Backstage with Kao Kalia Yang


ThreeSixty Alumnae Kelly Ordoñez-Saybe and Erianna Jiles visit local author Kao Kalia Yang at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.

Hmong-American writer Kao Kalia Yang never doubts the power of a blank page. The professional writer, born in Ban Vinai Refugee camp in Thailand has dedicated her experiences as a teacher, mother, wife, big sister and daughter, to letting her wise words roam wild.

Yang spoke at the ThreeSixty 2019 Great Media Get-Together at the University of St. Thomas College of Arts and Sciences in October. She joined me and two other alumni, Erianna Jiles and Erick Castellanos, on a panel. She talked about the power of using your voice.

Sitting backstage at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul on Sunday, Sept. 22, I was nervous and anxious because people mentioned that Yang has such an eloquent way of speaking that among their descriptors, words like “synesthetic” and “wonderment” sketch her presence. Excitement filled my mind as I got to peek into the mind of a writer who I can identify with as a woman of color, a writer whose book “The Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” was the spark of meaningful dialogue that took place in my high school English classes.

ThreeSixty Alumna Kelly Saybe sits in a green room with author Kao Kalia Yang before her performance of “The Song Poet” at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul.

Being a writer requires an extension of yourself and your vulnerability to be put forth on a page. This is especially hard when you present this writing as your story. This was tough but important for Yang: “I went into writing as a selective mute; my father told me that from hardness you can give birth to gentleness. If you speak then maybe our lives aren’t lost.”

From that she gave birth to a collection of unfiltered stories about familial struggle, the Hmong experience and the ability to tell others’ stories.  

The stakes are high for Yang during her writing process. 

“Every time I go onto the page it means it has to matter, matter to me because I am my first reader, but it has to matter to the people who care about me,” she said.

One of those people is her father Bee Yang. During our interview backstage I could hear her father sing with so much conviction and joy. Kao Kalia Yang writes from the songs her father sings. Her father sings in his native tongue about the sacrifice it took to give his children a better future. The songs he sings are included in his memoir, “The Song Poet,” written by his daughter. 

Bee Yang’s articulation is on-the-nose and so guttural that it incites an ethereal reaction from its listener. I experienced chilling goosebumps to on-the-brink of tears when I attended Yang’s performance.  

Kao Kalia Yang read excerpts from “The Song Poet,” which extended from her father’s lyrics of joy to loss in his performance. Expounding from her family’s story and the traditional folktales, Yang opened up the floor for her father to sing about the life of his people.

The audience in the Ordway was presented with the power of storytelling through multiple mediums. Yang’s performance has led to another medium for writing — a youth opera. The Minnesota Opera will bring Yang’s “The Song Poet” to a greater audience, paying tribute to Bee Yang’s story and his songs.

Yang doesn’t limit the ways her art can be expressed. She mirrors the nature that surrounds her and reflects it in her writing.

“For me that first draft is my first stab at it; if there’s seeds planted, I’ll go back in and harvest from that crop and something beautiful will grow,” she said.

ThreeSixty Alumna Erianna Jiles and author Kao Kalia Yang fill a Facebook Live backstage at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.

By dwelling in possibility, Yang has expressed the truths that we hold dearly. Most of Yang’s writing waxes unfiltered truths, serving as candid and beautiful anecdotes from her experiences.

Yang tells ThreeSixty students that, as artists, “You are the most qualified person in world to tell the story of your life, and sometimes you are the most qualified person to tell the stories before you. Author comes from the word authority; authority is earned, and you are earning it right now.”

This limitless growth as a storyteller feeds into the mission of ThreeSixty in allowing students to tell their story in order to tell the stories of others.

The creative power felt poignantly universal and was encapsulated in Yang’s performance with her father. 

Yang tells us not only the power of storytelling, but the power of a blank page, like a blank canvas where you’re free to roam through the wildest of your words.

“On the page, I am free,” she said. “On the page I am big, and I am strong, or I’m tiny and weak. On the page I am whoever I need to be in the moment.”