: the Late Homecomer

Book Cover: The Song Poet
The Song Poet: A Memoir of my Father which was one of Star Tribune’s Top 10 Books of the Decade, Seattle Times Best Author-Narrated Books, Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize Finalist, PEN USA Literary Award in Nonfiction Finalist, National Book Critics Circle in Biography Finalist, Midwest Book Award Finalist, The Chautauqua Prize Finalist, Minnesota Book Award Winner in Creative Nonfiction/Memoir, Minnesota Opera commissioned youth opera, Boston Globe, Star Tribune, & Pioneer Press best book of 2016.
Yang co-edited What God Is Honored Here? Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Women of Color with Shannon Gibney, a literary collection of voices of Indigenous women and women of color who have undergone miscarriage and infant loss, experiences that disproportionately affect women who have often been cast toward the margins in the United States of America. A Star Tribune Top 10 Books of Fall 2020.
Cover: What God is Honored Here

Her latest foray into creative nonfiction is Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir, which releases November 10, 2020 with Metropolitan Books.

All over this country, there are refugees. But beyond the headlines, few know who they are, how they live, or what they hBook Cover: Somewhere in the Unknown Worldave lost. Although Minnesota is not known for its diversity, the state has welcomed more refugees per capita than any other, from Syria to Bosnia, Thailand to Liberia. Now, with nativism on the rise, Kao Kalia Yang—herself a Hmong refugee—has gathered stories of the stateless who today call the Twin Cities home.

Here are people who found the strength and courage to rebuild after leaving all they hold dear. Awo and her mother, who escaped from Somalia, reunite with her father on the phone every Saturday, across the span of continents and decades. Tommy, born in Minneapolis to refugees from Cambodia, cannot escape the war that his parents carry inside. As Afghani flees the reach of the Taliban, he seeks at every stop what he calls a certificate of his humanity. Mr. Truong brings pho from Vietnam to Frogtown in Minneapolis, reviving a crumbling block as well as his own family.

In Yang’s exquisite, necessary telling, these fourteen stories for refugee journeys restore history and humanity to America’s strangers and redeem its long tradition of welcome.

Lara Lillibridge: I was first introduced to your work through your picture book, The Most Beautiful Thingwhich I read in advance of its release on October 6, 2020, with Carolrhoda Books. I loved it so much I looked you up and found Somewhere in the Unknown World on Net Galley. I then read The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, and The Song Poet: A Memoir of my Father.

I do want to talk about all of them, but let’s start with Somewhere in the Unknown World which releases November 10 with Metropolitan Books.

Actually, no. Let’s start with this quote in Song Poet. On page thirty-five you wrote,

I take on your voice so that you may write the stories of your life through me in English for those fluttering hearts that are still coming.

And you wrote in The Latehomecomer:

Because she hadn’t said very much in her first twenty years, all the words had been stored inside her. Because her people had only been reunited with a written language in the 1950s, in the break of a war without a name, they had not had the opportunity to write their stories down. […] The young woman slowly unleashed the flood of Hmong into language, seeking refuge not for a name or a gender, but a people.

 This to me seems like a major theme in your writing—giving words to those who don’t have written words, or who don’t have the opportunity to have their stories heard, which then goes back to Somewhere in the Unknown World. It’s all circular.

So how did this book evolve?

Kao Kalia Yang: That’s a wonderful question. You’re right, the heart of it began when I was working on The Latehomecomer. My grandmother had died. I was twenty-two years old. My heart wasn’t ready to let her go yet, though she said that her time was up—that there were people who loved her before me. Because I loved her so deeply I had to believe in those words. The initial writing of The Latehomecomer began as a love letter. In my head, I thought maybe that’s all it would ever be. But then my dad in his infinite wisdom said,

if you dream in the right direction, the dreamer never wakes up. The dream only grows bigger and bigger.

I thought, what if I could make this into a book? What if other people could love her just like me? So much of my life had been away from her understanding. She had never been in a classroom. She couldn’t read or write her name. And so I set out to become a writer. When The Latehomecomer came out, I did one of my first readings at a UN conference. Somebody from Africa got up and said, ‘that’s my story.’ Somebody else from Europe got up and said, ‘that’s my story, too.’  In that moment I remember the dawning of it all.


quote: I could not translate all the things I was discovering at college to my mom and dad, to my home.

