The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang (Coffee House Press, 2008) tells the story of one Hmong family and their experiences as refugees and immigrants to the United States. Only a handful of books have recounted the experience of the Hmong in America (I Begin My Life All Over from Beacon Press is one of the few others), and Yang's telling of her family's history sheds light on an entire community. The book recently received an Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. Beacon Broadside invited Yang to discuss why she wrote her book.
I'm the second oldest daughter of Chue Moua and Bee Yang, two Hmong refugees, surviving victims of the Secret War in Laos, 1960 to 1975. The war and its ramifications killed two thirds of the Hmong population in Laos. I was born in a refugee camp called Ban Vinai after my family crossed the Mekong River in 1980. When I wrote my memoir, The Latehomecomer, it was my best effort at making my history and our lives meaningful. I have been taught that by documenting our deaths we are documenting our lives, that the two cannot be separated.
When the book was first published in April of this year, my father said, "If Hmong tears can reincarnate then the world would rain in our sorrow. But they cannot, so they can only green the mountains of Phou Bia, but if your words on the page, carried by the winds of humanity, blow in the right direction: then the lives were not lost."
I've always believed in my father's words. If I cannot believe in the man who has tried, from the moment my ears can remember hearing, to teach me of a better, bigger world, a world worth belonging to, then I would not know where to turn or who to trust. So much of the book is dedicated to the people who have taught me faith and understanding, one of whom is my grandmother, Youa Lee.
It is hard for me now to think of how she belonged to the world. My grandmother, who smiled with just one tooth in a world full of bright teeth. My grandmother, who now sleeps somewhere in time, who visits me in small dreams that waver on the edges of my consciousness. She, who was so worried and scared of being forgotten. Whose memory lives inside of me and whose wisdom I treasure. I want to say, "Grandma, the world will remember you right along with me. You lived in such a way and a world: as there has ever been and will be long after."
When she was alive, I would say these things, truths that had dawned in her understanding long ago and far away, and she would listen and she would say, "Grandma knows, Me Naib."
Me Naib was her one endearment, and it meant, roughly, that love is not a cushion from life, but the board on which our hopes and dreams will dive into the world. It is a wish for us to be strong and a yearning for our happiness. It is gentle in her deep voice and it is rough in its reassurance of a world that is worth dying in to belong to.
The Latehomecomer is a long talk through time, a telling of the human story via the Hmong journey. It is the privilege and the opportunity afforded to a daughter of Hmong refugees in the United States of America in 2008. It is a realization that history, told or untold, made our lives what they are today, and an understanding that beauty can be salvaged from destruction if meaning is found and the fighting not lost.