Kao Kalia Yang started out writing her family’s refugee memoir. Now she’s sharing the journeys of others

A woman sits in her garden.
Kao Kalia Yang at home in St. Paul. The author compares her writing to her gardening: "Those seeds that I planted emerged again, and I could begin to see the fullness of the garden."
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Elizabeth Foy Larson

It’s the first day of fall and author Kao Kalia Yang’s backyard garden is on the verge of admitting seasonal defeat. Leaves rust below parched blooms. Tangled branches dripping with ripe cherry tomatoes lean into each other, exhausted from the weight of carrying their late summer bounty. There are cauliflower plants that have never borne fruit — Yang uses the leaves to make steamed cabbage rolls. 

That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of life left in the raised beds and patches of soil. When the COVID-19 pandemic intensified last spring, Yang’s husband, Aaron Hokanson, planted a rose garden. Now, flowers with names that include Sexy Rexy, Fourth of July and Celestial Night stretch toward the sky, reminders, Yang says, “of beauty in a year that hasn’t been so beautiful.” 

She invites me to sit at the opposite end of a table on the back patio. Yang, who is a smidge over 4-foot-9 — a point she mentions often — says she became comfortable with her height when she was pregnant with her 5-year-old twin sons, Yuepheng and Thayeng. 

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“There was no room for the artificial height, there was no room to grow vertically, so it was all horizontal,” she says, smiling. There is a box of tissues within reach. Yang has placed them there in anticipation of the topics we will be discussing. “I was just all belly, and I had to occupy the fullness of my four-nine-and-a-half.”  

Hokanson and Yang moved to this home in St. Paul’s Phalen neighborhood five years ago, just after the birth of their sons. Today, the boys are inside with their older sister, Shengyeng, who is 7, and four cousins doing distance learning, supervised by Hokanson. Through the back window you can see their silhouettes, their small faces framed by headphones. 

Yang spent her teenage years less than a mile away, the second of seven children in an extended Hmong family. It’s an experience she chronicled in her 2008 book, “The Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.” She remembers her family’s 950-square-foot house as having the smell of thrift stores. Run down and cramped, it nevertheless “would be our first piece of America, the first home we would buy with the money our parents earned,” she wrote in “The Late Homecomer.”

Yang and Hokanson’s house also lies down the way from University Avenue, the St. Paul thoroughfare largely revived by the local immigrant and refugee communities. It’s this seed that eventually turned into her new book, “Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir” (Metropolitan Books), which will be released on Nov. 10. A couple of Yang’s projects seem to have ripened at the same time: A new picture book entitled “The Most Beautiful Thing” (Carolrhoda Books) came out early this month. 

Like most of Yang’s work, “The Most Beautiful Thing” is a memoir—this time a love letter to her paternal grandmother. It’s this family elder who helped Kalia see that despite her family’s lack of money, they were blessed with a precious cultural heritage and the gift of a devoted family. “Somewhere in the Unknown World” expands Yang’s literary constellation beyond her family’s refugee story to the journeys and experiences of other refugees she knows.

‘We can show up in a place where we aren’t supposed to be and we can grow’

As a teenager, Yang stayed up late doing homework, including studying the American version of the Vietnam War. Those lessons didn’t include how the CIA recruited Hmong people to fight and die on behalf of a country thousands of miles away, a country that would abandon these fighters when Laos fell to the Communists. Nevertheless, she and her family strived to make the transition from Hmong refugees to Hmong Americans. Her parents both worked the graveyard shift to afford the house.

Twenty years later, Yang says she felt immediately at home when she and Hokanson toured the rambler where they now live, in part because of the proximity to the sights and sounds of her young life. But she also experienced an instant connection to her new neighbors, an older couple named Bob and Ruth, who were sitting outside their own home when she and Hokanson toured the house.

