Kao Kalia Yang

Uploaded by MNoriginal on 11.05.2010

"For my Grandmother Youa Lee, who never learned how to write,
to my baby brother Maxwell Hwm Yang, who will read the things
that she never wrote."
My name is Kao Kalia Yang. and I'm a writer
from the Hmong community, but I'm also discovering I'm
very much a Minnesotan author,
and perhaps I'm even-- I know I am-- an American writer,
and I'm contributing to world literature. "Before babies are born,
they live in the sky
where they fly among the clouds. The sky is a happy place and
calling babies down to earth
is not an easy thing to do. From the sky, babies can see
the chorus of human lives.
This is what the Hmong children of my generation are told by our mothers
and fathers, by our grandmothers
and grandfathers. They teach us that we have
chosen our lives, that the people who we'll become
we had inside of us from the beginning, and the people
whose worlds we share, whose memories we hold strong
inside of us, we have always known.
From the sky, I would come again."
The book begins in 1875,
when the last Air America planes
leave the country with a declaration of genocide
against the Hmong
only the Hmong didn't know it. And I wasn't born yet,
but it is a memoir. And memoirs are not only
the memories we hold, but they are the memories passed
down to us, and they exist
within the frameworks of a bigger world memory. So that's when it begins.
Lots of research, lots of going back to the stories
that were told to me, not because I was
writing a book, but because everybody
wanted to explain why my life was the way it was,
why Thanksgiving
was Meals on Wheels, and why Christmas was
Toys for Tots. And so, I had heard
all these stories,
and it would be inaccurate of me
to allow the story to begin the day I was born.
"The world
that they were living in could no longer hold them safe.
It was 1975 and the Vietnam War
as the world knew it was over.
For the Hmong of Laos,
or those who still lived in the mountains of Sinh Quan,
for my mother and father,
the American shield
had been lifted. The Communist government
that came to power in May..."
"The Hmong knew that the Americans had left.
One day there were American pilots landing planes on the airstrip,
tall men with fair skin
walking around the village, laughing and buying
local food items, giving candy
to the small children. And then one day,
the planes flew away into the fog of the clouds,
passed over the dark green mountaintops
and did not return. At first they waited.
When the murders started and the last of the men
and the boys began disappearing, the Hmong knew that the only thing coming
for them was death."
My grandma promised me she'd never die, 'cause I was born
in a refugee camp, 400 acres,
less than a square mile in radius with 40 to 50,000 people.
By the time I came along, Grandma was already an old woman
with just a single tooth. And she had seen so many
grow up and so many change
and so many fall down again, that she was just happy
for this young life to love.
Because the Hmong knew
to what is written. It was with our words we sought
to write and to each other. So I heard so much beautiful
language, so many stories.
Walking beneath
the trees in the compound, my father would say, "Like the sun is
dancing on your skin
because it loves you." When the puppies
can't open their eyes," he said, "It is because
your world is so bright."
My father used to carry me
to the tops of the trees and he'd hold my hand
and he'd say, "The size of your hand
and your feet will not dictate
your life journey. One day your feet will
walk on the horizons your father has never seen."
And he never lied to me, so I believed him. But we came to America; I was
6 years old, July 27, 1987
we landed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, and we drove to the McDonough
Housing Project, but we drove through
downtown St. Paul. And it was a highway
of dancing lights to St. Paul, and then lights extending
beyond, and I thought, in a world
like this, you can follow the
lights and you'll never get lost.
But I got lost in America, 'cause we lived
in the east side of St. Paul,
in a 900-square feet home, with rotting walls,
growing wild with mold.
Everybody was always sick. Taylor, my baby sister, has
astronomical levels of lead. She couldn't tell the difference
between a 3, an S, or a 5.
And one day I came home, and I'd
never been to a movie theater,
so I told my mom and my dad, I looked at my father in the eye,
and I told him I hadn't chosen
this life, that I didn't want it this way,
that I didn't want to belong in a world where a kid has to imagine the insides
of a movie theater to be normal. And my father said
he would choose me all over again if he could.
