By Joe Nathan – Guest Columnist
I wish every daughter adored and admired her father as much as Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang.
Her new book, “The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father,” is, in brief, one of the most moving, disturbing and, ultimately, hopeful books I’ve ever read. As with previous generations of immigrants, there is so much to learn from and honor about what Hmong in general, and this family in particular, have experienced and bring to Minnesota.
This is Yang’s second book. Her first book, “The Latehomecomer,” was about her grandmother. It won both statewide and national recognition.
“Song Poet” begins with people at a Hmong New Year celebration in St. Paul asking her father, Bee Yang, to share one of his song poems. These are something like a Hmong version of blues music and poetry.
Kao Kalia Yang had not realized how eloquent her father was. People asked him to make a recording, which he did. But the few thousand dollars that was generated from sales didn’t go to help make a second recording, though many requested it. Instead, that money went toward food and clothing for the family.
After this brief introduction, Yang uses her father’s words to describe his birth and difficult early years in Laos: “Work was endless, … time was scarce and life was hard.” The book then turns to Bee Yang’s horrifying experiences during the Vietnam War and heartrending life in Thai refugee camps. He calls that era a time “of fear and shame.”
Then Yang describes, through her father’s eyes and words, the family’s move to and life in Minnesota. In a classic summary of how many first-generation refugees see themselves, her father says, “I tell my children that my work in America is not important, but I work hard so that one day their work will be.”
The struggles didn’t end when her family arrived in Minnesota. Her mother and father found difficult, low-paying jobs in factories (in, among other places, Brooklyn Center) where supervisors seemed to ignore extremely unhealthy working conditions. If there were one thing I wish Yang had included, it would be the names of the companies that treated her parents, and others, badly.
On moving to Andover, the family’s home was vandalized and one of their sons encountered continued bullying in high school. The book explores how different family members reacted to these challenges.
Yang explained that she has written this book because she wants “my father to understand that aside and apart from my mother and his children, he has offered the world a gift all his own.”
At one point her father, a modest man, wondered whether anyone would read about him, when there are so many famous people to study. I hope that thousands will read about him.
This book made me think of Dr. Seuss’ wonderful “On Beyond Zebra,” which suggests possible new letters for the alphabet, past Z. My only frustration in writing about “Song Poet” is finding words beyond those I know to accurately show its beauty, passion and power.
Yang believes her father’s experience and his words illustrate “the beauty of endless hope.” I agree.
“Song Poet” deserves many readers and much discussion. Families can read it together. I think “Song Poet” will be read and praised for generations.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]