As I scrambled into Second Moon Coffee Café, I immediately recognized the small and poised Kalia. The award-winning writer was hovering over a book next to a stash of colorful pens and of course, a cup of coffee she already downed. A local favorite in the literary community and a nationally acclaimed author of The Latehomecomer, I sat down for a chat with Kalia on her latest projects, community activism and what it means to be a Hmong woman writer.
As an ‘artivist’, Kalia drives social change the best way she knows how, through her craft of writing. “I write from a desperate urgency. Not from conviction. I feel like if I don’t write, I don’t have a sense of self.” With strength in her prose, Kalia speaks volumes as a writer in need of sharing, listening and constantly wondering. “On the page, I feel like I’m coming home.”
Let’s start off with what everyone’s talking about: the Radiolab debacle. Thousands of people have poured out in support of you. What was the feedback like? What has happened since then?
Since then, Dean Cappello, the CCO of WNYC contacted me to personally meet. I felt like it should be a community conversation. He hasn’t gotten back to me.
I got a lot of emails from strangers, so responding has been challenging. Many are compassionate but most aren’t actually questioning the truth of the matter. With Radiolab, I felt like I had to correct who “Hmong” is as a people. It meant a lot to my uncle and we felt discredited.
Uncle Eng is a very scholarly man and he’s humorous. He’s fascinated about human nature and the human heart. He’s very much an optimist and went into the interview with a lot of faith. We know and have sound research on both sides but Radiolab didn’t want to take the research. The people who lived it are still alive, but nobody is really interested in their experiences.
Beyond the audio recording of the Radiolab interview, what REALLY happened behind the mic?
Few knew the truth of what had transpired. It wasn’t just badgering a survivor of genocide. It was indeed using prejudicial research and editorial technology to consciously discredit the experiences of an entire people. It was media injustice and racial privilege at work.
The treatment of your Radiolab interview brought up the issue of media bullying. What would you see as media justice? How should we talk about it?
I’m hoping to have a conversation on issues of accountability. Are we responsible? Journalists need to work with the people they’re taking stories from. I wrote an op-ed for Hyphen Magazine. Smaller media like City Pages shared my story, but bigger media didn’t want to publish issues of ‘racism’ or stories of a ‘little’ minority population.
I think right now, anyone that is out to speak is a pioneer. We’re brothers and sisters, as AAPI voices are coming together. It’s the connection that we need to build. If you heard about a story, write about it.
You’re a writer and an activist. Is there one role you prefer over the other? Or do you believe that being a person of color and a writer, that it’s also part of who you have to be?
With the small populations like the Hmong and Lao, I see it as a responsibility of the work I do. It’s not just an artistic license. I want to write for the things that matter. It’s the issues that draw me.
You write with such a calm grip of the world around you. What’s your inspiration?
People and nature are my inspiration. I love stories. My father is a song poet, so it has trained my ear. All questions compel me. I write because of human beings, but the beauty comes from nature. I see images that I’m drawn to in nature. I see inspiration all the time and in everything. It excites and invigorates me. We’re not a culture dying, we’re transforming.
What are your hopes and dreams for Lao and Hmong writers?
My hope is that it becomes more diverse. That our voices are more representative. I dream of such a time. As a writer, I have to do it on the page. We have to act from different corners. For me, it’s the writing and speaking. I’m forced in my position to reckon for it. I’m not a writer for media justice, but it’s what I reckon with. We can’t shy away from these things.
Financially, we need a structure. Most writers do writing on the side as a sacrifice. I got two years at Columbia to write a full length book. I’ve been fortunate.
What would you say to a room full of aspiring and emerging writers?
Write a story you cannot live without. Write fiercely and fearlessly. There’s an outcome of limited resources. Doesn’t mean you should shy away from writing. Human experiences are unique. Trust it. When you write, you write to deepen an understanding. If you let that guide you, you’ll write from a place that you’re seeking understanding. Writers write too much about what they know and not what they should discover.
To the youth that are trying to balance life and writing, I’d say: live the life you always wanted. There’s no reason to wait for our dreams, live the life you dream.
So what is your dream project?
I have many dream projects. The ultimate dream would be: I want to say that one day I wrote 10 books. A writer isn’t a writer because of a book but because they’re a lifetime of a writer.
The Latehomecomer will be having its 5th year since publication. How has that journey been? What do you want to do now?
I was doing over 3,000 speaking engagements in one year [after The Latehomecomer published]. It was heavy. I’ve been so busy. I hope my audience grows. I’m lucky it’s being taught at so many institutions and claiming that space as an American writer. My voice is a structure of bone and blood. I’m first a woman before I am a writer. On the page, I can amplify myself and the place I’m situated. It’s a place where I don’t’ stand alone.
I want to do fiction. I want to do a documentary. I’m doing a second book. It’s poetry. Called Still, Flattering Heart. It’s organized like a track. My father doesn’t write. This album is an inspiration of the songs my father couldn’t sing.
Read up on Kalia and Uncle Eng’s Experience with Radiolab:
Kao Kalia Yang is a Minnesota writer and is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University. “The Latehomecomer,” published by Coffee House Press in 2008 when Yang was in her late twenties, is her first book. It’s about her family’s journey from Laos to Minnesota. It’s also the first memoir written by a Hmong-American to be published with national distribution. In 2009 The Latehomecomer won two Minnesota Book Awards—for memoir/creative nonfiction, and the Reader’s Choice Award. It was the first book to ever win two awards. And it’s the best-selling title in Coffee House Press history.