January 17, 2011

The Latehomecomer

Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomecomer is the author's account of her Hmong family leaving the hardships of Laos, a country that did not want them, and immigrating to Minnesota in search of a home. It's a transition story. And in that way, it's a story intimately connected to place--a perfect choice for my next "Thirty Before Thirty" read. 


I could go on about so many things in the book: the descriptions of the Laotian jungle, the facts of The Secret War, the centrality of family in Yang's life and how natural this seems to me. But I'll leave those details to your discovery. (The memoir won the 2009 Minnesota Book Award in both the Memoir/Creative Nonfiction and Reader's Choice categories, so it's worth your time.) 


What I will address is the author's depiction of her grandmother, specifically her death. This woman--this matriarch with the strong, straight hands and broad face and deep dimples--is so lovingly depicted by the author that I couldn't help but love her too, honor her too, feel the weight of this woman's journey. Yang gives a detailed account of the traditions that are a part of Hmong deaths, and what I appreciated most was the custom of one man--a guide--who's role in the funeral was to "teach Grandma's soul the way back to the place where she was born" (252). 


The next several pages are a movement backward through Grandma Youa Lee's life. First Minnesota, then California--specifically Fresno, specifically a few small houses that she was to enter, walls she was to touch. Then the San Francisco International Airport, and then Thailand. From Bangkok her spirit would walk to Phanat Nikhom Transition Camp, and from there back to the dusty, fence-lined Ban Vinai Refugee Camp where her granddaughter Kalia was born. Then the MeKong River. Laos. Large jungles and small villages. The guide directed her to "the last village she called home...and there he told her to rest awhile if she liked, as she still had far to go" (255-256).
"He led her across rivers and mountain streams, over hills and down valleys, to the home of her uncle who had sold her to my grandfather, and then to the house where her sister died, where her father moved them after her mother died, and near the end, he placed her on the edge of the bamboo platform where she had been born. He told her that her placenta, the shirt she had traveled to this world in, was buried underneath the platform in accordance with tradition. She would not have to travel without armor, he said, and I was glad." (256)
It's estimated that Minnesota is now home to 60,000-70,000 Hmong, and that St. Paul has one of the largest urban Hmong populations in the world. I knew a few Hmong classmates in college, and had one student--Pang--who made an impression on me my first year of teaching. We were reading House on Mango Street, and it seemed that out of everyone in the class, the idea of home--the depth of metaphor that exists in this image--was understood the most deeply by her. 

I didn't really understand why then. It would be ridiculous of me to say I understand completely now. But Yang's book. This one patiently expressed story. We all yearn eventually for a patch of earth to send down roots, don't we? Even the word home is warm and nourishing, like bread. What we will do to hold it on our tongues is a testament to our humanity, our similar selves.

4 comments:

  1. "Even the word home is warm and nourishing, like bread." A euphony of words. Very pleasant.

    And you thoughts on the book, really intriguing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. oh, Em. I loved the line Bill quoted. As I loved every other line in that paragraph, and really the whole post. You GET it, honey, you really do. Thanks for adding another fantastic book to my (admittedly out of control) To Read List.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Out-of-control reading lists are, I'm convinced, a staple of a sane human being. Thanks for the sweet comments, both of you!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Adding to my (ever growing) book list. Thanks for sharing. It sounds like it should be a must read for so many Minnesotans.

    ReplyDelete