Kao Kalia Yang returns with 'The Song Poet'

'The Song Poet' by Kao Kalia Yang
'The Song Poet' by Kao Kalia Yang
Courtesy of Metropolitan Books

When Kao Kalia Yang told her father she planned to write a book about him, he laughed.

"'No one wants to read a book about a man like me when you can read books about men like Barack Obama'," Yang remembers him saying. But she persisted. "My stubborn heart wanted to prove him wrong."

Yang's father, Bee Yang, was born in Laos. He later fled with his family to a refugee camp in Thailand, before moving to Minnesota with his wife and children. Yang documented the journey of the Hmong people's path to America in her first book, "The Latehomecomer."

In her new book, "The Song Poet," she explores her father's power with words. In Hmong culture, the song poet is someone who keeps history alive, reciting folk tales, family stories and more. Her father fills this role for the local Hmong community.

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"I asked my dad: How does a song poet become?" Yang told MPR News host Tom Weber. "He said when he was a boy, there were very few people to say beautiful things to him. He used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next, collecting the beautiful things that people had to say to each other."

He recorded an album of poetry in 1992, and performed at public events. But when his mother — Yang's grandmother — died in 2002, he stopped singing.

"He said he stored all of his songs in his heart, and now there was a hole in his heart and the songs had leaked out," Yang said.

For a poetic person like Yang's father, the language barrier took a toll as well.

"My father says things like, 'If Hmong tears can reincarnate, it would rain the world with our sorrow,'" Yang said. "In English, he struggles to say, 'Today is a rainy day.' I think that's particularly hard for him."

For the full conversation with Kao Kalia Yang on "The Song Poet," use the audio player above.