The Song Poet A Memoir of My Father
Author: Kao Kalia Yang
I worked my way through college by working at the college writing center. I had the opportunity to assist many Hmong students while I was there. And I remember writing to professors in advocacy of my Hmong students: Please do not grade this paper based on the correctness of English grammar which is a second language for this student. Read the content. Luxuriate in the poetry of the words. Sense the undulating prose and sensory style of this student who is a poet writing in another language. Experience this exquisite prose. Thank you. And I signed my name. I don’t know if any of the professors listened, but I do know that this experience almost prepared me for the brilliance of The Song Poet. Almost. As an author, Ms. Yang travels beyond ethnicity, class or race. She embodies the ability to wear language like a paint brush, to create a palette of feeling and thought with the sentences she strokes and places gently onto the page, she pours breath and beauty into the ugliness of her family’s experience. Like her father, she transcends … she is the song poet of her generation.
The Song Poet is more than a memoir, it is prose that arrives wafting from Ms. Yang’s pen and arouses in us a heart song, for her prose is so perfect in tone, nuance and emotion that each sentence could serve as poetry. Her second work after her stunning debut, The Latehomecomer, The Song Poet transports us into the strength and mystique of a people that make loss into a lyric; who have nothing but family and who have moved to a strange land and have tried to speak in a strange language. As Ms. Yang portrays the story of her father and her family, we are struck not by the loss but by the beauty into which this loss is portrayed, by the seduction of her words and heart. One of the best books I have read all summer, The Song Poet is more than a memoir. The Song Poet is a work that stings with truth, strength, sadness, honor and loss.
“In the Hmong tradition, the song poet recounts the story of his people, their history and tragedies, joys and losses. Extemporizing or drawing on folk tales, he keeps the past alive, invokes the spirits and the homeland, and records courtships, births, weddings and wishes.”
So begins the story that Kalia tells of her father, Bee Yang, and his life as a song poet. Bee Yang comes from the mountains of Laos and was an orphaned boy. He does not know the date of his birth. His mother told him that he was born in 1958 as the Laotian Civil War pounded about him in his native Laos.
In the coming of the Laotian New Year and as its celebrations descended on Phou Khao, a small village high in the mountains of Laos, Bee Yang’s mother struggled with her tenth child’s birth. Her pregnancy had been difficult. She was in her late forties. His father was weak and in old age. He is born and knows his father only as an old man sitting in a dim dirt floor house watching the open doorway. At two years old, Bee’s father died, leaving his mother with ten children to support. As he died he asked Bee’s older brothers and sisters to help their mother take care of during the day his mother searches for medicinal herbs up and down the mountains as she is a healer. And then the soldiers came to Bee’s village, looking for boys to serve in their army, taking the boys out of the fields where they worked to make a living to survive. When the soldiers take two of Bee’s brothers, his mother begs to no avail. When Bee was 5, the Hmong in the village could not tend to their fields as it was no longer safe. As the war came upon this gentle village, his mother dies and he and his siblings are put into a Thai war camp for refugees.
He and his family travel to St. Paul, Minnesota to a housing project to live and now have to assume the life of a lost people. He has a family of his own and as he struggles to give his children an education and a better chance at life, Bee loses his art and his talent as a song poet of is people and strives not to lose himself also as he and his wife work in factories to stay alive. Renounced as an immigrant and unable to rise in life, Bee gives everything so that his children can becomes doctors and lawyers in the Land of Opportunity.
Sweet, tender, and anguishing, this gifted author and daughter strums the story of her father and her family revealing the harsh immigrant life in America in prose so stunning, lush and brilliant that it blinds the eye. One of the best. Don’t let this memoir/novel pass you by. It is this kind of reading that keeps us human, that defines compassion, art and family. Bravo!
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Review by Broad “A”
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- You can pick up this book on Amazon.com here: The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father or at a bookseller near you.