My father’s an artist, and he always says, ‘human experience is individual, it’s never unique.’ And all these threads started coming together and I understand that the work of every writer, including this one, would be to tackle these stories that, yes, they are ours, but they belong to the human experience. So The Latehomecomer taught me that.

The Song Poet—I began writing that book after my father and his friends lost their jobs—it was driven by more of an activist impulse. I love my dad and I value his story. My father has seven kids and he would tell you that I’m one of his most obedient children. I wanted to write about him because he believed a book about him would never be read. He loves Barack Obama, so he’s like, ‘Barack Obama writes his own books. He’s the president. Why would anyone read a book about a man like me?’

My sister was down at Stanford, and she called and said, ‘I saw someone on campus today and I thought it was Dad, that he had come to surprise me. I chased him all around campus, and when he finally looked back, I saw that he was a ground worker.’

I started thinking about how there were so many people like my father in this world. So much of the structure that we live in is built by people like him, so I set out to prove my father wrong. It was an act of defiance in my heart—to make real my belief in his unspoken hopes and dreams. And it was an activist impulse. I wanted to draw attention in the recession to men like my dad. In many ways, I wanted to speak to the head of that company who had let him go.

And both of these books (the Latehomecomer and Song Poet) and then What God is Honored Here, which is about miscarriage and infant loss by and for native women and women of color—there was a consciousness in all of these at work. And Somewhere in the Unknown World was the natural outcome of all of those things.

I was writing this book because I love the people in it, for very much the same reasons that I loved my Grandma. I was writing the book to bring honor and a deeper understanding of the stories and the lives of the people who built the foundations, who have always built the foundations across the world. I was writing it as an activist impulse to draw attention, which is the whole body of my work. It’s where I am at in my journey as a writer, and I think that you see that very clearly. You’ve traced it through my language. It’s where I am now in my consciousness and my awareness of the world.

The way that my subjects see themselves isn’t exactly the way I see them, and I hope that in the rendering, in the telling that I’m allowing them to see into the shadows and the beauty—maybe the heartache and the heartbreak, but also the respect and the dignity that is so apparent to me. I’ve shared the initial drafts, and I’ve asked people only, ‘is it accurate?’ I didn’t say, ‘did you like it, did you not like it?’

I didn’t want to be governed by that impulse. I just said, ‘is it accurate?’ And many of them wrote back with how moved they were.

LL: I was going to ask you how involved they were in the book. Obviously, they knew you were writing it.

KKY: Yes!

Author Kao Kalia Yang in winter coat

Kao Kalia Yang

LL: Did you interview them specifically for this project? You had a center (pre-pandemic) that focuses on immigrants telling their stories in Minnesota, correct?

KKY: I started out as a writing agency with Words Wanted, but that’s all spiraled into the work I do as a writer, and the work that my sister does as an attorney—it’s very much tied to the same mission. But these people were people I wanted to meet. I knew that if they talked to me, I would write their stories no matter what. As a child of refugees, I heard and witnessed too many times my aunts and my uncles and the people I loved telling their stories, and then nothing came forth. They were waiting and waiting, and nothing came forth. So I made that promise to myself—when I met these people, I said that this is what I want to do.

So we sat, and I made sure that the actual meeting would only be an hour because I didn’t want to get carried away in the currents of the river that they were in, but each meeting wound up being on average two and a half hours. I took notes and they talked, and mostly I asked questions so they could talk. With Mr. Michael, we met at local coffee shops all over the city. Mr. Michael and I, we cried through all the napkins at Starbucks, because we were both so moved by his telling.

Then it took me a year to absorb everything before I could move away from the way that they were telling me the stories and do the artistic work that needed to happen in choosing the parts of their story to tell, but also in the way that it would evolve and emerge with me. I had to trust that process. That was a whole year of thinking it over and letting it stew.

