Q&A With Kao Kalia Yang

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Q&A With Kao Kalia Yang 

My latest Q&A is with author Kao Kalia Yang who is the author of Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir, The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father & The Latehomecommer: A Hmong Family Memoir. Kao’s recent memoir is about Kao’s mother Tswb titled Where Rivers Part which is out today! 

Q: Kao I remember reading that your mother was reluctant for you to tell her story because she felt no one would be interested in reading it. How were you able to persuade her to agree to let you write her story? 

A: My mother was afraid that her story would not be of interest to readers. She is a humble woman who has lived a humble life. Her primary concern was that I would spend all this time writing a book that no one would want to read. I didn’t have to persuade her to share her story with me. I assured her that my writing her story would be time well spent. I told her that hers was one of the most important stories in my life and that she was one of the most inspiring humans I know. My mother knows that each time I give myself to a project, I give it my entirety. She knew I wouldn’t hold back and trusted me in the process. 

Q: You’ve written memoirs before writing Where Rivers Part. Besides being a memoir about your mother, what sets this memoir apart from the previous memoirs you wrote in the past?

A: This is the most intimate memoir I’ve ever worked on. In my heart, it closes the trilogy of family memoirs that I started my career with. Unlike my previous memoirs, this one is entirely told in a first-person narrative employing all the empathic abilities I have in the service of the story. It is the longest book I’ve written, I had to sustain the emotionality of the book for much longer than my previous ones. Beyond these elements, Where Rivers Part is a distinctly female book. I’m contending with things I’ve not had to do in my previous memoirs, the bonds between a mother and a daughter, a woman and her body through time and space, a woman, and her work, how that work is valued (or not) in the world. As a woman writer myself, this book forced me into the body in ways that none of my previous ones demanded.  

Q: If you are writing another book now, is it another non-fiction memoir or are you trying your hand at fiction this time?

A: This summer was a productive summer for me. I finished a young adult memoir draft titled A Story of Our Own (coming from Mary Ferguson books in 2025). I also completed a middle grade fiction book titled The Diamond Explorer. I finished edits on two picture books, one memoir and the other a fictional narrative, The Rock in My Throat and Caged, respectively. At the moment, I’m working on a proposal for my first adult fiction project tentatively titled “When We Are Ghosts”. I’m playing with a libretto idea. I enjoy working across genres, mediums, and for different age groups.    

Q: Which parts were difficult to write down in Where Rivers Part?

A: There were two truths about my mother’s life that I knew would be particularly challenging to write: the depiction of her marriage and her relationship to her children. 

The membrane of my mother and father’s marriage has been thin; neither have ever been powerful enough to hold the external forces of the world out of the flames of their love. Which is to say, that like so many refugees and poor couples around the world, there’s been little room to hide. It is not a fairytale love story. It is far from perfect. And yet: it has persisted despite all the obstacles in their individual and shared paths. Theirs is a stubborn engagement of two individuals, plain for all to see—though often people don’t look to marriages like my mom and dads for the stuff of literature. How do I do it? Show the journey as transparently as possible, as authentically as I can, risk upsetting the structures of marriage as it has been conveyed by so many authors? 

My mother’s relationship to her children is a powerful marker of her life; she became a mother at the age of seventeen, and her childrearing years have extended for far longer than many others; at the age of 42, she had her youngest, so she’s in devoted a great segment of her life to raising my siblings and me. She says that she’s had to be seven different mothers to her seven living children, then of course there are the seven dead ones. Her own relationship to her mother has guided her in her journey with us, but so much of who she has been to us has been a direct response to the demands of who we are and who we want to be. I knew I’d have to pay close attention here, let the birth of each child be the current on which my mother’s journey floats. It’s a fragile structure that I had to hold with light hands the full way.

Q: How long did it take for you to write Where Rivers Part? 

A: Where Rivers Part is a pandemic book. I’ve wanted to write it for a long time, but I also realized that I was not ready. I needed to know about love. I needed to understand motherhood before I could approach Tswb Muas’s story on the page with the necessary sensitivities. I sold the proposal at the beginning of the pandemic. I worked off and on throughout. In sum, it is a book that I’ve spent over a decade thinking about and three years writing. 


Q: Would you write a general nonfiction book based on this period?

 A: IF the question is whether I’d like to write a general nonfiction history of the Hmong people, I’m not the right person to work on that book; the community has historians and scholars who are better positioned than I to write that book. I agree with you that we must not forget the wrongs of history, and that reckoning with it is integral to how we can make peace with our pasts, present, and futures. 


Q: What lessons do you hope readers think about and learn after reading Where Rivers Part? 

A: I hope that readers of Where Rivers Part will see the depth of humanity in the characters from Where Rivers Part. I hope that they leave the book with a deeper understanding of their own lived experiences—whether they have known war or poverty, whether they’ve ever met a Hmong person or are one themselves. At its heart, the book is about what happens to the lives of women and children when they are swept up by the winds of war, how each must come to terms with the conditions of their lives in the aftermath of violence, even as they struggle to improve circumstances for those they love. It is about the decisions we make, how we disappoint others and ourselves, and somehow inspire life.