Leave the Light on for The Latehomecomer

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir
Kao Kalia Yang
Coffee House Press, 274 pages

How many worlds are contained on one planet? Kao Kalia Yang’s moving memoir begins in 1975 in the jungles of Laos. There, the Hmong families that fought on the side of the United States in “The Secret War” are hunted down by the new Communist government.  Between the war and the subsequent slaughter, barely a third of the Hmong survive to travel to the world of refugee camps in Thailand and elsewhere. Of those, fewer still obtain the necessary medical and bureaucratic clearances required to traverse to the world of the United States or Europe.

Hmong memory stretches back before these worlds to a time when they lived in villages in the Laos mountains, and before that to when they resided in China.  Yang’s vision also extends forward to a world where human rights are respected across the globe.

Yang has rendered the journey among all these worlds in prose that transport the reader as well. At times, she uses seemingly small occurrences to hint at the unfathomable depths of the Hmong experience.  After the family cross the treacherous Mekong River, the tattered group straggle along a Thai road, where a farmer tosses some old clothes to Yang’s father. Quoting her mother, Yang writes:

“I never thought I would see clothes thrown at my husband,” she says, looking at the floor, as if all the years had not erased the memory. “When he picked the clothes off the ground and tried to wipe the dirt away, I could not look.”

This incident itself pales in comparison to the murders, the hunger and the sickness the family undergo, but speaks volumes about the ability to withstand much so long as one can retain one’s dignity.

Yet she does not downplay the terrible impact of all that the Hmong have endured, dignity or no. At the camp, “People were dying because of illness and disease.  People were also dying because of suicide, especially during the New Year’s celebrations, perhaps because that was a time for new beginnings.”

The family lives in a series of camps in Thailand for eight years before being resettled in the United States.  In the course of resettlement, however, the family is broken up.  More than anything else, the unity of the family has heretofore kept them going.  Some end up in California and others, including Yang, are sent to Minnesota. They do not speak English.  They do not have jobs. They do not have money. They have never seen cities. They have come too far to be defeated. Over time, they gather more and more of the family to the Minneapolis area. Each week, the entire extended clan meets and each child must stand up and say what they will work to become in order to make their parents’ journey worthwhile.

Throughout this book, I tried to understand what it takes for a family to stay together in the midst of such pressures. I still do not have an answer, but in this case it helped that the grandmother was a powerful woman who refused to surrender to the countless dangers her family faced across multiple worlds. How does one person possess this ability and not another person?  Many families have fallen apart under far less strain.  Yang does not pretend her family is perfect, but the tenacity and breadth of their love is one of the more remarkable features of the narrative.

As for Kao Kalia Yang, has she lived up to the dreams of her parents? I should hope so.  Before the age of 30 she published this memoir—making her the first Hmong person to publish a book in the United States.  She has also collaborated with filmmaker John O’brien to create The Place Where We Were Born, which Yang describes as a lyric documentary. Additionally she has co-founded Words Wanted, an agency to assist with translation and other needs of immigrants.

The Latehomecomer’s power, however, lies in that it is not only about Kao Kalia Yang but also about an entire Hmong family. It is told with the humility proper to a young person writing for her elders, but also with the certainty of young person writing for herself. It is a welcome, if sometimes discomfiting, addition to American literature.

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One Response to “Leave the Light on for The Latehomecomer”

  1. Sarah Irene Dye Says:

    Hi G.

    Thanks for writing this interesting review. It piqued my curiosity because Kao Ka Lia Vang spoke at a memoir festival I went to at the Loft in Minneapolis. I was at another session and didn’t hear her speech, and afterwards I regretted missing it. At the other session I was at, the publisher from the Minnesota Historical Society was saying how jealous she was because Coffee House Press got ahold of Vang’s memoir first. (The Coffee House publisher was there too, and the two of them were bickering, jokingly).

    Sarah

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