Then I got those drafts back, from when I said, ‘is this accurate?’ and when they said, ‘yes,’ then I went back and I did more of what I knew how to do.

LL: What was interesting was that each story is very different, but there is this strong thread of courage and resilience in each one. We saw just how determined these people were—some of them going through rejection after rejection in different refugee camps in different countries, just trying to find a way to make life work.

I was struck as someone who was born here, just the privilege so many of us take for granted. It made me appreciate so much about a country that I am so unhappy politically with right now. I talked to a friend of mine from St. Vincent, which is an island down by the Virgin Islands, and she’s been all over the world, and she said she’d still choose the United States even in spite of our problems. And that’s important for me to remember when I get discouraged. And that’s separate from the importance of lifting up other people’s voices—I don’t want to go off on this tangent, but—

KKY: No, I feel the same way! I think right now with the climate of everything and our hopes and dreams for each other we can’t help but feel the same way. But as I’m listening to these stories and feeling my way through, I came to that reality.  My work is here now. This is where these people are. Whenever I’m scared about what I read in the newspaper or what I see in the streets, knowing that these people are here somehow makes my heart braver. Makes this place more beautiful.

LL: Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say. And I had no idea that Minnesota was this hub of diversity and inclusion. It makes me think differently about the whole state.

KKY: And that was one more reason to write this book. When we talk about Minnesota, we think about Garrison Keillor, we think of Prince, we think of Bob Dylan. But there are all of these refugees here.

LL: It’s an incomplete list, but in this book, you have voices from Bosnia, Liberia, Syria, the Karenni in Burma, Iraq, Kandahar—so many different people. Was it hard to find so many different stories of origin, or are there just that many people in Minnesota?

KKY: I’m also a refugee, so I was already moving in networks of refugee support. I live in the Twin Cities, on the east side of St. Paul, and the biggest population in our schools are Hmong kids.

LL: Oh, wow.

KKY: Yeah, because I’m in one of the historically working-class neighborhoods in the cities, there are so many people moving into the community, and that for me was such an important part of it. These are all people in my community.

LL: These are all people that you know. Talk to me about your decision to call this book a collective memoir.

KKY:  So The Latehomecomer was a family memoir, so I’m already pushing the envelope for the understanding of what a memoir is.

LL: Song Poet, too, which is a memoir of your father.

KKY: Written like an album of songs. So already I’m pushing the form. And again, it is where I am in my journey. I think memoir is so much more than a single person’s memories, or the story of one life. That’s a power of the form for me—that it is so poetic, and it is so flexible, you can play with it. So this is a collective memoir, it is everybody’s memories together. It’s the story of a place and a time—our time.

LL: Hippocampus Magazine, we’re largely a community of writers, so that aspect is really interesting to me, and I know it will be to our readers as well. Did you get push-back at all for using the word memoir? Was that something that you insisted on, or did other people understand right away what you were doing?

KKY: I think in the body of my work it made sense. I remember trying it out with my husband first. He said, ‘what is it?’ and I said, ‘It’s a collective memoir.’ And he said, ‘isn’t it just a collection?’ and I said, ‘no.’ Then he read it and he saw immediately, I think in the same way that you do, that it made sense, that it was indeed a collective memoir.

When I’m in my best writing moments there’s a flow, there’s a dance. The passage of time changes so each of these pieces, I wrote until I found that place. And when they came together I knew that they were in the same landscape. If I was building a city, then this was it. If I was building a country, then this was it. If I was building a world, then this was it. And we were all functioning in the same world.  And that to me, then, can only ever be a memoir.

LL: To take inspiration from The Song Poet, it’s like a choir. It’s everybody’s voices together. And it is so personal and yet so universal. It does feel like a collective voice for the United States, for who we want to be, our best selves.

Your writing is so lyrical and beautiful. Tell me, do you write poetry as well?

KKY: I’m a song poet’s daughter. I’ve written some poetry, but not enough. When I talk to poets, the silent space on the page really speaks to them. I’m not sure it speaks quite the same way to me, but I am a song poet’s daughter. I’m a prose writer with a poet’s sensibility. I was trained on the poetry of my dad.