And that a long time ago I saw
him and my mother walking with those shoes and
they chose to come down to them.
My father said that life would teach me how strong the human heart is,
not how weak or how fragile.
So I tried again; I tried harder. And I became a senior
at Carlton College, and my grandma said
that education was the garden
that I cultivated in America and that one day we would reap
the harvest together. But she falls down;
my senior year she falls down. And I go to her and I say,
"Get up Grandma, get up."
And she goes, "I can't get up." She says, "There were people
who loved me before you. Long before you, I had a mom and
a dad and brothers and sisters, and somewhere in time,
they're waiting for me. It would be
selfish of you to hold me back, 'cause when you look at the map,
there is no Hmong land.
I'm going to climb the mountain
of my heart to the house of my youth
and everybody will say, where have
you been, we've been so worried? Why are you
so late in coming home." "I entered Uncle Eng's house
and wiped my feet on the rug,
looked up and saw my grandmother in a hospital bed
beside their east wall. She looked like
she was sleeping. I took off my shoes and I
approached the bed slowly. Aunt Chue was sitting by
the side of the bed on a chair.
A few relatives were on the sofa by the window talking quietly.
When I saw that Grandma
was not sleeping but struggling for breath,
her hair matted with sweat,
her lips opening and closing in desperation, her one tooth showing,
the image became blurry. I got as close
as I could to her.
I felt the bed rail against my thigh. I put my head on her chest.
I said, 'Grandma, I am here.'
I said, 'Grandma, are you okay?'
I said, 'Grandma, I love you.' I said, 'Grandma, don't leave me.'
I said, 'Grandma, Kalia is here.' I said, 'Grandma, are you okay?'
I said, 'Grandma, I am here.'
I said the same things over and over and my heart was heavy
in my chest, and every breath became harder.
I made a lot of noise. She raised a tired hand
to my head and she said, 'Grandma knows.'
I said, 'I love you Grandma.' And she said, 'Don't cry,
me naib, Grandma knows.' She tried to say more things
to me and I tried not to cry,
but neither of us
could do what we wanted. In all the languages
of the earth, in all the richness of words,
there is no word, no comparison, no equivalent
for my grandmother trying to be strong for me.
her one me naib. In moments of danger, Hmong
people do one of two things;
we flee or we fight,
and it occurred to me,
no-- there's
a moment in-between. And sometimes that moment
stretches for years. And I understand that all of art
speaks to each other,
all of literature is in the conversation, and so I wanted to speak to that
moment of fleeing and fighting,
the moment in-between, the moment that lives like mine come from.
And so it becomes a story about
a young writer in America,
on the east side of St. Paul, trying to garner a voice,
in a world where she comes silent. Because when I was 7
we went to K-Mart, and my mom was looking
for light bulbs and she pointed
to the ceiling, she says, "I'm looking for the thing
that makes the world shiny." But she has an accent, so the
clerk doesn't really understand,
and the clerk walks away. And because Laos
is the most heavily bombed nation in the world,
and my mom and dad grew up
in the most heavily bombed province of Laos, because my father said
that when the bombs fell
and grown men ran, my mother would walk, I'd always thought she was
incredibly brave. But in that K-Mart,
she didn't know where to look, so she looked at her feet;
she couldn't look at me.
And I decided that if the world didn't need to hear my mother
and my father then surely it didn't need to hear me, so
I stopped talking the next day.
I've only been speaking for almost 2 years.
The publication of the book, April of 2008.
I was a selective mute for most of my life.
I never thought that I would make my living
'cause young writers are not paid to write,
we're paid to speak if we're any good,
that I would make my life in words spoken.
But I do it, I do it because I know so many people
who cannot speak, even when the words are there,
like my father,
who will not be listened to. So I feel that I have
a great deal of responsibility
and a great deal of work to do. For me writing is not about the
subject, the verb, and the noun.
It is a sequencing of meaning,
a chase after inspiration to see whether one word has
the power to call in the next. Plus, the word that we do in
the moment lives in the moment.
No matter what happens tomorrow,
the work I do today stands. �