Giving voice to Hmong art and experiences

In a presentation and reading of her most recent publication, Kao Kalia Yang offered a glimpse into the life of her father

More stories from Hillary Smith


Photo by Submitted

Yang was joined by her father, the subject of “A Song Poet,” for a public reading of her book. He sang a piece of song poetry for the audience before she read from her book.

The Davies Center at UW-Eau Claire is often filled with the clamor of students sharing meals and conversation; on Monday night, however, a new sound swept through Davies. The sound of “kwv tixhiaj hmoob” (Hmong song poetry).

It is a traditional Hmong art comparable to American blues — a way of sharing and documenting human experiences and stories of life — and is most prevalent in Laos and Thailand.

Kao Kalia Yang read excerpts from her book “A Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father” to a crowd about 60 people at 6 p.m. on April 4 in the Davies Center. She was joined by her father, who performed song poetry about his and his late wife’s experience of growing up during a time of war and immigrating from Laos to the United States. He highlighted their love and commitment to each other through the hardships they faced.

Kao Kalia said her father sang every day when she was young, but when his mother passed in 2003, he stopped singing. He said his heart had a break in it and the songs leaked out. It was for that reason Kao Kalia began writing her book in an effort to call his songs out again.

“You have no idea how much it means to me to be here for all of you with my father, and that he just sang,” Kao Kalia said. “This is the second time ever in my life. And I don’t think I will ever forget it.”

Preceding “A Song Poet” was the publication of Kao Kalia’s book “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” which offers perspective into Hmong people’s experiences.

Additionally, Kao Kalia worked with her father, Bee Yang, to create an album of songs composed and sung by him, supplemented with album notes and an English translation of one of his songs, by Kao Kalia.

Her book recounts her father’s experiences as a Laos refugee, driven from his home by America’s Secret War to become a refugee in Minnesota. Kao Kalia said for a long time, she thought of him as a machinist. His work in a factory to provide for his family was a highly defining characteristic.

It was with maturity, she said, that she realized she and her siblings were benefactors of his art of song poetry, which was the art he gave up to give them the best lives he could.

“My father taught me you do not have to be a powerful man to have lived a powerful life,” Kao Kalia said.

Though her father hardly writes, she said she could not have become an author without him.

“For much of my life in this country I’ve described my father as nothing more than a machinist,” Kao Kalia said. “Maybe it was my own necessary maturity as a writer to understand that the first artistic influence in my life, the first literary influence in my life, was my father, a man who I’ve only seen write once or twice.”

Kao Kalia said she does not know of anyone better positioned to begin tapping into the heart of her father’s poetry. Though she is a trained interpreter and has been translating between Hmong and English for years, there are still concepts that get lost in translation. The English language is limited and can’t fully express the depth of Hmong song poetry.

“Translating my father’s poetry is impossible,” Kao Kalia said. “I cannot do justice to it. There are Hmong words and Hmong motions that have no translations in English.”

Kao Kalia said her father understands far more English than he lets on; speaking it is dissatisfying to him because he knows the poetry is lost in translation. Despite the linguistic obstacles, Kao Kalia’s book shares not only the love story of a daughter for her father, but of the deep connections between people, traditions and land.

Kao Kalia’s book holds perspectives and experiences most people can relate to on some level. But for one Eau Claire student, “The Song Poet” connects on a deeply personal level.

La Moua, or “Lag Muas” in Hmong, said experiences of her and her family run parallel to those of Kao Kalia and her family. Her father lost his father at a young age, similar to Kao Kalia’s father. In Hmong culture, losing one’s father makes them an orphan whether or not the mother is still alive, so the two men share the experience of orphanhood.

Moua, who is a third-year psychology student, said her parents were also born in Ban Vinai, a refugee camp in Thailand, and came to the U.S. like Kao Kalia. She said she appreciated being able to learn more about song poetry and the connectedness she felt in recognizing the similar experiences she shared with Kao Kalia.

“When I heard she wrote a book about her father, I was thinking I could do the same thing with my father,” Moua said. “He’s done so much … hearing the things my father says is very impactful so I want to write it all down, too.”

Kao Kalia said writing can be difficult to undertake, but she finds the most success when she does not edit herself and lets herself fall into a trance.

Kao Kalia said she is currently working on a story for a younger audience about rape, specifically against women. She also recently submitted a proposal for a book that shares a collection of refugee experiences and stories.