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Minnesota author brings life experience to Hastings

Kao Kalia Yang will be speaking to students and the public during the Hastings Reads on Feb. 20. This years theme for Hastings Reads is 'Refugee Voices.' Submitted photo1 / 2
Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang will be speaking with Hastings students and residents on Feb. 20 about her best selling memoir The Song Poet. Submitted photo2 / 2

The Hastings community has come together for the last 12 years to participate in Hastings Reads, which is the community's One Book Program.

This year's theme, per Kari Jaeger, Hastings Reads coordinator and Hastings High School English teacher, is "Refugee Voices." She said "most often there's a book we are intrigued by" and once the selection committee members find a book they pick a theme based on that book.

When Jaeger read "The Song Poet" by Kao Kalia Yang and then heard Yang speak, Jaeger was very moved and thought the authort would make a good speaker for the Hastings Reads.

"When she opens her mouth she speaks in poetry," Jaeger said about hearing Yang speak.

Yang's presentations and public speaking, Jaeger said are very moving, and she said it is both "heartwarming and heartbreaking" to hear Yang speak.

Yang said she wanted to write a book about the economic depression and in 2012 when her father and 14 of his Hmong co-workers lost their jobs, the book started forming around her father. She said her dad had spent most of his life working in American factories and after he lost his job he spent many days wondering from one room to the next.

"One day, I asked him, 'How did you become a song poet?'" Yang said.

His answer provided her with the idea for her book.

"When I was young, there weren't many people who said beautiful things to me," Yang said of her father telling her about being the song poet. "My father died when I was 2. My mother had nine children to feed and care for. I used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next looking to hear the beautiful things people had to say to each other. By myself, I would whisper the words to comfort my heart. One day, the words escaped on a sigh and song was born."

After Yang heard this she thought maybe this would be the beginning of her next book, but her father didn't think so.

"We live in a world where there are presidents who can write books about themselves," Yang said her father told her. "Why would anyone want to read a book about a man like me?"

However, Jaeger said she and others do and did want to read "The Song Poet." Jaeger said her senior class read the book already and learned a lot about the Hmong people and culture.

"It opened up their eyes and gave them understanding and respect for a people they knew very little about," Jaeger said.

Yang said her book is about more than just her father and his life.

"'The Song Poet' is a book about a man with rough hands, with poetry in his heart, harvesting the meaning of his life's journey," Yang said. "It is a book about the recent economic depression and the everyday working poor in America."

Yang said maybe her book will give people something to think about.

"My hope for readers of the book is that it moves them, reminds them of the people who love them, the people they are sharing lives with, reminds them of themselves, our fraught humanity," Yang said.

Jaeger said more classes will be reading the book and other classes will be reading excerpts of the book to prepare for Yang's visit to Hastings High School on Feb. 20.

"It definitely encourages students to read when they meet the author," Jaeger said.

Jaeger said Yang will also be speaking to the public at the Hastings Art Center 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20 and the public is invited to join in and listen to Yang share her life experiences.

"When I speak, I hope to open my heart and invite others to do the same, to build in the space of that talk, a moment in which we could meet as we are, pure and simple, exchange ideas and foster hope," Yang said.

Yang is a Hmong-American writer and is also author of "The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir." which won the 2009 Minnesota Book Awards in Creative Nonfiction/Memoir and Readers Choice. It was also a finalist for the PEN USA Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Asian Literary Award in Nonfiction.

"The Song Poet" won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award in Creative Nonfiction Memoir and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, a PEN USA Award in Nonfiction and the Dayton's Literary Peace Prize.

Yang has come a long way in her life to be in Minnesota writing her books.

"I am a child of refugee camps of Thailand," Yang said. "My family came to this country as refugees of America's Secret War in Laos in 1987. I began first grade here. I'm a proud graduate of the St. Paul Public Schools, Carleton College, and Columbia University in New York City."

Now, Yang is happy to be living in Minnesota.

"Today, I have three children of my own, a 4-year-old little girl and identical twin boys who are 2 years old," Yang said. "Minnesota is now my home of choice."

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