This book increased my compassion and raised my awareness of the difficulties faced by immigrants who come to America. I think my compassion gene runs pretty high, but this book definitely brought it up a notch.
“The Song Poet” by Kao Kalia Yang tells the story of her family’s emigration from Laos to a Thai refugee camp and ultimately to St. Paul, Minnesota. The story is told from the eyes of her father, Bee Yang who was born “sometime in 1958, no one really kept track” and who lived the first years of his life in the mountains of Laos.
Bee was orphaned at a young age and met his wife in his teens. They had their first daughter in Laos but in 1975 the family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand where Kao was born. They lived in the refugee camp for 9 years before finally settling in St. Paul where the girls attended schools in the Harding High School district.
In the Hmong tradition, Bee was a “song poet” meaning he recounted the stories of his family and even recorded an album of these poems. This was his way of teaching the family history. After the death of his mother, his songs dried up and he would no longer share these stories. Flash forward to his daughter, Kao, who had already successfully completed her first novel who convinced him to let her share these poems. And “walla” we have this amazing new memoir.
Living in Minnesota I was aware of the Hmong population, but I had honestly not done much thinking or research about the Hmong. Reading this book was eye opening to me as I realized that it is not only difficult to GET to America, but once landed it is nearly impossible to support yourself with the limited job opportunities available for a non-English speaking worker. Bee worked among questionable safety practices at a factory job in Eden Prairie that compromised his health. Kao and her sister were motivated to improve the life of the entire family by pursuing education in an aggressive way and so they attended Hamline University through the PSEO program and have gone on to be very successful young women.
This is a very well written book that will leave you with more compassion but also inspired. She shares the many difficulties faced by her family and her younger siblings, but in the end the family is able to pull together to persevere and thrive in America. It truly is a win/win as Kao is able to share her family poetry through her father’s eyes and improve our art and culture at the same time.