I find it particularly interesting to read this memoir/family history of Hmong immigration to the U.S. at this particular time in history—where it’s all too easy for some to forget why many immigrants come to the United States and how we’re implicated in their needing to flee their homelands in the first place. In this beautifully written book, Kao Kalia Yang tells the story of her family’s journey from Laos to refugee camps in Thailand and finally to Minnesota. Though Yang was born in the refugee camp, her narrative begins with her parents meeting and marriage and the circumstances that force them to flee Laos to save their lives.
In this book, it is impossible to separate Yang’s story from the story of her family and from the story of the Hmong and that seems fitting. A powerful figure in Yang’s life is her grandmother, Youa Lee, who is a healer and who fights to keep her children and grandchildren together but also is the source of many stories that shape Yang’s childhood. In some ways, this is an immigrant story that connects to so many other immigrant stories I’ve read (both published and in my students’ essays) but in other ways, this book speaks specifically and uniquely to the Hmong experience.
Yang’s father tells her:
It is very important that you tell this part of the story: the Hmong came to America without a homeland. Even in the very beginning, we knew that we were looking for a home. Other people, in moments of sadness and despair, can look to a place in the world: where they might belong. We are not like that. I knew that our chance was here. Our chance to share in a new place and a new home. This is so important to our story. You must think about it, and tell it the way it is. (273).
Kao Kalia Yang works hard to “tell it the way it is” and the result is a book that made my heart hurt, fascinated me, and made me angry and hopeful at the same time. It also connected with me in other more personal ways. Yang attended Carleton College (as did I) and though her time there doesn’t feature much in the book, she thanks two of my favorite professors in the acknowledgements. Also, though I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time, the reason I finally picked it up was because this was the “book club read” for my college reunion a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately, I missed attending a session where she came to talk about the book and now I’m regretting it even more.
If your only knowledge about the Hmong in the U.S. comes from Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, this is a great book to give you a more complex and nuanced understanding. Run, don’t walk to your nearest independent bookstore.