The Same Flower Can Grow in All Kinds of Gardens

26 September 2023
By Olivia Fantini ’14

Kao Kalia Yang ’03, celebrated author of The Latehomecomer, adds a new skill: librettist. Her memoir The Song Poet is the first Hmong story adapted for the operatic stage.

Black & white portrait of Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang at the Como Conservatory in St. Paul.
Photo by Pao Houa Her

Kao Kalia Yang’s backyard is alive this summer. Three well-loved raised beds flank a corner of a patio brimming with early season strawberries. Snow shovels lean haphazardly beside the back door. On the lawn sits a sun-faded wooden play structure, and beneath the shade of the yellow slide, several brightly colored tricycles have been tucked away from the lawnmower’s teeth. We settle into patio chairs, and while I have had the pleasure of speaking with her many times before, we begin at the beginning.

Now a celebrated author, Yang started out as what she calls a stateless child without a written foundation. She was born in Thailand’s Ban Vinai refugee camp in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Years of attempted cultural extermination had decimated libraries and the Hmong written language, but this didn’t stop Yang from learning the history of her people. Deemed too young to attend the already overcrowded school in the camp, she and the other children learned at the feet of their elders, gathered around an old man perched on a stool. Yang’s father, Bee, was a song poet in the Hmong tradition, holding safe his people’s history in his own words. In this environment, Yang learned at a young age that storytelling is not just a way to pass the time: it’s also a tool of survival, cultural preservation, and historical resurrection. Storytelling is a tool to store one’s most precious treasures.

Kao Kalia Yang, age 2
Kao Kalia Yang, Ban Vinai, 1983, age 2

When she was six years old, Yang’s family left the refugee camp and was relocated to Minnesota. Starting to learn English in the cold of Saint Paul winters, she struggled with selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that rendered her unable to speak in select situations. Soon the written word took on special meaning. “On the page,” she explains, “I don’t feel the ticking clock. I don’t feel other people’s impatience, their satisfaction or lack thereof in the things I have to say.”

Yang didn’t set out to become a writer. She was a pre-med American studies major at Carleton when her grandmother passed away. Devastated by the loss, she sat down to write a goodbye letter. It started out as a personal project, a way to keep herself from forgetting her grandmother. Then one day her father found her writing. Yang, then on page 37, explained that she was writing her final love letter to his mother. A poet and artist, Bee looked at his daughter and said the words Yang needed to hear to follow her own artistic calling, “If you dream in the right direction, the dreamer never wakes up. The dream never dies, it grows bigger and bigger.” That day the dream was born—that the world would remember Yang’s grandmother along with her—and after years of receiving stories from her community, Yang stood up to tell one of her own.

Kao Kalia Yang, age 5
Kao Kalia Yang, Ban Vinai, 1983, age 5

The growing dream to tell her grandmother’s story brought her to Columbia University’s MFA program, where the letter evolved into The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. Along the way, Yang realized that not only was she writing about her grandmother, she was also documenting the history of her people. She came to realize the true significance of her work and that, while the book didn’t need to be perfect, it did have to be honest and true. The Latehomecomer is the first Hmong American memoir to be published with national distribution, and it received many honors, including, most notably, a Minnesota Book Award. It was named as a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award for Nonfiction and was selected as a National Endowment of the Arts Big Read title.

When I ask about the weight and responsibility of carrying so many firsts on her shoulders—first Hmong memoir, first Hmong opera, first Minnesota Opera work entirely written and directed by women, to name a few—she acknowledges that she has spoken at times with a scared voice and a trembling heart but she hasn’t allowed her fears to keep her from telling the world what she wants it to hear.

The first Hmong opera

Last spring, Yang’s second memoir, The Song Poet, was brought to the Minnesota Opera as the first Hmong story adapted for the operatic stage. It tells Bee’s story, beginning when he met Yang’s mother during the Vietnam War, and follows him to the factories and housing projects of Minnesota, where new challenges and gifts awaited his family.

The process of bringing the memoir to the stage posed challenges. Yang was excited to see her book interpreted by a librettist, but when she received her copy, she found that another perspective had entered into the telling of her family history. This outsider’s point of view had changed the story’s emotional landscape, and the libretto did not speak to what was real in Yang’s heart.

She had to tell the opera they couldn’t use the libretto. Yang’s younger self might not have had the strength for this kind of difficult conversation, she reflects, and she was glad to be at a point in her career where she could stand up for her family and her art. The opera supported Yang’s decision to throw out the libretto. Then the question became: who would write the text now?

Yang was afraid to write it herself, but these new circumstances forced her to examine that fear. It was true that she did not sing or play a musical instrument, but she had learned other forms and genres. Her fear, she realized, arose from a lack of exposure to the inner workings of opera, but that could change. She returned to the Minnesota Opera with an offer: she would write the libretto if they would train her.

