Kao Kalia Yang Q&A

November 9, 2020
Kao Kalia Yang is a four-time Minnesota Book Award winner.

“Before my introduction to writing, I loved stories. Before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I spent massive amounts of time narrating my life so I could see and hear it from a different place. When I discovered that I could narrate life on the page, it was perfect. I was in the woods and I feared the shadows, imagined creatures there that had no place, suddenly I was in a landscape of my creation. I never wanted to leave. When I have, I’ve always returned. I must have been in fourth grade when the pull came upon me and I felt its power. I was a college graduate when I surrendered to its call.”

You do such a marvelous job of preserving your family’s history, through your grandmother’s stories and your father’s story-singing. When did you get the idea of structuring “The Song Poet: A Memoir Of My Father” as an album with tracks?

In my head and my heart, it was always going to be an album. In fact, it was to be the second album—the one my father wanted to make but could not because of us. As I said in the introduction in the book, my father had made $5,000 from his first album and was hoping to turn that into the second album, but of course we knew he had money for the first time in our lives and we, with our childish wants and needs, went to him asking for new jackets, school supplies, and other things. Over the years, the second album became the chicken drumsticks in our bowls, the rice on our plates. When my father stopped singing and I noticed the quiet in our lives, I had become an adult. I missed his songs. The book was my way of calling his songs forth … among all the other reasons the book had to be written. There was no question it would be organized as an album, allow me poetic license in the form I knew, and do its work in honoring his form.

You wrote that his poetry shielded your family from the poverty of your lives. That is a beautiful definition of the value of poetry. Have you received feedback on that line?

Yes and no. People have received the words without comment but with contemplative thought. I’m thrilled that you picked it up and are commenting on it specifically. Thank you.

The first half of the “The Song Poet” is in your father’s voice before you shift to your own for the second half. To do something like that, did it feel a bit like method acting, where you had to become him? 

Shifting perspectives was like method acting. I had to re-positioned my writerly self. In my childhood, I saw my father as mine. As I grew and our world expanded, I saw how my father was just a man, a refugee many, a person without English fluency, a factory worker, and in the seeing, I witnessed how he was often treated and the tremendous pain that was inflicted on his heart. As his child, I felt his hurt keenly. As an adult and a woman who had grown up with the benefit of his love and his labor, I had become educated, my life would be made away from the factories; I understood what my father represented to the world and why that world was often so harsh and afraid in its response to him. When I wrote in my father’s perspective, I could begin to tangle with these truths that extended beyond his love for me and mine for him.

You’ve said in interviews that a great solution to writer’s block is having children as now when you sit down you have to really get down to it. You’ve also said that writers should have standards and not expectations. Does this get easier with experience for you? 

As I’m responding to these questions, my office door is wide open. I can hear my husband say, “The answer is not 32.” My 9-year-old nephew Lajlim saying, “Uncle Aaron, it is so.” My 5-year-old twin boys are definitely unloading their Legos onto the carpet. Their teacher is asking them to build something via the IPad. Elsewhere, there’s my six-year-old niece and seven-year-old daughter doing their individual work or playing. The 10-year-old nephew is reminiscing on steaks . My 16-year-old brother is drawing a menacing tiger without lines, only shadows, for an art assignment behind a closed door. There’s a lot going on. More so because we are in a pandemic, but fitting for how I generally work in the middle of everything; I was born into a full life and I’ve worked hard to create one. Yes, I’m focused on these questions but also all the other questions around me, asked and unasked, performed and silenced. Here in this south facing office, looking upon a fire bush turning pink, watching the way the wind interferes with the sun’s work on my neighbor’s lawn across the street, this is where I work and this is how I work. Does it get easier? No. It gets more honest and I appreciate the facts. It’s far too easy for this writer to imagine a time when the house is quiet and the kids are grown and the sound of the ticking clock is something I’m far too aware of. I don’t negative self-talk and I never have but I do despair at times. Thankfully, those moments are brief and I’ve learned how to manage them much better than I once I did. Now, when I despair, I do something about it. Something small and positive.

When did you first feel the pull to be a writer?

Before my introduction to writing, I loved stories. Before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I spent massive amounts of time narrating my life so I could see and hear it from a different place. When I discovered that I could narrate “life” on the page, it was perfect. I was in the woods and I feared the shadows, imagined creatures there that had no place, suddenly I was in a landscape of my creation. I never wanted to leave. When I have, I’ve always returned. I must have been in fourth grade when the pull came upon me and I felt its power. I was a college graduate when I surrendered to its call.

You’ve said that you fell in love with books at age 15 and that loneliness is what drew you to them. What are a few books from age 15 that still mean the world to you?

Elie Wiesel’s Night moved/moves me to tears. Every time I think about that moment when the father shares the bread, it breaks me. Mr. English from Harding High School had us read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. I loved her sentences in that book. I love them still. They transport me. They are accessible to me and welcoming. They are flexible and they are kind. They are characters all on their own and they move all around, sometimes on feet, other times wings. 

You’ve shared that you spent three years as a child going to school in St. Paul and never talking, and now you’re a sought-after public speaker. How did you become more comfortable?

I was a selective mute for far longer than three years. I was seven when it began. It didn’t end until I high school. I whispered in college. I spurted uncomfortably in graduate school. My relationship to speaking English is so fraught. I have learned how to appreciate it and work with it, and grow to love it. The stakes are so high in language. I feel a strong responsibility to use it well and honor its place in my life. In that way, it is a very respectful relationship if not always smooth or easy. Even after all these years, I’m not comfortable with it and I think that is why I am able to grow in it all the time. 

Your grandmother would say to you, “Surrounded by wisdom without experience, you don’t know how to use it.” Do you have any advice to people during pandemic in gathering experience so they can apply wisdom? 

The sad thing is, many of us won’t be able to leave it. For the rest of our lives, it will be with us. Wisdom is an unintended gift when we are humble in our experiences of life. This pandemic has humbled many of us but not all; in the harsh and blinding light of our current moment, some of us are showing ourselves in unflattering and unkind ways and the rest of us are left stunned. Though of course, the time to act, if our survival matters, is now. It is not when the lights have dimmed once again. When the darkness will fall and we’ll all be cocooned in the arms that love us. Now, is the time we must work against the shine and grapple—not even with others—but our most private, sacred selves. Wisdom is our wise, invisible friend. She will meet us at the end.

Do you sing your stories like your father to your children?

Oh no. My mother and father, who love me deeply, tell me when I sing, my voice is quite “bothersome.” When I do sing to my children, I do so to annoy them, to frustrate them, to scare them, to unsettle us all. I like the flexibility of being able to call on my singing in my life to introduce a certain mood to my children, few of them are pleasant unfortunately. But this is also like me as a writer on the page–I like to unsettle you a bit even as I’m gentle and even as I’m graceful and even as I’m small and even as I’m in love with you, I want to feel the different textures of my humanity, of your own. I sing to them to give them pause.