Austin ready for Hmong author

Published 9:59 am Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jim Burroughs samples Hmong food during a reception Wednesday night on Hmong culture put on by the Ethnic Literature class at Riverland Community College. The night was put on ahead of the Austin Page Turners event feature author Kao Kalia Yang. -- Eric Johnson/

Kao Kalia Yang may be a storyteller at heart, but she is a busy author these days. She’s finishing a teaching engagement at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, is in the midst of a season of speaking engagements and helps run Words Wanted, a Minnesota-based translation agency she started with her sister in 2005.

She’s finding time to come down to Austin next week, as Yang is the Austin Page Turners 2011 featured author for her first book, “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.”

Kao Kalia Yang

“There was an inquiry last year, but this trip was a long time in the coming,” said Yang. Yang, a Hmong-American, was born in 1980 in a refugee camp in Thailand where she lived until she moved with her family to the U.S. at age 6. While in school, she grew to love the written word, as her father, a one-time farmer, is a Hmong poet.

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“When it’s springtime, he doesn’t say that spring is here,” she said. “It’s not ‘The spring is coming,’ it’s ‘Look out, the winter flowers are dying.’”

She graduated from Carleton College in Northfield with a degree in American Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies and Cross-Cultural Studies, as well as dabbling in a pre-med track. She eventually earned a Master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University and has taught at colleges around the country.

People enjoy a sampling of Hmong food durng a reception Wednesday night put on by the Ethnic Literature class at Riverland Community College ahead of the Austin Page Turners event featuring author Kao Kalia Yang. Eric Johnson/

Yang seriously considered writing a book in 2003, around the time her grandmother died. Having come from Thailand and living through the Vietnam War, Yang’s grandmother was the first of her family in a long time to die of old age, and the first family member to be buried in America.

“My grandma was dying, and it occurred to me that if I didn’t write my story and her story down, it really might disappear,” she said. “So I felt like celebrating her life with a long love letter. I wanted the world to remember her along with me, and in the process I became a writer.”

Her memoir, “The Latehomecomer,” was released in 2008 to critical accolades, as well as the acclaim of Hmong communities across the U.S. “The Latehomecomer,” won two Minnesota Book Awards in 2009, for memoir/creative nonfiction as well as the Reader’s Choice Award, the first time a book has won two categories in the same year.

Although she talks about herself and events around her with a historian’s point of view, she considers herself more of an artist and a storyteller. She prefers not to be bound by a historian’s rules, although her book delved into a lot of the history of the Hmong people’s Secret War against Vietnamese Communists in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, she tells her story and the stories of the people she meets without the exacting detail a historian requires.

“A storyteller finds his or her reality embedded in the lives that they’re surrounded by, that they live in,” Yang said.

That’s not to say she isn’t an artist who “like a kite in the sky, float(s) on the winds of life.”

Yang will be touring Austin, talking to students throughout the day Thursday, April 28, which will end with a discussion of her book at Austin Public Library starting at 7 p.m.

It won’t be long before Yang begins work on another book, however. Ever since she started giving lectures about her first book, she’s been craving to work on another story of her own.

“I’ve been collecting seeds for the last three years, and I want an opportunity to plant them, to reap the harvest,” she said.