National Writing Project

Book Review: The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang

By: Lynn Jacobs
Date: June 1, 2009

Summary: Lynn Jacobs, a teacher-consultant with the Northern California Writing Project, finds this account of Hmong history and culture to be special because of the vivid and personal picture it presents of the Hmong people to outsiders. She recommends ways to use the book in the classroom.

 

For the past several years I’ve looked for a certain kind of book about the Hmong people, one that would give outsiders like myself—as well as the U.S.-born Hmong students I teach—a personalized peek into the culture and recent history of the Hmong.

Fortunately I discovered The Latehomecomer  by Kao Kalia Yang.

Although today there are several books available about the Hmong, this is the one I had wished for. The Latehomecomer is distinguished first by the beauty of the writing. The author is a deft weaver of words, combining images, emotion, and spirit in a way that holds the reader from the first sentence until the last. After finishing the book, I immediately ordered three copies to share with colleagues.

Then I sent an email to the author. I felt that I knew her—but for geography, she could have been one of my students. I have heard snippets of her story over and over again in my classroom and in the living rooms of my students’ families. Her response to my email was immediate, friendly and thankful to me—not only for writing but for being a teacher.

A Family Saga

The story is that of her family: her beloved grandmother, her parents, siblings, and herself. Her book is the fulfillment of a dream for the entire family, and her loving respect for them is evident throughout the volume. It is clear that it was written for the Hmong people as much as for those of us on the outside who wish for a glimpse of their life.

The prologue, entitled “Seeking Refuge,” sets the stage for the stories that follow. “From the day that she was born, she was taught that she was Hmong by the adults around her. When she was a baby learning to talk, her mother and father often asked, ‘What are you?’ and the right answer was always ‘I am Hmong.’ It wasn’t a name or a gender, it was a people.”

With that sentence she introduces a theme that runs through her work: a feeling of pride in her family and culture. But the sentence also implies a sense of being “other,” confused with other cultures, often marginalized.

The right answer was always `I am Hmong.' It wasn't a name or a gender, it was a people.

The first section, “People of the Sky,” tells the harrowing story of leaving Laos, escaping from the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers. The second section, “The Little Girl with the Dimples” tells of life in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, where the author was born. Thousands of Hmong were settled there, waiting while refuge was sought for them in other countries, mostly the United States, France, and Australia.

In “The American Years,” the Yang family arrives in the United States. The author’s family went to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she lives today. She tells how it was to be new to this country when she didn’t know the language or customs, noticing the difference between her home and family life and that of her classmates.

The final section, titled “The Latehomecomer,” is about Yang’s grandmother, who was her source of strength, inspiration, and comfort. The author talks of spending hours with her prior to her death, collecting her stories, learning of the life that no longer exists for her family.

In the book’s epilogue, Yang speaks of her process and purpose in writing the book, its fulfillment of her family’s dream. She has difficulty in writing it, but her father insists that she write about their dream of finding a place in the world where they might belong. He tells her to “think about it and tell it the way it is.” It is clear that she has done just this.

Right for Kids, Right for Teachers

I am planning to use this book in my classroom this year. I see it as a valuable text for either a literature circle or a whole-class shared reading. Although the book is a tightly crafted whole, it can also be appreciated as individual chapters or sections. It has enough action to keep students interested, and it is close enough to their own lives to feed their curiosity.

Also, the language of the text is rich with the poetic imagery I hope to encourage in students’ writing.

This would also be a great book to use in a teachers’ study group, particularly one in a school with a Hmong population, where it could serve to introduce school personnel to the story of their students.

As Yang wrote recently on the SOL Books Blog , “I dream that one day soon my book will be published, and it will show the world one more way into words. I dream that this book will have the power to give value to all the dreams I’ve collected along the way, not just my own, but those that were planted inside of me by my grandmother, my people, and the hard lives we’ve had all along history’s forsaken trails. I dream the writing dream: to live in language forever, to unravel the human story and grant it the power to change human life.”

Isn’t that what all of us as writers hope our words will do in the world?

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