Author Spotlight: Kao Kalia Yang
|© Shee Yang
Nov. 26, 2021
We are excited to feature author Kao Kalia Yang and her picture book, YANG WARRIORS, illustrated by Billy Thao (University of Minnesota Press). Enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
I am a writer for both adults and children. I started my adult literary career young; I was 22 years old when I set out to write the story of my grandmother's life. She'd been a shaman, a medicine woman, and a healer, more remarkable still because she raised nine children into adulthood in a war. Grandmother's biggest fear was that she would be forgotten. Youa Lee had never been to school. She didn't know how to read or write. When she died my senior year of college, I started my first book to remember her, to mourn her, to love her. That book, The Latehomecomer, came out when I was 27 years old.
In the years after the book came out, I fell in love and got married. I started a family. I wrote a second book for adults. I started reading children's books earnestly to my children. A third book for adults came out. Then one day, an elderly neighbor's wife died and he was filled with grief. I took to visiting with him outside on his driveway--in a special bench that he'd once shared with his wife. My daughter and I visited him on a bright spring day. She drew on his driveway with her chalks as he and I talked. He told me that it was his last year, his "swan song." We were both sad when my daughter came up and whispered that she was done drawing. He asked, "What did you draw for me?" She answered, "A map into the world in case you need it." We looked and all over his driveway, she'd drawn arrows leading to different parts of the yard, the garden waiting, the grass waiting, the world waiting. I looked at him and I said, "Bob, what if I write a children's book for you and Ruth?" He laughed. We laughed together.
The idea was born and from that seed my first book for children came to be, A Map Into the World. The book came out in 2019. I discovered the amazing children's publishing community and its readers; I saw how much work there was to be done and realized how compelling I found that work, and so a different dimension to my career started in children's literature. Now, my fifth children's book has just come out.
Congrats on your book, Yang Warriors! Tell us about the book and what inspired you.
Yang Warriors is a story from my life. It is a real story of my cousins and me when we lived together in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. I've always held it close to me. It was a reminder of courage when I felt scared. It was a token of care when I felt exhausted by the needs around me. It carried necessary knowledge for me that the real heroes of my life are in it; they are not the people from television or the figures that wear capes in the cartoons. They are real children who take it upon themselves to care for others in need. When the opportunity came to make children's books, I knew it was one of the stories I wanted to share with the world; it was a love letter and a tribute to Master Me and his crew for the heart and the hope they gave us all in that hungry place where we first learned of life.
Was your initial road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
There were few published Hmong American writers when I embarked on the adventure. I didn't know very much about the industry. Certainly, I didn't have any connections. I took every opportunity open to me and I tried to make of it something more beautiful and bold than was expected or others deemed possible. From the space of nearly twenty years, I can say that my road to publication was smooth--despite its challenges. I started early and became a writer quite young (my response to question #1). I'm now old enough to understand that while nothing has been quite what I've anticipated or hoped for, there's been a great deal of delights along the way and enough helping hands to make it possible. For all of this, I'm grateful to now be a model of what the life of a writer can be for not only my community but others who are starting out in the industry.
What projects are you working on now?
I just finished the first draft of my first young adult work of fiction, a book titled The Diamond Explorer. Soon I will find out what my editor thinks and have to get to work again on the manuscript, tightening it, furthering it, deepening it, and widening it. At the moment, I'm in the depths of a memoir for adults, a book about my mother's life titled Return of the Refugee. In the next five years, there will be new books coming from me in both adult and children's literature. It is an exciting time for me.
Congratulations on all your books! What advice would you give to your younger self, and is this the same advice you'd give to aspiring authors?
Kalia, just as you don't know much about the world of literature, it does not know much about you at all. This is a journey of joint discovery. Be patient and be kind to yourself and others. Never close the door to your own opportunity to learn and grow. The journey is sometimes embarrassing--how can it not be when there is so much to realize along the way?--but in the end if you are authentic and smart, if you are good at what you do and who you are, you'll be alright. Even if you don't get to live the life of your dreams, you'll have lived many peoples'.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I am silly. A lot of people would never use the world to describe me. I like to laugh. I like to delight people. I am not shy about my own weaknesses and the humor there is to be found from my perspective.
Where can people find you online?
A google search will yield some results but the best place to find consolidated information about me that is true and authentic and more holistic is my website: www.kaokaliayang.com
Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American author of books for both adults and children. Her adult works include the memoirs, The Latehomecomer, The Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World. She is the co-editor of the groundbreaking collection, What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Native Women and Women of Color. Her books for children include: A Map Into the World, The Most Beautiful Thing, The Shared Room, Yang Warriors, and From the Tops of the Trees. Her adult work has been recognized by the National Book Critics Circle, the PEN USA organization, the Dayton's Literary Peace Prize, the Chautauqua Prize, and won three Minnesota Book Awards. Her children's books have been listed as American Library Association Notable Books, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor, won the Heartland Bookseller's Award, and garnered a Minnesota Book Award. Yang lives and works from St. Paul, Minnesota.
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