LL: you have a line in Song Poet, “I grew up hearing my father digging into words for images that will stretch the limits of life for my siblings and me.”

KKY: It’s true. He used to take us on these long drives. We never had vacations, so these were our vacations. Whenever we passed a train, he’d say,

‘listen to that,’ and when we passed a river, he said, ‘listen to that. Now what does the train have to say to the river? What does the river have to say to the train?’

We were all in the back of the car, and we’d come up with our own different messages. That was what our father wanted us to pay attention to.

I think long before I was introduced to the written word, I was raised on his words, and I couldn’t turn away. I don’t want to anymore. There were times when I was younger when I’d read someone, and my voice would merge a little bit into theirs. I had a history teacher who said, “Kalia, the problem with you is that whenever you read something, you’re deeply influenced by it and you start sounding like them.’ And I thought, ‘no, this is horrible.’

I had a best friend who had a very definitive voice. You always knew it was Julia writing. It was Julia’s thoughts about the world. I used to admire and respect that so much, then I realized, that isn’t me. It is a gift to be flexible enough as a writer to run with somebody’s stories and somebody’s words and do what you can to hold it all.

LL: Now, I first found you on Net Galley through your children’s book, The Most Beautiful Thing, which just came out on October 6 of this year. And that book as an introduction to you is interesting. It’s deeply rooted in reverence for family in a way that I haven’t seen in most children’s stories. It’s beautiful.

You sort of write for the whole family. I know generally, writers are told, ‘stay in your lane.’ People either write for children, or they write for adults. They write nonfiction, or they write fiction. So how does that work for you? 

KKY: Let me show you something. [unfolds The Most Beautiful Thing so that the front and back covers make one large picture.] You read this book electronically, but what I love about this illustrator, when you look you can see the grandmother telling her stories, and the little girl she once was peeks up from the past.

front and back covers of children's book, "The Most Beautiful Thing"

LL: You’re right, you can’t appreciate that online.

KKY: Family is incredibly important. There was a time when all that we had was each other. I saw it for myself in the refugee camp and I see it even more clearly now that we are in America. The families that somehow stay intact can support each other is so many ways. As a mother with children, there’s no childcare like a grandmother’s loving childcare. Family is at the heart of what I do and why I do what I do.

I’ve never been a person to follow the rules too strictly. The life that I live can’t be translated into an income tax form. The way that we’ve always lived can’t be translated into a code of conduct. Even as a little child I knew that if child support services found out that my mom and dad worked at night there would be questions we couldn’t answer, realities we’d have to explain to a system that gets stronger all the time by forcing these easy understandings of what family is, what constitutes right and wrong. And in that way, as someone who’s always had to work outside of the system, the way I write is exactly who I am.

The Most Beautiful Thing is a success when the parent reading it to the child, is on the level of what the child is experiencing, or what the grandparent will also take away. I do really well with children on school visits. I make most of my money as a public speaker for adults. I think about it, and I’m just the same me [for both audiences]. I’m just me. I’m soft-spoken by my very nature. I’m short—I’m more connected to what’s in the ground than what is in the sky by my very physiology. The metaphors I love are the things I can see, the things I can smell, the things I can feel, the things I can’t change. And so in that way, I’m very much my mother’s daughter.

I’m married to a white guy, and when he first met my mother she was sitting in a chair, and her legs were swinging beneath her, and he knew she was my mom because he could see the little girl in her. I was always a little embarrassed by that when I was younger, then you realize I’m my mom’s daughter—I’m like her. Here I am sitting on a plane and my legs are crossed in front of me and I’m clapping my hands. That’s some of the beauty of my mom, and that’s some of the beauty of being me, and I don’t want to hide that and pretend that I’m something I’m not.

I want my audiences to see the clearest picture of me. That’s the thing that I’m calling on—you know, we live in a country dominated by a man who is not looking for beauty, who is not looking for love when he looks at the world. So I’m hoping to be a force on the other side through my work.

LL: And I think you absolutely are.

KKY: You and me, we take our mothering selves to the page. We take our daughtering selves to the page. That is the full acceptance of who we are. And it [ our perspective] isn’t going to look like a guy’s thing, like somebody who is six-foot-five.

