Writing Minnesota

Kao Kalia Yang: "I grew on the page."

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Kao Kalia Yang is a Minnesota writer with a story that stretches across the globe. The daughter of Hmong immigrants to Minnesota, Yang was born in a Thai refugee camp, Ban Vinai, in 1980. Her family came to Minnesota when she was seven. In her book, "The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir," Yang recounts her family's journey from Laos to Minnesota — from her parents' first encounter and unceremonious marriage in the jungles of Laos, to their harrowing escape into Thailand, and subsequent relocation to Minnesota. In "The Latehomecomer," Yang struggles to feel a sense of home — new to Minnesota, and cultural heir to centuries of homelessness.

Kao Kalia Yang
Photo: Stephanie Colgan

Yang says her interest in writing arose from her struggle with speaking English. She recounts a childhood experience of shopping with her mother at K-Mart, looking for light bulbs. "She was looking for the thing that made the world shiny," Yang recalled, "The clerk walked away and my mother stood there looking at her feet. I decided if the world didn't need to hear my mom and dad, then surely it didn't need to hear me. So I stopped talking the next day."

Yang became a selective mute, choosing to refrain from speaking in public, and mostly whispering when she had to. "Time passed," she said, "and the words got rusty. When I tried to speak, kids laughed. So I stopped completely. But I was a kid and the words had to go somewhere. So they went onto the page. ... On the page, I got more tries, so my voice grew strong, and it grew natural."

Yang self-identifies as a Minnesota writer, and feels that the literary community in Minnesota—despite its struggle to categorize Yang—has been mostly supportive of her work. "I was a writer from the Hmong community, but after the Minnesota Book Awards, people were saying, ‘This is Kao Kalia Yang, the Minnesota author, award-winning. ... It was an overnight transformation in the way it was received."

Kao Kalia Yang is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University. She is currently a professor in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "The Latehomecomer," published by Coffee House Press in 2008 when Yang was in her late twenties, is her first book. It's also the first memoir written by a Hmong-American to be published with national distribution. In 2009 The Latehomecomer won two Minnesota Book Awards—for memoir/creative nonfiction, and the Reader's Choice Award. It was the first book to ever win two awards. And it's the best-selling title in Coffee House Press history.