#FlashbackFriday: A Conversation with NEA Big Read Author Kao Kalia Yang

By Josephine Reed
author photo of Kao Kalia Yang

Photo by Shee Yang

Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir is the first published memoir by a Hmong-American writer. Hmongs are an ethnic Asian group with a rich culture and roots in China and Laos. The Hmong’s history is little known in the West, although it’s been deeply entwined with the United States for the past half-century. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. recruited some 30,000 Hmong people in Laos to fight against forces from North Vietnam and the Lao Communist insurgents. This became known as the Secret War. It was a disaster for the Hmongs: One third died in the war. And after the Americans left in 1975, another third were systematically slaughtered. Thousands of Hmong refugees fled to Thailand seeking political asylum where they remained in refugee camps for years. The lucky ones were allowed to emigrate to the West—among them, the Yang clan.

Yang tells this story in The Latehomecomer, which is a deeply personal memoir, the story of a family, and the larger story of the Hmong people. The Latehomecomer also gives great insight into the day-to-day uncertainties of refugees, both in the camps of Thailand and then in the United States. And as we’re reminded by the nightly news, this is a story we continue to see played out with different peoples throughout the world. In telling her own story,Yang has found that she actually speaks for many.

In this excerpt from our conversation with Yang for an episode of the Art Works podcast, she talks about the origins of her memoir:

“When I first started writing The Latehomecomer, it began as a love letter to my grandma….And so this long love letter is what I kept on working on, and my dad said, "What are you doing?" one day, and I said, "I'm writing a long love letter to my grandma." And he said, "If you dream in the right direction, the dream never dies. You never wake up. It always only grows bigger." So it was important for me to write the book to tell the world that a woman who never learned how to read or write had lived, and that she not only lived, she'd walked through history and left all of us behind to miss her. So that was my intention, very personal, very private.”

Listen to the entire episode here. And don't forget to visit the NEA Big Read library to learn more about The Latehomecomer and the other books in the Big Read collection.