LL: How do you decide what form a project is going to take? When you started The Most Beautiful Thing, did you just have it in your heart that you wanted to write for children? How does that work for you? Do you just get tired of the long projects and just want a shorter one? I feel like all of your writings are pieces of the exact same thing. So what draws you to know what vessel is the right one for that moment?

KKY: Practical considerations—what editor am I working with, and how far are they willing to travel with me? And then as a mom, it’s the wavelength: how fussy are my kids this week versus last week, or compared to the week that I hope is coming one day? How much sleep am I getting? I have to take all of these things into consideration.

Erik, my editor at the University of Minnesota Press, wants to play with me. We want to do to children’s literature something new, both in the way I’m writing but also in the way others are illustrating. With Carolrhoda Books, Carol makes beautiful, beautiful books—she pays attention to the fingernail and the toenail. She pays attention to every single word that I write. So I know the product is going to be very beautiful if it goes through her. I also know it’s going to be edited a hundred times.

Author Photo: Kao Kalia YangWhereas the University of Minnesota Press—Erik will let me play unless it’s not working. With Metropolitan Books—they are putting out Somewhere in the Unknown World—Riva didn’t pay that much for the book. I couldn’t put into my original proposal all my hopes and dreams for that book. It seemed too lofty and it intimidated me. It was a simple story, and I wanted to enter into these refugee narratives but it began with that one story, “Sisters on the Other Side of the River” that was one of my uncle’s stories, and he wanted me to write it before he died.

I didn’t quite know what form it would take. It existed in my head as a short story but when I sent it to Riva, she said, ‘can you do more like this?’ I’m like, ‘yes, but not like this.’ So it was a leap of faith, and she was leaping a little with me, and I was willing to take the terms of that condition—that she wouldn’t pay a lot for the book, but I’d do my best work and we’d see where it goes.

I think as a woman writer; these are some of the calculations we have to take into consideration beyond the pure artistry of it. I’m the primary wage earner in my family. My husband does the childcare—already a juxtaposition of what people would think. He has a Ph.D., he’s a white guy, he’s over six feet tall. Yet I’m the one out in the world doing this kind of work: one, because he believes so profoundly in the message that is my work, and also because it’s never what people expect.

So there are all these practical considerations, and then there is the energy, the momentum of a piece. Sometimes a piece ends and you know it’s going to end there. I’m working on this book called Return of the Refugee and it’s a memoir of my mother’s story, and I know for the first time, and I’ve never known this before, that it has to end the moment that she puts her hand on her mother’s gravestone. The chickens have left the yard. The cows have stopped mooing. The ants stopped crawling over its little secret door. The wind stopped blowing. That moment right there, that conversation that they can’t have is where the book must end. I’ve never known that before.

So each project is entirely different, which means in some ways I’m entering somewhere I’ve never been, and there has to be that willingness to play. I’m also working on a Middle Grade/ Young Adult book called The Diamond Hunter, inspired by my brother Maxwell. There’s a real story from our lives.

When he was four our sister got into a really good college, but when she got the financial aid package, she fell apart. She was crying, crying about how she couldn’t do it. Max walks right in front of her, and he puts up the stop sign, and he says, ‘look into my eyes,’ and she’s looking into his four-year-old eyes and he goes, ‘you see yourself in there?’ and she goes, ‘yeah,’ and he goes, ‘you’re alive in my world and I’m alive in yours. One day when I get older, I’ll help you pay everything back.’

Then he went outside and we didn’t know what he was doing all summer long. And near the end of the summer, he came running in with a ruby. He said, ‘I didn’t find a diamond, but I found a ruby.’ That’s what he’d been doing all summer—he’d been looking for diamonds.

LL: that is so sweet.

KKY: I find it so as well. And I thought if I were to write a book for him, what does he need, and what can I deliver? So it’s about a boy who’s continually looking for diamonds in the world, who is destined to become a great shaman in a world where all great shamans are dead. I’m working on that as well, and it’s a fantastical fictional vein, and it scares me because it goes to the darker parts of my world. I think I’d be really good at horror. In this book, I can play on that level, which I’ve only skirted on the surface of in all my nonfiction work thus far.

