Author turns page on emotional story
By the time Kao Kalia Yang was done with her “conversation,” half the room had wiped away tears Thursday night.
The award-winning writer, this year’s Austin Page Turners Featured Author, had left people speechless and emotional as she described her childhood, her family and her everyday inspirations.
“It was incredible,” said Marianne Trom, a Riverland Community College student.
Yang toured Austin Thursday, talking about her book, “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.” After having lunch with Riverland students and staff (who entered a drawing to hear her speak), she spoke to Austin High School students, taking a brief break before coming to the Austin Public Library for the Page Turners’ 10th Anniversary celebration and her discussion.
Yang doesn’t call them discussions, however. She doesn’t prepare notes or speeches. Instead, she calls them “conversations.”
“I don’t see them as speeches,” she said. “Especially at Riverland we were just talking to each other.”
Yang was chosen as this year’s featured author because she was an emerging author with a lot of talent, according to Bonnie Rietz, Page Turners chair. As the Page Turners wanted to celebrate their first 10 years with an emerging author, to look ahead at the literary world, they felt Yang’s memoir, which won two Minnesota Book Awards in 2009, would be the best book to highlight.
“What an incredible evening,” Rietz said. “It always amazes me when you have someone like that. It’s amazing to have that talent.”
Yang’s discussion was the most emotional talk the Page Turners have put on, according to Rietz. Yang spoke about her grandmother, who couldn’t read, and who died in 2003 in America of old age, something no member of her family had done for quite some time.
Yang is Hmong-American, having been born at the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. Her family moved to St. Paul in 1986, 10 years after the first Hmong families started coming to America after the Hmong pledged to fight the Communist North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. The Hmong’s efforts are often referred to as the “Secret War,” as there aren’t many historical documents and texts that highlight Hmong efforts for the U.S.
Yang, who didn’t speak from grade school until she was a ninth-grader, told the audience how she would write letters to her grandmother in her diary, and continues to do so. Though her grandmother couldn’t read, Yang said she would press her pen deep, “so that (she) would write into the fabric of the paper.”
“Then my grandmother could feel the words and understand what I was saying,” Yang said.
While Yang doesn’t claim to be a poet, she spoke in a very poetic manner, something she learned from her father, who she said is a poet in the Hmong tradition.
“It was such a privilege to be able to hear her voice,” said Vennie White, Riverland instructor. White teaches Ethnic Literature, which has studied “The Latehomecomer” for the past month. White’s students presented on Hmong culture and tradition last week as a precursor to Yang’s visit.
“To read her book and pick up on what she’s been trying to tell us all along, that (growing up and dealing with loss is) a human experience, it was incredible,” Trom said. Trom is one of the students in White’s class, and got to have lunch with Yang Thursday, during which she was trying not to tear up from hearing Yang’s touching stories.
“It’s really amazing because it seems like everything we’ve studied has been reaffirmed,” Trom said.
Though the Page Turners will meet in a couple weeks to pick next year’s author (Rietz already has a list of names), Yang’s visit won’t soon be forgotten by those in attendance. A senior walked up to Yang after her talk, as she was finishing up signing books for the audience. He shook Yang’s hand and told her that her book was “unbelievably enjoyable.”
“I feel like I’m not going to forget this easily,” Yang said. “I feel very fortunate to have met so many truly caring people.”