By TOM LAVENTURE
ST. PAUL (April 25, 2009) – Kao Kalia Yang said that she was the most surprised to win at the 21st annual Minnesota Book Awards last Saturday, a project of The Friends, in consortium with the Saint Paul Public Library and the Mayor’s Office of the City of Saint Paul.Yang said she was so sure that she wouldn’t win that she hadn’t even written a speech. That might have come in handy, twice, as more than 2,000 voters from across Minnesota favored her book, “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” (Coffee House Press) in two categories – Memoir & Creative Nonfiction, and also the Reader’s Choice Award.
Yang said she had put the thought of her award in the back of her mind while she enjoyed mingling and watching the other eight award announcements with her family that were present in part for the generosity of a couple who bought them tickets.
“Initially, I was just swept with the enthusiasm of getting a peek into the vibrant and real culture of Minnesota books and to be a part of it all,” she said.
As the evening turned to night, she became anxious and worried more for winning to come back with something to show the community.
“Before the award ceremony, I was texting a friend and I told him, ‘It will be enough to know that the Hmong story will have been accepted and welcomed into mainstream literature’,” she said. “From then on, that became the goal of the evening. But when I heard the title of the book announced first and then second, I was astounded by the big celebration of it all!”
The story follows Yang’s family from their narrow escape from Laos, to a Thailand refugee camp where she would be born, and eventual immigrated to St. Paul when at age six. The memoir continues with the difficulty of starting a new life in America.
Yang said the nominees were not notified in advance of who had won. She just focused on the moment and pondered what the award would mean if they did call her name.
“To be a Minnesota book award finalist, and possible recipient; it would be a making of history, whichever way the night turned out,” she said.
“I knew I would simply say what was in my heart,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for the looks on the faces of my family and the cheering of the audience. I felt that everybody wants this so much. I believed we were all together celebrating the coming of the Hmong into literature.
“I was incredibly moved,” she added, “caught somewhere between my heart swelling and amazing calm of belonging.”
The second award was a chance to thank people that she forgot about in the first speech. Her publisher and the team of people that made the book possible. Her readers that made the book a marketing as well as a critical success.
“I was sitting there thanking my grandma in my head, again and again,” she said.
“I realized that all of the risks I had ever taken up until that night, had been made possible because of luck and by the force of others, people who believed,” she said.
Yang reflected on the other finalists that she said are incredibly talented and their books written cleanly and with clear reflections of their respective topics. She said to have the mainstream recognition along with the Hmong community was convincing, and passionately inspiring.
“I felt so fortunate,” she added.
Looking to the future, Yang said she is still excited about writing and to be a Hmong writer from Minnesota producing world literature from the American perspective.
“The attention doesn’t change the burn; it opens up the possibility for impact,” she said.
Yang has aspired to be professional writer since she was a young woman. While on a pre-med track at Carleton College, she earned her parents blessing to study American Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Cross-cultural Studies. She applied for and was accepted to the Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing program at Columbia University in New York.
At Columbia, Yang piloted a community writing class that attracted professors from Fordham University and New York University. Her work prompted an offer from Columbia but she wanted to return to Minnesota.
Yang has since held temporary teaching positions in English and Modern Languages at Concordia University, the College of St. Catherine, and will begin a one year fellowship at Century College next fall. She is the co-founder of Words Wanted, an agency dedicated to helping immigrants with writing, translating, and business services.
Her cofounder and sister, Der Yang, is a graduate of Hamline University School of Law and now living with her spouse in Cambodia.