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'This world runs on the shoulders of men like my father': Kao Kalia Yang's 'The Song Poet' honors father's struggle and gifts

An image of author Kao Kalia Yang as a child, holding hands with her father, Bee.
An image of author Kao Kalia Yang as a child, holding hands with her father, Bee.
Chue Moua

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Web Extra: Hear Kao Kalia Yang recite an excerpt from "The Song Poet"

Some of the best stories are right under your nose. In the case of author Kao Kalia Yang, she just had to look at her father, Bee.

He's a Hmong refugee who escaped war-torn Laos with his family after the Vietnam War. They moved to the U.S., like thousands of Hmong, who settled in hubs like Minnesota and Southern California.  

Through his struggles, he managed to find beauty in the world for himself and his family through the Hmong tradition of song poetry. Kalia's book, "The Latehomecomer," was her first award-winning memoir about her grandmother. Her latest book is titled, "The Song Poet: A Memoir of my Father."

Kalia joined Take Two's Josie Huang to share more about her father's life and talents.

Interview Highlights

How her father became a song poet:

"I asked my father the same question. I said to him, 'How did you become a song poet?' And my father said to me that when he was a boy, there were very few people to say beautiful things to him. His father died when he was just 2 years old, and it was my grandmother and nine children. So she took to the gardens and the hilltops to feed them. My father was a lonely boy, so he used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next, collecting the things that people had to say to each other. By himself, he would whisper the words. One day, they escaped on a sigh, and a song was born. I had thought it was beautiful, so I said to my dad, 'That could be the beginning of my next book,' and he laughed. He said, 'Nobody wants to read a book about a man like me, when you could read books about men like Barack Obama written by themselves.' But I know that most of the world is made up of men like my father, and so I sought to document his form, and his life."  

How Bee stopped singing — and how Kalia got him to start up again:

"My father's always said that it was in his heart where his songs were. When my grandma died, he said there was a hole in his heart, and all of the songs leaked out. So overnight, he stopped singing... My father had this ongoing ear infection, and a doctor said that he could get rid of the infection if he drilled into my father's ear. So he did, but the drill was so loud that it destroyed my father's hearing... It took a while for it to sink in. At first I thought he would come back to it, he would return. And I asked him one day, I said, 'Dad, where have your songs gone?' He thought about it for a long time. He went to work, and then he came back, and he said, 'If you cover the camera, if you turn on the audio recording, I'll sing a song for you guys.' And that song was like five minutes. He said it would be his last song. But two years ago I helped him with a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and he got a grant to do an album of song poetry. I wanted to force him back into his music. And it worked."

Why we don't see many women writing books about their dads:

"I don't know how to speak for other people. I know that in the Hmong culture, there's a stereotype that Hmong men aren't very present for their daughters. But that's never been the case with me. As a little girl in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, he used to take me to the tops of the trees because we couldn't leave the 400 acres that we were on. And he'd tell me that the size of my hands and my feet were not going to dictate my life journey; that, one day, I would walk on the horizons my father has never seen. My father used to tell me that I was not a child of war, poverty, or despair, but that I was hope being born. I think to any outsider, I was one of thousands of refugee children waiting in the dust, but to my father, I was always the captain to a more beautiful future, the happy ending that he's been waiting for. I want the world to know that my father, too, is not just a refugee of war, or a machinist in the factories of Minnesota, that he has opened up the future. You know, push aside the limits and impress upon me my great possibilities, and that it is men like him who give birth to daughters like me that this country. Yes, there are the great Obamas of the world — this country and this world runs on the shoulders, and the hands, and the feet of men like my father."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.