by Gail Anderson
Monticello Diversity Committee
Even if you have not read this book, you are welcome to come for the free experience of hearing a young Hmong writer talk about her book The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang.
Yang will speak from 6:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, at the Monticello Middle School in the Media Center, about her book.
Hmong dancers will entertain briefly at 7 p.m. Discussion groups will then begin with leaders from the Monticello Diversity Committee and a simple treat will be served.
Yang will have books with her and will be willing to autograph them. While Yang is a Minnesota author, she has a national audience, has taught at a number of colleges and is well known for her writing and speaking skills as well as for being an activist.
Born in 1980 in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand, Yang came to St. Paul at the age of six with her immediate family to join their extended family in Minnesota. She had a difficult time learning to speak English; she was shy and hesitant to speak incorrectly. But later Yang began to write her thoughts in English which was an easier medium than speaking for her. Eventually she received a B.A. degree from Carleton College in Northfield and an MFA from Columbia University.
Yang is now married and lives in Minneapolis, where she is a writer and a co-founder of Words Wanted, an agency dedicated to helping immigrants with writing, translating and business services.
She has released a documentary, The Place Where We were Born, a film showing the experiences of Hmong American refugees.
Yang wrote The Latehomecomer to honor her grandmother, her family and her culture. Yang’s grandmother was an exceptional woman, widowed young.
She had nine living children whom she raised as a single woman in a male-headed culture. Her grandmother was also a traditional healer using herbs she gathered in the mountains of Laos and in Thailand.
She was very strong in all ways and respected by other Hmong for her skills and persistence as well as compassion.
While Yang was never in Laos as a child, the stories of her family in Laos are needed to understand her culture.
There is much to hear in the true stories she tells about the Hmong people hiding out and foraging for food and shelter in the mountains of Laos for three years, plus the long walk to the border between Laos and Thailand, and their dangerously close call getting across the raging Mekong River when no one could swim and they were being shot at by the North Vietnamese and the communist Pathet Lao soldiers.
Life in the refugee camps of Thailand for years surrounded by barbed wire fences after that escape were a different kind of endurance.
After several years in the camps, the Thai government told the Hmong that the refugee camps were going to be closed and they weren’t welcome in Thailand anymore.
Then came the slow move toward the United States, learning a new language and having the difficulties of immigrants who can only get the lowest paying jobs and poor housing. Her recounting of the “ghost child” in one of their St. Paul houses is particularly memorable.
Not everyone knows the story of the Hmong people, who were first an ethnic minority in China; they were then forced to leave China two hundred years ago. They came to the mountains of Laos and Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Hmong men and youth made brave and knowledgeable solders in the “Secret War” while the Central Intelligence Agency kept its participation on behalf of the U.S. a secret. When the Americans left, the Hmong were persecuted by the repressive government of Laos. A third of the Hmong were killed during the Vietnamese War and a third were killed after the Americans left Vietnam.
Yang said she learned from the beginning to identify herself as “Hmong” when people asked what she was; she did not identify by name or gender. When people asked her ethnicity and why she had come to the United States, she said, “Hmong is an ethnic minority. We don’t have a country. We are here looking for a home.”
Sponsors of the Second Annual Monticello Book Read are the Monticello Diversity Community, people who are self-chosen from the schools, social services, churches, community and businesses who value tolerance and understanding among cultures.
This event was supported financially by The Friends of the Library, Women of Today, Lions, Rotary, Cargill Kitchen Solutions and the American Legion. It is a free event and all are welcome.