Book Review: Kao Kalia Yang's _The Song Poet_

Book Review: Kao Kalia Yang’s The Song Poet

by Renn

How far across mountains and oceans can your voice reach to call a spirit to a home that no longer exists? How do you long for a country you have been driven out of, a country your new one tells you to go back to, when the country of your memory is not the country that stands in its place? Kao Kalia Yang asks these questions in the voice of her father in The Song Poet, an ode to Bee Yang in the form of a memoir that takes the shape of a cassette tape.

Bee has carried his kwv txhiaj—song poetry—from the bullet-torn forests of Laos to a small, moldy house in Minnesota, through seven children and six miscarriages, with hands cut by steel and on feet aching from years of underpaid labor. The novel, in Kao Kalia’s words, “is and can never be [his] second album.” The first half, Side A, is told by Kao Kalia in Bee’s voice. She reverts to her own voice in Side B, ending with a father-daughter duet. Each chapter is a track listing and each chapter will break a heart that doesn’t quite feel like it belongs to you, unless of course you are Hmong and know what it is to hold war and genocide inside you.

I am not Hmong and had never heard kwv txhiaj hmoob before reading this book, but the wind of Yang’s words carried me into a river of tears, and I knew why my cheeks were wet though I did not know the people for whom I cried. Kao Kalia, interpreting for Bee in this interview, says, “Unless you’ve gone through war, and unless you’ve left so much behind, [being a refugee in another country] is an experience that is incredibly hard to translate into simple human understanding”—yet that is exactly what she has done by taking on her father’s voice to record his life. Not the experiences themselves, but the emotions underlying them fill the page with the yearning and disappointment of a father who never had a father of his own, the desperation of a young man fleeing from his younger still pregnant wife to save her life when the soldiers arrive.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is its capacity to love with a fierceness that seems too great for its size. Every single person inside holds so much love for the ones around them, for dogs adopted at the refugee camp in Thailand, for spring flowers drawn in window fog in the middle of winter. Though loved ones are lost to war or illness or old age, their spirits never stray far from their families, and are called on for protection. The closeness of extended family is stretched thin in America when brothers and cousins move farther away, but distance only means that they must love each other more across the miles. The war and hardship eminent throughout the memoir makes the Yang clan’s love for each other all the more radical and precious in its tenderness.

You may be wondering why this book made it into a Divinity-themed box when it contains no mention of a god, or religion as most of us are familiar with the term. I ask you: What is divinity if not a force or forces underlying all things, and what is that if not the language we use to create meaning from our hearts and our lives? Bee and Kao Kalia’s voices intertwine in a lament that takes the form of an exultation, and in its harmony is the soul of a people who, despite all odds, are still alive, still dreaming.