Celebrated Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang ’03 will give Class of 2024 commencement address

Yang also will receive an honorary degree at the ceremony in recognition of her groundbreaking work bringing Hmong stories to the page and stage.

Erica Helgerud ’20 28 March 2024 Posted In:
Headshot of Kao Kalia Yang in a forest.
Kao Kalia Yang ’03Photo:

Celebrated Hmong writer and Carleton alum Kao Kalia Yang ’03 will give the commencement address for Carleton College’s 150th Commencement. The ceremony will take place outdoors on the Bald Spot on Saturday, June 8, 2024. The event also will be live streamed and archived so family and friends of the Class of 2024 can share in the experience wherever they are in the world.

Yang writes, teaches, and speaks about her early years in a refugee camp in Thailand and growing up as an immigrant with selective mutism in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where her family resettled as refugees of war when she was six years old. She holds the distinction of authoring both the first Hmong American memoir published with national distribution about the history of Hmong people, and the first Hmong story adapted to opera.

“I’m thrilled to be returning to Carleton to celebrate the Class of 2024,” Yang said. “It has been over 20 years since I stood on that stage. I will be the first Hmong commencement speaker in Carleton’s history, and look forward to sharing the power of our stories and their importance in our world.”

Yang’s work has been widely recognized, including through the National Endowment for the Arts, National Book Critics Circle Award, Chautauqua Prize, PEN USA literary awards, Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, American Library Association, Kirkus Best Books of the Year, Heartland Bookseller’s Award, and four Minnesota Book Awards. In 2022, she was awarded the A. P. Anderson Award for Outstanding Contributions to Literature and the Arts in Minnesota.

Her first book, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, started out as a personal grief project and letter to her grandmother, who died while Yang was a student at Carleton. Eventually, her writing became the first Hmong American memoir published with national distribution about the history of Hmong people.

Yang transformed her 2016 book The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father into a libretto, and it became the first Hmong story adapted to opera when it debuted in 2023. It was the first Minnesota Opera commissioned project to feature a female librettist and composer, and the first to sell out six months before its premiere date. 

“We are delighted and honored to welcome Kao Kalia Yang back to campus,” President Alison Byerly said. “As a writer whose work crosses audiences and genres, she has had an enormous impact on public understanding of the Hmong American experience. We are proud to claim such a gifted writer as a Carleton alum, and know that the Class of 2024 will be inspired by her words and example.” 

Also the author of Somewhere in the Unknown World and Where Rivers Part, Yang co-edited the essential book, What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Native Women and Women of Color. Her six children’s books — A Map Into the World, The Most Beautiful Thing, The Shared Room, Yang Warriors, From the Tops of the Trees, The Rock in My Throat, and Caged — center around Hmong children “who live in our world, who dream and hurt and hope in it.”

Yang is a McKnight, Soros, and Guggenheim fellow. As Edelstein-Keller Writer-in-Residence, Yang has taught workshops in the master of fine arts program at the University of Minnesota and serves as an advocate and mentor for students. She also returned to Carleton for the 2016–17 academic year as Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor in American Studies and English.

Yang earned a BA in American studies with concentrations in cross-cultural studies and women’s and gender studies from Carleton and an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University.

During the Class of 2024 Commencement, Yang will also be awarded an honorary degree in recognition of her pioneering work bringing Hmong stories to the page and stage. With its honorary degrees, Carleton seeks to honor those who have achieved eminence in their own profession or who have rendered distinguished service to society.

For further information about Commencement, including disability accommodations, contact Noel Ponder at (507) 222-4309 or nponder@carleton.edu.

Erica Helgerud ’20 is the news and social media manager for Carleton College.