Kao Kalia Yang channels her mother in the memoir ‘Where Rivers Part’

side by side of a woman and a book
Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang's new memoir, "Where Rivers Part," is as haunting and powerful as the woman who inspired it — her mother.
Photo courtesy of Kao Kalia | Book cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

When Kao Kalia Yang’s mother was a child growing up in Laos, she lived a comfortable life. Her father was a prosperous merchant. She was the only Hmong girl in the village to go to school. She felt valued.

The war changed all that. Hunted by North Vietnamese soldiers, Yang’s maternal family had to flee into the jungle and live a desperate existence for years. Eventually, her mother met a boy also in hiding, and they married. She was 16.

It was an extraordinary chapter in her mother’s remarkable life. Yet when Yang suggested that she record the full story, her mother doubted anyone would care.

Thankfully, Yang persisted. Her new book, “Where Rivers Part: A Story of My Mother” is one attempt to capture the drama of her mother’s life.

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From a riverside village in Laos to a bleak refugee camp in Thailand to a new home in St. Paul, Yang tells the story through her mother’s eyes and captures the grief, determination and pride of the immigrant journey.

Yang joined host Kerri Miller on this week’s Big Books and Bold Ideas to share what it was like to record the unvarnished truth of her mother’s life and why she couldn’t write this book until now.


  • Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American speaker and writer. She is the award-winning of author of many books, including several about her family, including “The Latehomecomer” and “The Song Poet.” Her latest is “Where Rivers Part.”

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