I saw The Song Poet the same night Yang’s family was in the audience and afterwards had the honor of meeting her father in the bustling lobby. Standing beside his daughter, he nodded with a gentle smile as she introduced each of her students. I asked Yang about her father’s experience of seeing the opera. She smiled, recounting his words. “‘We lived through it,’ he said, ‘and we lived through it again. And this time, it’s art.’”

A few months later, looking upon leafy rhubarb plants on Yang’s patio, I ask if she ever doubted that the opera would go on. She shares a story. When she was at Carleton, Yang took a calculus class with Professor Roger Kirchner ’58. He was a genius, she says, and the class was incredibly challenging. One by one, students dropped out until only four geniuses were left—plus Yang. She sat quietly in that classroom, trying to follow each lecture, doing her best. She laughs telling this story and remarks that, while it wasn’t good for her GPA, it did teach her about her own perseverance. Over the years, she has amazed herself with her ability to hold on to something and make it happen.

She has learned something new, and now she is a librettist. “There’s a whole entire world, and given more opportunities, you can flower there too. The same kind of flower can exist in all kinds of gardens.”

The Song Poet production
The Song Poet production
Photo by Cory Weaver

The gift of not knowing

There have been many opportunities that opened new worlds for Yang, and many people who helped her learn that she can flower anywhere. Yang’s first experience with opera came through Carleton TRIO, a student support services program that works with low-income and first-generation college students and students with disabilities. Yang remembers Dr. Rietta Turner, then-director of TRIO, taking a group of students to an Italian opera at the Ordway. Though she doesn’t recall much about that night’s performance—and confesses she fell asleep halfway through—Yang still remembers the incredible support she received from TRIO, where she later worked as a peer leader. “It’s the coolest little pod, like a tiny little fire that burns at Carleton.”

Turner became an important mentor. Yang turned to Turner for advice when she faced the prospect of leaving the Midwest and her family for Columbia. “One day you’re going to wake up and know exactly where you’re going to bed that night; you’re going to know what’s going to happen in the morning,” Turner once told Yang. “Now, you don’t know, and that’s such a gift. The not knowing is a gift.”

Yang still carries this advice with her today, and the unknown continues to bear gifts. This spring, Yang was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, becoming one of the first Hmong Americans to receive this award, alongside artist, friend, and fellow Minnesotan Pao Houa Her.

What’s next?

While at Carleton, Yang took a class with English professor Robert Tisdale. On one assignment, Tisdale left a comment in the margins: “You’re almost writing like a writer here.” It would be years before Yang began to think of writing as a potential career, but, in that moment, she felt seen. She has kept these words close, and after twenty years, three memoirs, five children’s books, and one opera, Yang still sometimes finds herself muttering them to herself when she’s working on a new manuscript.

Among Yang’s many current projects are a young adult memoir and a middle-grade book. She’s also finishing Where Rivers Part, a memoir about her mother, due out in March 2024. When I comment on how busy she is, she says she never lacks ideas, only time to realize them. She continues to challenge herself with new projects written for new audiences. She has a desire to keep growing as a writer and not leave any part of herself behind. “I’m halfway through my life journey,” she says, “but I don’t know how deep I am into my writing journey.”

What does she still hope to achieve? She wants the world to know how beautiful this journey has been, she says, and that there are many gifts that remain—not just for her, but for everybody else looking to believe and belong. “There is beauty and wisdom to be harvested,” she says.

About the Artist

Pao Houa Her came to the U.S. in the early 1980s. Born in Laos, she and her family passed through refugee camps in Thailand and Laos before relocating to Minnesota when she was three. Today a celebrated photographer, Her, like Kao Kalia Yang, has many firsts to her credit: first Hmong graduate of Yale’s photography MFA program, first Hmong person in the Whitney Biennial, first Hmong artist to have a solo show at the Walker Art Center, 2022’s Paj quam ntuj / Flowers of the Sky, to name a few. And in early 2023, Yang and Her shared another Hmong first: both were named Guggenheim Fellows.

Her’s cover portrait of Yang was taken at the Como Conservatory in St. Paul, a site of deep personal and artistic significance. When she was a child, her family visited regularly. “It’s the only place in the state of Minnesota that felt remotely close to home,” Her says. “My parents could identify plants from Southeast Asia. I distinctly remember the papaya tree, the banana tree, and how fascinated my mom was that banana trees could grow in this encased glass house.” It’s also the setting for 2017’s After the Fall of the Hmong Teb Chaw, Her’s series of portraits honoring elder Hmong women.

As with all of her work, the series has conceptual complexity: the women, longing for a Hmong homeland (or teb chaw) were swindled by a member of the Hmong community who promised, for a fee, a stake in a nonexistent plot of land in Laos. “By setting these portraits at Como, I wanted to both pay off Kao Kalia’s beautiful quote about gardens and reference the foliage of Laos, a place where, had history gone differently, we might both call home today.”

Posted In

Appears in Issues: