For a writer, writing about your parents can be one of the hardest and most rewarding things to do. You may come to understand someone who is part of your life in a way that you have not been able to before. For Kao Kalia Yang, who writes about her father in The Song Poet, it is a way to understand his art in a way she has not before.
The title comes from the songs her father sang, “songs of love, of yearning, of losing home and country” as a Hmong refugee of Laos. In Yang’s The Late Homecomer she wrote of what it meant to be Hmong first as a refugee in Ban Vinae Refugee camp in Thailand and then after moving to Minnesota.
The Song Poet focuses more on her father, and is also a touching tribute to what it means to speak what so many cannot understand.
Hearing His Songs in a New Way
Yang hears her father perform his song poetry at a Hmong New Year celebration in front of a crowd. When her father is called to the stage for a traditional kwv txhiaj, or song poetry performance, she is not sure at first that it is her father they are calling.
He shyly comes forward and begins to sing about the war and the land they have left. People begin to weep and she, no longer a young girl, understands the pain and suffering of all the Hmong people.
Following that performance, her father and mother record songs and sell them at Hmong grocery stores. But when his mother died in 2003, her father forgot all his songs. Though Yang says she can never writer her father’s second album, she writes this book as a way to tell her father’s story.
The book is divided between her father Bee Yang’s stories and his daughter’s telling of them. Bee Yang tells of living and growing up in Laos with his mother, brothers, sisters and their families, and of losing his father when he was a young boy.
He describes American, North Vietnamese, and Hmong soldiers entering their village and of bombs falling from the sky. Eventually, the family is forced to leave the country, crossing into Thailand in 1979 and registering as refugees of war. They would live there for eight years until coming to the United States as refugees of America’s secret war.
Separated by Language
What stands out in the sections by Yang’s father is a section on language. He describes how difficult it is to live in a world where another language is spoken. He says when he speaks English, he cannot control the direction of his words. He says he is “like a leaf in the wind”, unable to “control the direction my words will fly.”
This is very different from how he speaks in his own native language and how he sings his song poetry. At the factory where he works, he works with other Hmong workers and they share camaraderie, but are still separated and discriminated against by their supervisors who do not understand or value them.
On a later trip first to Thailand, when he is not allowed to re-enter Laos, Bee Yang speaks of making small talk with a cab driver on the way to their hotel and he has not been able to have that type of conversation with anyone in America.
The book shows how her father struggles to give his family love and care in a land that has taken them in, but has not always valued their traditions and differences.
This video shows Bee Yang and Kao Kalia Yang discussing song poetry.
Originally published at https://catherinelanser.com on March 28, 2020.