HomeHmong American1st Hmong American novelist brings refugees together

1st Hmong American novelist brings refugees together

Photo by Fresno Unified via Flickr Creative Commons

Award-winning Hmong American author Kao Kalia Yang released her newest book Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir on November 10th, The Minnesota Daily reports.

In her work, the St. Paul-based writer shares the stories of 14 local refugees. Coming from around the globe, they have all — like Yang, a Hmong refugee herself — settled in Minnesota.

“[Yang’s book] helps us understand what it’s like to flee for your lives, fearing persecution and forced to come to a new country [to] start all over,” Erika Lee, director of University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center, told The Minnesota Daily. “But there are also stories of young people, people in love and people who are going through the same stages of young adulthood that everyone goes through,” she said.

Yang shared with Sahan Journal that she began writing the book four years ago. Interviewing each person one-on-one and writing details of what she was told by hand, Yang started with her aging uncle. A Hmong ex-soldier trained by the CIA, he “didn’t want to die without telling the truth about his experience during the war” that eventually forced him to leave his homeland.

Other refugee stories from Somewhere in the Unknown World come directly from Yang’s surrounding St. Paul community. A Liberian refugee who works at the hospital where Yang’s children were born, a Karen refugee who is a parent at Yang’s children’s school, and a Minsk refugee who performs in the local band agreed to let Yang write and share their stories as well.

According to Sahan Journal, Yang told these stories not because her subjects aren’t able to speak for themselves. Instead, she “offered to help them create a portrait they may not be able to see.” Praised by the interviewees both for being easy to talk to and for showing interest in the “richness and nuances” of their stories, Yang has also received enormous praise for her previous nationally-recognized memoirs:

The Late Homecomer was her first, winning the Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction, and being highlighted by The National Endowment of the Arts as a Big Read title. The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father came next, named one of the Top 10 Books of the Decade by Star Tribune.

Reflecting on her work, Yang also told The Minnesota Daily that as the first Hmong American novelist, she always feels responsibility to represent refugee stories accurately. “These stories are incredible. But they’ve been incredibly silent,” she said.

Under the current administration, Yang tells The Minnesota Daily that sharing refugees’ journeys is more important now than ever. In 2020, a cap of 18,000 refugees have been allowed to enter the U.S. — the lowest number in decades. Prior to this year, the lowest number was 67,000 refugees in 1986.

To bring attention to this topic, University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center will hold a launch of the novel via Zoom alongside Yang and the International Rescue Committee. Set for November 16th, 2020 at 6 p.m. PST, further details for the event can be found here.

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