LL: I think sometimes you can explore things in fiction, get to a deeper truth than in nonfiction, because in nonfiction, the facts are the facts, and in fiction, you can make them behave the way you need to. I think there’s a place for both. There’s a writer, Lidia Yuknavitch, who wrote a memoir and a novel, and she said the two of them together are the bookends of who she is.

KKY: I think that’s true. I never left the little girl behind–she’s still inside of me. She writes sometimes, and the mother writes, and I hope one day the old lady gets to write.

LL: Do you have advice for someone who is still working on their first book, still trying to get their words down?

KKY: I do. I teach writing, so this a question I think about a lot. You have to finish that first draft. The hardest thing to learn as a young emergent author is how to finish a thing. So often we’re so critical of ourselves, there are so many things that need to be edited along the way, so we’re beating ourselves up because we’re not producing at a rate we desire, at a quality that we aspire toward. But the lesson is to finish the thing.

The moment that you finish something, it begins to live in the world. Which doesn’t mean it will live in the world beyond you, but it lives in your life, it becomes a real thing. Once that first thing is finished, I think you have to share it. How else is it going to grow? Every piece of art by every author in the world is the best they could do in that moment of time. The Song Poet– I couldn’t have made a better book. I was six months pregnant. The Latehomecomer—I started at twenty-two. That was the best I could do, and I accept that.

These works of art are pictures of us in time. Some of them we’re not going to love forever, but when you look at a picture of your fourteen-year-old self, there’s something I can see in it now that I couldn’t see then. Then I saw the baby fat, the hair, the zits. Now it’s a picture of youth, of this young teenager living in poverty and loving it in that moment.

I think that’s what building a body of work is—leaving behind these photographs of yourself for the heart of the world to find. If we all thought like that, we all worked like that, we’d be a lot easier on ourselves, and the process would be a lot more fun. Which is what you need to build sustainability. The moment it’s no longer fun, the moment it’s arduous and hateful, nobody has the energy to pursue it. A piece of writing takes time. It takes a lot of commitment. And that’s only possible because there is a lot of fun embedded in the process. So finish the draft, share it, and let it grow in the world.

LL:  You spoke about The Diamond Hunter. What else do you have coming up this year that you’re excited about?

KKY: There are these two new books which we’ll see by the end of 2020, which we’re all so hungry to see in so many ways. Next year I have a new book coming out called The Yang Warriors. It’s a book about this group of Ban Vinai refugee kids who go on a mission outside the camp to forage for food for the young ones. It’s based on a real-life story of my sister and my cousins. I was never part of the group—not brave enough, not willing to make the sacrifices, but I think it’s a book for our times.

It first emerged as an essay for the collection Viet Thanh Nguyen was putting together called Displaced. Even as I was writing it, I knew it belonged in a children’s book. I reworked it from many different angles, and it will come into the universe with the University of Minnesota Press in the spring, illustrated by Billy Thao, a Hmong American. Again we’ll be introducing a brand-new illustrator into the world, which is exciting.

I also have a book coming called From the Tops of the Trees. That is also inspired by real-life, and coming with Carolrhoda Books. I’ve always loved the Japanese prints with 10,000 stories going on. That’s where she’s going with the illustrations.

I’m working with so many publishers and so many editors right now, and in that way I’m garnering an education. Some editors hate repetition; others want to play with it for the musicality. It’s really been a lovely adventure, and I hope it continues.

LL: How wonderful to have so many projects in the works.

KKY: At one point I told myself, you have to be on a predictable publishing calendar. Especially if you come from a tiny, little-known community like myself. The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet, there were too many years in-between. Many important things happened and needed to happen to develop myself as a public speaker, to fall in love and become a mother and all these things, but that space was so long that a lot of the work that I did with The Latehomecomer I had to do again.

I think having a regular publishing schedule like this—that’s the wonderful thing, there are so many different entry points for readers into the house that is me like you discovered me through The Most Beautiful Thing.

