We Are Proud to Present this year’s Reads Committee Selection for the Fox Cities Community Read!
Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand and moved when she was six with her family to St. Paul, Minnesota, home to the largest concentration of Hmong in the country. They began their life in the U.S. living on welfare in public housing until her parents took on multiple jobs to feed their family. To fill her time, especially during the long winters and because she couldn’t afford to attend movies or concerts, Yang would read. While she loved books like the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Yang recalls asking the librarian for books about people like her. “She gave me a book about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Vietnamese, but she couldn’t give me a book about Hmong kids.” That was one of her first callings to write, which was easier for her than speaking English.
Yang is a natural storyteller having grown up listening to tales in Thailand, where her family painted a world beyond the walls of the refugee camp and told stories of mythical tigers and real ghosts. Yang was a pre-med student at Carleton College before she started writing what would later become her first book, The Latehomecomer (Coffee House Press, 2008). “My mom and dad taught us that we needed doctors and lawyers,” she said. “Lawyers can protect the rights that we’ve never had enough of; doctors can heal what is broken in the bodies around us.”
Her sister told her she’d become a lawyer, so Yang went the route of becoming a doctor until her grandmother passed away and she pursued her dream of writing. On the day she buried her grandmother, Yang says, she got news that she had been accepted into Columbia University’s MFA creative writing program.
Since the publication of her first memoir, Yang has been an avid public speaker on such topics as literacy and education; race, class, and gender; and the refugee and immigrant experiences. She has made a deep impact on the lives of, among others, Hmong readers and American Vietnam war veterans who have come to her readings. She co-founded with her sister Words Wanted, a company dedicated to helping immigrants in the Twin Cities with writing, translating, and business services. Yang lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and their three children, and her younger sister and brother. She depends on the love and support of her extended family. “All of them make me feel more human, more connected, more than just alone in the world” (Coffee House Press).
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir is the first memoir written by a Hmong-American to be published with national distribution. Driven to tell her family’s story—and the story of the Hmong people—Yang wrote it as a “love letter” to her grandmother whose spirit held her family together through their imprisonment in Laos, their harrowing escape across the Mekong River and into a refugee camp in Thailand, their immigration to Minnesota when Yang was only six years old, and their transition to a hard life in America. “Yang has performed an important service in bringing readers the stories of a people whose history has been shamefully neglected,” writes Kirkus.
Winner of a PEN USA Literary Award for Nonfiction and Minnesota’s Book Award and Readers Choice Award, The Latehomecomer takes its name from a short story by Canadian writer Mavis Gallant and references Jews who returned home from internment hoping to find homes that no longer exist.
1.) The prologue to The Latehomecomer offers a glimpse of what it means to Yang to be Hmong, in many ways summarizing the story about to unfold. Why do you think Yang begins this way? Why do you think she wrote the prologue in third person when the rest of the memoir is written in first person?
2.) Part one begins with a description of “the biggest covert operation in CIA history” (p. 7) known as “The Secret War” and its devastating aftermath in 1975. Were you familiar with the involvement of the Hmong people in the Vietnam War before you read the book? In what ways can a memoir go beyond mere documentation to expand our understanding of a chapter of American history?
3.) How does Yang describe her parents when they meet, and in what ways do they change throughout the book? Is their story a love story? How does Yang talk about love?
4.) When the Yang family crosses the Mekong River, they’re forced to leave their family photos behind. What belongings carry meaning in The Latehomecomer? What objects would you hope to hang onto through such a journey?
5.) In what ways is storytelling important to Yang and in Hmong culture? What can be lost when a story best known in the oral tradition is written down? How does Yang navigate this transition?
6.) “I used to ask all the adults in my life where home was because they kept telling me that Ban Vinai Camp wasn’t my home,” Yang told the NEA. What are some of the ways the Hmong establish a sense of home without a written language and “home” country? How do you define “home”?
7.) What surprised you about Yang’s experiences living in a refugee camp?
8.) Yang describes the strong bond she feels with her siblings, her parents, her grandmother, and the rest of her extended family. How do these bonds define, support, and/or challenge her? How do the familial bonds in your life define, support, and/or challenge you?
9.) Of the many reasons Yang’s grandmother provides for not wanting to leave the refugee camp and relocate to America (pgs. 78-80), which one most resonates with you? What do you think she is most afraid of?
10.) What did Yang and her family have to learn about America in order to emigrate? What do you think it would be helpful for newcomers like Yang and her family to know before they arrive?
11.) Tens of thousands of Hmong refugees moved to California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in the 1980s and 90s. How does Yang describe the ways her family was treated? What measures do they take to both fit in and stay invisible?
12.) “The only way to live in America was to learn of its possibilities, and the way to do that was school,” Yang writes, paraphrasing her father’s attitude (p. 139). What was the transition to school like for her and her sister, Dawb?
13.) The conditions in the camps were “hard for those who knew more than I did,” writes Yang, “but for me, the hardness in life began in America” (p. 151). Why? How does she regain her “voice,” as represented in both her native language and in English?
14.) The memoir’s last section is devoted to descriptions of her grandmother and how the importance of honoring one’s elders in Hmong culture. How does this compare to the ways elders are honored in other cultures?
15.) The book ends with sentiments of hope and determination directed at her family and her “Hmong brothers and sisters.” How are her “dreams” for them similar to or different from what you think of as the collective “American dream”?
Questions from arts.gov/national-initiatives/nea-big-read/latehomecomer