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From The Asian Reporter, V20, #15 (May 3, 2010), page 17.
Where and who we came from
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir
By Kao Kalia Yang
Coffee House Press, 2008
Paperback, 296 pages, $14.95
By Josephine Bridges
The Asian Reporter
"When the Americans left Laos in 1975, they took the most influential, the biggest believers and fighters for democracy with them, and they left my family and thousands of others behind to wait for a fight that would end for so many in death. A third of the Hmong died in the war with the Americans. Another third were slaughtered in its aftermath."
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, in addition to being a repository of devastating statistics like these, is the story of a family and a heritage that flourish in spite of such tragedy.
There are many remarkable aspects of Kao Kalia Yang’s first book, not the least of which is that by the time the narrator graduates from high school, the reader is nearly fourth-fifths of the way through the book. A great deal of background information on parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins figures into that narrator’s description of her childhood and youth, but the memories of refugee camps are a preschooler’s: "I slipped my feet into a pair of white tennis shoes that I did not like. The Thai government had handed out one pair to each girl or boy who was leaving; it was their gift to us for leaving their country."
Likewise, her first impressions of her new home in Minnesota are those of a six-year-old. "I saw no point in coloring," she writes. "The pictures were already drawn and our coloring was not helping very much anyway." Observing the author’s maturation as a writer — she began to write stories in the second grade — is a pleasure that balances a narrative filled with pain.
Youa Lee, Kao Kalia Yang’s paternal grandmother, is a lovable, formidable figure whose death brings The Latehomecomer to a close. A healer, a storyteller, a woman whose hands didn’t know how to rest, grandma "used her scissors with the orange handles to cut plastic bags from Rainbow Foods, from Sears, from Kmart, from Wal-Mart, from Cub Foods, the white ‘Thank You’ bags from the Asian grocery stores into long strips," which she then twisted into ropes. "She said that there were always uses for ropes in life, things to tie together." While her passing is a sad occasion, it is notable for not being a tragedy: "My grandmother’s death [in 2003] was the first natural death in our family since 1975."
The glimpse into a Hmong funeral at the end of the book is reason alone to read The Latehomecomer. A man whose task it is to guide the soul to its next life begins by chanting, "Grandfather Nao Lao’s wife, you are dead now." He goes on to give her instructions for the way backward through her life. "He told her she had died in Minnesota, faraway from home, and that her journey back would be a long one." The details of the path ahead of her — on airplanes and busses, and then on foot across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong, and on into the jungle of Laos — are spellbinding.
The Latehomecomer is an important book, and it deserved a better job of editing than it received. Kao Kalia Yang’s family had just crossed the Mekong to safety in Thailand, but her older sister is seriously ill, and for a while her survival hangs in the balance. Yet the words that should ease the dramatic tension are instead puzzling: "The sun rose higher, a cool breeze blew, and in the layers of pink and orange, in the leaving of the gray dawn, my mother saw the lids of the baby flutter." The lids of the baby? Likewise, references to "the birds and the bees," which have nothing to do with the common English euphemism for reproduction, distract the reader from an otherwise powerful passage.
The Secret War in Laos was "the biggest covert operation in CIA history," writes Kao Kalia Yang. It was apparently still something of a secret in the mid-’90s when the author was 15. "In American history we learned of the Vietnam War. We read about guerilla warfare and the Vietcong. The Ho Chi Minh Trail and communism and democracy and Americans and Vietnamese. There were no Hmong — as if we hadn’t existed at all in America’s eyes." Perhaps this oversight has been addressed in the years since, yet while writing this review, I noticed my spellchecker didn’t recognize the word Hmong, underlining it in jagged red again and again. I don’t know how to go about getting the name of the Hmong people recognized as a word in English, but it seems like the least we could do.