LL: One last question, you talk about being very quiet, about not being part of the gang that went outside the refugee camp. I picture child-you as very quiet, not taking risks, but to me, the vulnerability of writing takes incredible strength and courage, as does public speaking. You have this incredible strength, yet you came from this quieter place. Do you have anything to say about that?

KKY: When I first entered into children’s publishing, people said, ‘people don’t like quiet books. You write such quiet books.’ And I think it is because the quiet child isn’t the audience publishers have been hearing from. The quiet, little girl me would have loved these books.

When I do public speaking, I never write speeches. I listen to the feel of the room, and then I begin. It is like the writing. The words are coming from a different space, which means when I am done, there is no room to second-guess or to worry. I did the work that I came there to do, and I did it to the best of my ability. And now, hopefully, that moment opens the space for the next.

To survive as a writer in this landscape is harder than to become a professional athlete. You have to be used to watching the bills pile, to charging your dreams on credit cards. It’s very sad. If Visa ever wanted a spokesperson, I totally charge my dreams on the credit card, and I pay those consequences. Which is to say this—I’d rather gamble on myself than somebody else’s vision for what I am.

When people look at me, they have presumptions and assumptions about who I am, and how I’ve come into being. After reading my books, people say to me, I didn’t expect to connect so deeply. I thought I’d learn about the Hmong community, but you made me think about my own community, and where I come from. That’s the biggest compliment, because the gift of a good book, the gift of a meaningful encounter is to have the opportunity to reposition how you see yourself from the positioning of another. You see where you are with the alignment with another and the world.

The stakes are high, but they were never low. When Mom and Dad worked at night the stakes were high. When I was at Carlton the stakes were high. When I was at Columbia the stakes were high. When I called The Latehomecomer nonfiction the stakes were high. When the stakes are high, you get trained a certain way.

Every time I give, I give the very best I can, because the next is not guaranteed. My Daddy, the earth he walked fell on him—the earth threw him off. If that can happen to him, of course, that can happen to you and to me and to us. When you live that way there is no room for regrets.

When I gave birth to my boys I died. I coded. And I knew I was going to go because I looked at the clock and the hands of time weren’t moving. So I said to my nurse, Jen, “Am I going to die, Jen?” and she goes, ‘no, sweetheart, the hard part is done.” But I looked at the clock and it wasn’t moving, so I knew I was going to go, so I said, ‘Jen, if I’m going to die, I’d love to die with two cups of warm water.’ I felt this tremendous thirst. So Jen gave me the two cups of warm water and I swallowed them down. She cleaned me up, wheeled me out of the OR, and my mom came running up. When my mom put her hands on my heart, my heart stopped beating.

LL: Wow.

KKY: The moment I stopped being in this world, I could feel my body warming up like there was a hot sun on top of me. When I looked around, there were all these people, and I had this feeling that they had been waiting just for me.  It was the most comfortable I’d ever felt in my body, the most accepted I’d ever been in the world. Waking up was hard. It was horrid to wake up in the ICU. But the leaving wasn’t the hard part. What that experience taught me was that this is the hard part.

One day I will rest. One day no matter how dumb or intelligent I feel, I will be loved, with people who need me. That isn’t today, and I’m happy that that isn’t today, because it gives me how many more days to do the work that I’m doing. But the best feeling of all was knowing that I had no regrets. That I had done to the best of my ability the work that I needed to do. There hadn’t been a wasted day. Even the days that I wasn’t productive were good for something, for a part of me. It was that understanding that I came back with, and that channels itself into the work that I do. There is no room for regret, no room for sorry when you are doing the best work that you can do, from the most conscientious place that you know how to do it from.  If the work that you’re doing is a gift to this world that we belong to, then you’re fine.

LL: Let’s end there, because that is just so beautiful. I hate the word inspirational because it is so overused, but it’s awe-inspiring and it makes me want to go finish my own writing.

You can find Kao Kalia Yang and her books on her website.

Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge (she/they) is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent; Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising. Her essay collection: The Truth About Unringing Phones, releases March 2024 with Unsolicited Press.

  1 comment for “A Conversation with Kao Kalia Yang, Author of Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir

Share a Comment