Kao Kalia Yang writes about finding her voice and her mother's journey in two new books

books and an author
Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang is out with two new books in March: a children’s book called “The Rock in My Throat” and a memoir called “Where Rivers Part.”
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Local author Kao Kalia Yang is releasing two new books in March. One is a children’s book called “The Rock in My Throat” and the second is a memoir called “Where Rivers Part.” Both are personal stories about Yang’s experience as a Hmong person.

“The Rock in My Throat” is a true story about when she stopped speaking for many years as a child. She was at the store with her mother when her mom didn’t know the word for lightbulb. She asked “for the thing that makes the world shiny.” The clerk didn’t understand, and never came back with a lightbulb. That’s when as a child Yang began to think that people did not want to hear a voice like hers and became a selective mute.

Yang’s memoir “Where Rivers Part” is a story about her mother’s journey from Laos to the U.S. It is the first book she has written in the first-person. She talked to MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about learning her mom’s story, how she found her voice and the impact her books have had on young Minnesotans.

“A Rock in My Throat” comes out March 5. “Where Rivers Part” comes out March 19.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang has a busy month ahead of her. She is releasing two new books in March. One is a children's book called The Rock in my Throat. And the second is a memoir called Where Rivers Part. Both are very personal stories about Kalia's life experiences. Kao Kalia Yang is on the line right now. Kalia, . It is such a pleasure. It's so great to hear your voice. Thank you for taking the time.

KAO KALIA YANG: Thank you so much for having me back, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: A children's book, The Rock in my Throat, . I understand it's a true story about when you stopped speaking as a child. Tell us about that.

KAO KALIA YANG: It is. I grew up as a selective mute. We came to America when I was six years old. When I turned seven, I realized that the world that we were living in did not have time, was not interested in hearing my mom and my dad, with her thick accent stumbling and falling into English. So I became a selective mute in the English language for many, many years.

CATHY WURZER: I didn't know that. Was there a specific incident that occurred that sparked that?

KAO KALIA YANG: Yes. I remember it clearly. My mom and I went to Kmart. She didn't know the word for light bulb. So she pointed up to the ceiling. We didn't know where the light bulbs were. And she asked the clerk, "Where is the thing that makes the world shiny?" And as my mother is saying this, the clerk is tapping on the counter and tapping on the counter. The faster the tapping, the harder it became for my mother. But my mother persisted.

When she was done, the clerk turned away, and we waited for her to come back to tell us where the lightbulbs were. 15 minutes passed. I looked at my mother, and I saw that my mother's head was bowed, my mother, who my father had always said was the bravest woman he knew because in Laos, in the most heavily bombed country in the world, in the most heavily bombed province in the world, my mother walked her chin parallel with the ground when grown men and women ran.

And that becomes the beginning of everything. At work, people would tell my dad, Bee, you're here to talk to the machines, not to us. And so I decided that if the world did not need to hear my mom and dad, surely it did not need to hear me either. So I stopped talking the next day.

CATHY WURZER: Oh my gosh, Kalia, so then how and when did you find your voice?

KAO KALIA YANG: You know, Cathy, I always thought that one day if I ever could find the strength, it would come from the strongest heart of me, the strongest part, the part that had been soaked by all the tears. But in 2008, the Latehomecomer came out. April 10, there was a launch at Concordia Saint Paul, and I got up there to speak, and I couldn't.

And my father comes up to me, and he says to me, know if Hmong tears can reincarnate, we would reign the world with our sorrow. But because they cannot, they can only green the mountains of Phou Bia. If you speak, if the winds of humanity blow, then maybe our lives are not lost. And this trembling voice came forth from me. It was like a cry, although there were no tears in my eyes. And it came from the softest part of me. / And so I know the exact date, April 10, 2008.

CATHY WURZER: Oh my gosh, this is quite an experience. And do you feel now-- I'm hoping you feel much stronger, from that moment to now, because of all your success and how people view you, and they love your words and your writing. Do you feel stronger?

KAO KALIA YANG: I think I feel braver. I don't know that I feel stronger, but I know that when I get up to speak-- because I make most of my living as a public speaker, although I am very much a writer. When I when I get up to speak, I'm speaking to that little girl, saying all of the words that she wanted to hear in the world. And I think it's such a gift to me. And I hope that it's a gift to my audiences. So I feel brave when I do it. I don't know, though, if I feel stronger.

CATHY WURZER: So many kids do have experiences where they just don't feel they're listened to, that they're ignored. And I'm wondering this book, I bet a lot of kids will see themselves in your book. What do you think?

KAO KALIA YANG: I did a reading for the Saint Paul Public Schools at Bruce Vento Elementary just Monday. And there was this girl at the end of the reading. She raised her hand, and she said, my mother speaks Spanish. We are Mexicans. I feel the same thing. And I see the same thing. And then she said because your book now lives in the world, I am less lonely. And I had these final graphic-- final F&Gs, and I gave them to the kids. And she held it to her heart, and she said, and I think my mother will like knowing that she was not-- that she's not the only mother in the world.


