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The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, by Kao Kalia Yang.

June 8, 2016

The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, by Kao Kalia Yang.  Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2016.  288 pages.

4 stars

A lyrical account by a Hmong woman of her father who was a traditional “song poet” who told the stories of his people’s joy and pain in his songs.

Kao Kalia Yang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the United States with her parents as an infant.  She has written her own prize-winning memoir, The Late Homecomer.  Now she tells her father’s story, sometimes in his words and sometimes in her own.

Bee Yang was born in a mountain village in Laos at the beginning of the Laotian Civil War. His father died when he was two and he grew up fatherless.  He was a lonely child who would “go from the house of one neighbor to the next collecting beautiful things people had to say to each other.  By myself, I whispered the words to comfort my heart.  One day, the words escaped in a sigh and a song was born.”

First soldiers and then bombs came to the village, leaving the people grieving. “The only way I could meet their pain was to take it inside of me, into my flesh, and feel the pain of the Hmong blood pulse through my veins, fill my heart, and overflow.”   Trying to escape the fighting proved futile.  As a young man, Bee Yang married and the couple was held in a refugee camp in Thailand.  Finally they were able to come to the United States where they settled in Minnesota.  He took a job as a machinist in order to fulfill his duty to protect and provide for his growing family.  He rarely performed his song poems before the job ruined his health and his voice.  By then he had provided his children with the good father he had never had, and he insured that they in turn could sing.

Kao Kalia Yang has reconstructed her father’s life and songs as if they were recordings on a tape.  In doing so, she creates a beautiful and powerful tribute to him.  She not only gives readers a rarely told piece of migration history; she also provides us with warm and loving images of him and of the pain of her people.

I recommend this book to all interested in immigration and cultural change and to all who are sensitive to the beauty of words.

Thanks to Henry Holt and Library Thing for sending me a copy of this book to review.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 8, 2016 6:20 pm

    There is a Hmong community in Tasmania, quite well-established now, but as far as I know, no one has written any of their stories yet…
    When they first arrived, they sold crafts at the Salamanca market in Hobart to raise money for the community. I bought a cushion cover there which told their story in a different way. They had embroidered (in such fine, delicate stitches!) the narrative of their flight across the mountains with the armed Vietnamese in pursuit. Very powerful to see a traditional woman’s craft used in this way.

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