She lovingly immortalized them in her 2019 picture book, “A Map Into the World” (Carolrhoda Books). The story of a Hmong American girl, the book is in part about Ruth’s death and the young narrator’s efforts to comfort Bob. 

When Yang told Bob that she was writing a book about Ruth and him, he responded by saying that she would be turning a weed into a flower. He had no idea how much that metaphor would delight Yang.

“I said to him ‘have you seen my garden?’” she laughs, gesturing around her. Yang often speaks with the precision and cadence of a poet, choosing words that are rich in meaning over everyday slang. “I love the weeds. They remind me of the resilience of life. They remind me of how it is that we can show up in a place where we aren’t supposed to be and we can grow, and we can make it more beautiful.” 

A talent for literature 

Yang was born in 1980 at Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand. “I grew up in a place where I was surrounded by death,” she says. 

Yang doesn’t shy away from discussing grief and death. In fact, she’s disarmingly present to it. As she talks, she sometimes seems to be on the verge of tears, not because she’s overwhelmed but because she’s able to feel so deeply. 

From the moment of her birth, Yang was groomed to become the happy ending her parents dreamed of. “I was that child … whose father taught her that she was not a child of poverty, war or despair. I was hope being born,” she says. 

The family arrived in St. Paul when Yang was 6 years old. When she was in high school, a teacher told her that she had a talent for literature. To hear an authority figure affirm her skills in reading and writing represented a lightbulb moment for Yang; those were skills she knew would be important for college. She graduated from Carleton College in 2003 and went on to get an MFA degree in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. It’s there, in New York, where she discovered the stories that meant the most to her where those of her Hmong family, back in Minnesota.

Yang used her year at Columbia to write a draft of “The Late Homecomer.” She submitted it to Coffee House Press, an independent publisher based in Minneapolis. When editor Chris Fischbach, who is now the press’s publisher, saw it in the submissions pile, he was immediately intrigued. 

“I grew up in the western suburbs,” he says. “The Hmong community was only on the news for me.” Her manuscript, then, delivered “an eye-opening experience.” Fischbach met with Yang and her older sister, Dawb, who is a lawyer, at a coffee shop near Macalester College. 

“They were formal and cautious,” he remembers. “They didn’t know me, didn’t know publishing. They were both really prepared to ask a lot of questions. I was being tested to see if they could trust me.”

Yang remembers the meeting well: After accepting Fischbach’s offer of $3,500, she looked at the wooden table where they were sitting, which was worn and scuffed. “This book will be my first big mark on the world,” she thought.

Fischbach said he knew Yang’s story would resonate with Minnesotans. But he was delighted when the book found a national audience as well. It went on to win the Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction and became a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award. The National Endowment for the Arts highlighted it as a Big Read title.

Her follow up, “The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father” garnered even more awards; this year, the Star Tribune named it one of the Top 10 Books of the Decade.  

“The Late Homecomer” led to more than literary acclaim for Yang. After it was published, Augsburg College invited her to give a keynote address at a conference. Hokanson, then a Ph.D. student in education at the University of Minnesota, was in the audience. 

A few weeks later, he emailed to see if she’d like to meet for coffee. She didn’t drink coffee, so they settled on lunch. They married in 2011, in front of 500 guests at Phalen Lake Park. 

Yang began working on her new book, “Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir” almost four years ago. She first pitched the book to her editor at Metropolitan Books as a chronicle of lives on University Avenue in St. Paul, a street that bustles with businesses built by immigrants and refugees.  

Her first interview involved her uncle Fong Lee. He was getting older and didn’t want to die without telling the truth about his experience during the war. As a Hmong soldier, he’d been trained by the CIA to interrogate prisoners. When the Americans left Laos in 1975, his life fell into in constant danger. In 1978, he and his young family seized their only chance at survival and made the perilous journey across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand. 

Yang and Lee’s collaborative retelling is both riveting and utterly heartbreaking as Lee describes a dilemma that still haunts him. On the Laos side of the river, two abandoned sisters— he estimates the oldest was either 6 or 7 years old — begged him to take them across the river. The blow-up raft could hold only his family.