KAO KALIA YANG: I know. It was all captured on film, I think, because they were filming it for a read aloud day.

CATHY WURZER: These experiences you have, oh my goodness, just think of the impact you're having. So we just talked about the first book.


CATHY WURZER: I need to ask you about the second one, Where Rivers Part.


CATHY WURZER: Now, you mentioned your mom. I know this is a story about your mom's journey from Laos to the US. And I think this is the third in a trilogy, right?

KAO KALIA YANG: Yes. It closes the trilogy of family memoirs I've published. The Latehomecomer. The Song Poet, and now, Where Rivers Part and then moving on to fiction for a little bit.

CATHY WURZER: So this is the first book you've written in first person, I believe.

KAO KALIA YANG: It is, all the way through, yes.

CATHY WURZER: Isn't that-- how difficult was it, especially because you're talking about your mom?

KAO KALIA YANG: Cathy, it was so very hard. I started the book in the pandemic. It's a book that I've been wanting to write for a long time. And it's very close to my beating heart. When I started writing it, I tried all kinds of perspectives. But in the end, I think I wanted my readers to meet my mother the way I got to meet her, to get to know her the way I've gotten to know her. And the first person then was the truest voice for me to speak from for Where Rivers Part.

CATHY WURZER: How much has your mom shared, all the stories of her life growing up and about her journey to this country? Do you think you've covered it all?

KAO KALIA YANG: No, I have not. Every time we talk, there's another story that I wish could have been in the book. And the truth is, the book would never end, is the real truth, if I write every single story that she tells me. My mother has lived a long life. And it's filled with stories. I did the best I could. And I think knowing that, though, allows me a kind of space to breathe.

CATHY WURZER: I love your dad's book. I thought that was so beautiful. And I'm excited to read this book about your mom. Did she have any qualms at all? She's a bit of a private person, if I remember.


CATHY WURZER: What did she think?

KAO KALIA YANG: My mother was like, nobody wants to know how people have periods in the jungle. People aren't interested in what we wash our hair with or brush our teeth with. Why are you putting this stuff down? And these are the kinds of concerns that my mother had. She thought that a lot of the details that I was putting down wouldn't be interesting to people.

But that's where I tell her, Mom, trust me, we'll see how it goes. But I'm interested. So we're going to have to put them in. But mostly, my mother trusts me. The only thing she said was, I'm not going to be there at the launch because I will cry too much. I will cry too much.

CATHY WURZER: And the launch is-- we should say, the launch is coming up Parkway Theater, I believe, March 19, right?

KAO KALIA YANG: Yes, yes, at 7:00 PM, which will be my mother will not be there. Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: I'm curious, so getting back to mom, so she's read the book, though, right?

KAO KALIA YANG: I've read it to her, and I've translated the parts that I could without crying. There's the epilogue. And I said to her, Mom, I can never read this to you. But she is the first person I gave a copy to. And as I was writing, I was running through stories with her, just to make sure that I was getting the facts right.

CATHY WURZER: Do you feel like your relationship with your mom is even more strong than it was because of this experience?

KAO KALIA YANG: I know that I understand my mother more now. I understand her more deeply as a woman. I've always been her daughter. And she's always been-- before I knew a pillow, I slept on her arms. It was her body that kept me warm long before I touched a blanket. I know these things about my mother.

But to see her as a woman in a bigger world, to see her as a woman in a world full of women like my mother, that's really where I think the changing perspective came into play. And I could then relate to her as one woman to another, as both daughters and mothers, because I'm now a mother myself. And I have a daughter. I have a little one.

CATHY WURZER: So really, a much fuller picture of your mother.

KAO KALIA YANG: A much fuller picture of my mother and so many other women like her, Cathy, who had to leave their homes, who've had to live with broken hearts and somehow still raise their young ones and keep them whole.

CATHY WURZER: This sounds like a beautiful book. I can hardly wait. And I know, knowing you, this is a big enough task to have two books coming out in one month, but knowing you, I know you have other projects. Can you share at least something else that you're working on?

KAO KALIA YANG: Yes. In May, another children's book is coming out called Caged, in September, a middle grade debut fiction. So my debut fiction will be coming out, called The Diamond Explorer. Then there's three more books next year. And right now, I'm writing several.

CATHY WURZER: You are just a-- you're a fountain of energy. Oh my goodness. I wish you all the best. Oh my goodness. Thank you for joining us, Kalia.

KAO KALIA YANG: Thank you so much, Cathy. It's always a pleasure to speak with you.

CATHY WURZER: Likewise. Kao Kalia Yang has been with us. Her children's book, A Rock in my Throat, comes out March the 5th. That'll be at the Mall of America, by the way. Her memoir, Where Rivers Part, comes out on March 19. As I mentioned, that'll be at the Parkway Theater. You can preorder both books right now.

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