Yang sent a draft of the piece to her editor, asking if she had ideas for what Yang should do with it. Her editor’s response was to ask if Yang had more like it. 

The University Avenue framing for the book went away in favor of 14 stories from fellow refugees in Yang’s life. One of these is Siah Borzie, a Liberian refugee who works as a receptionist in the hospital where Yang’s children were born. She had barely escaped being murdered by rebels when they took over the Bong Mining Company during Liberia’s First Civil War. To survive, she and her husband, Albert, and their young children fled to the bush, where they hid for a year and where Albert contracted Malaria. 

“When he grew delirious, when the infection had spread to his brain, I grew scared,” Borzie recounted to Yang. “The only thing we had to write on was the family Bible and the single pen I had snuck out of the house when the rebels came. I handed both to Albert and I asked him gently to write something for me, anything at all. He saw the desperation in my eyes and took hold of the pen and the Bible, opened up its front page, and scribbled a small poem whose words I can no longer recall.”

Kaw Thaw, a Karen refugee, is a parent at Yang’s children’s school. After living in several Thai refugee camps, he went to college in Bangkok after receiving a scholarship from the Soros Foundation. Later, he fell in love with an American woman and made his way to St. Paul on a fiancé visa. 

Irene Ruderman Clark is a singer with the local band StoLyette. When she was a child, she and her family fled Minsk, Belarus, as part of a wave of Jews escaping persecution in the former Soviet Union.

“The book began because of my realization that I lived in one story, but there were so many other stories that I didn’t know around me,” explains Yang. “In this world of perspectives, we had something unified to offer.”

Ruderman Clark says she found Yang to be “lovely and easy to talk to.” She recalls Yang asking her to describe the tastes and smells from her family’s journey through Europe to the United States. “She was so interested in my story and its richness and nuances,” Ruderman Clark says.

Yang says she’s telling these stories not because her subjects can’t speak for themselves. Rather, she offered her artistry to  help them create a portrait they may not be able to see. 

Yang met with each of her collaborators for a single, hourslong session. One meeting took place at a Culver’s, another at Starbucks. She didn’t tape and transcribe the conversations. Instead, she wrote what she was told by hand.  

“My feelings are reflected in my writing,” she says. “When I’m crying, you can see it.” 

Yang added another step to her process, which went against the teachings of nonfiction writing: She shared the stories with her subjects. “I didn’t ask if they liked it or not, but I wanted to make sure the accuracy, the integrity of the stories were preserved.”

The book was originally scheduled for publication in 2019, but Metropolitan delayed the date for a year — time Yang now sees as a gift.

“That year helped me come to terms with the stories, especially in this pandemic, especially in these times. It warms my heart to know that I’m sharing these Cities with these individuals. Knowing everything that they’ve survived and everything that they are, I’m less afraid. I feel braver, more certain.” 

Every spring brings a new garden

Yang says the process of writing “Somewhere in the Unknown World” felt not unlike gardening. She wrote the first drafts and let them germinate. “And then there was another season where those seeds that I planted emerged again, and I could begin to see the fullness of the garden.” 

Which brings us around to her backyard. Her neighbor, Bob, died this spring of cancer, a loss made more painful because Yang, Hokanson, and their children couldn’t visit while he was ill. The pandemic pushed them away. Growing things helped Yang to process this loss. There is always a next spring, a new season.

Not to mention a new book. We’ve been talking for over an hour and it’s time for her to get back to her writing, back to her home and the seven children trying to learn even though they can’t go to school.  

“This is a long journey,” Yang says. “When you’re young, you think maybe you only have one story to write, one book to carry into the world.” 

But then, she adds, “There are all of these stories, big and small, that inhabit my life, and again, the weeds are the most interesting part of it. The unexpected, the things you don’t want to account for, right?”