In Tuesday’s campus Forum, Hmong author Kao Kalia Yang discussed the power stories have to influence people’s lives.
In Hmong culture, children are taught that they choose the lives they will lead. They look down from the heavens and can see mountains, rivers and the course of human lives. Yang recalled this teaching from her mother, father, grandmother and grandfather, and said she believes she chose to come down to the young man and woman who walked through the jungle without shoes.
Yang’s father and mother were fleeing their home, on their way to a refugee camp in Thailand. Yang recalled the 400-acre camp, filled with hunger, despair and the haunting cry that came from those who remembered a time when the Hmong were free.
For her grandmother, home was across the river, the place they had left behind. For her mother and father, home was across the ocean: an imagined possibility where their children could be educated.
Yang recalled that her father used to take her to the top of the trees and say, “One day my daughter will walk on the horizons I have never seen. You are not a child of poverty, you are hope being born. The captain to a more beautiful future.”
And she believed him.
“Education was the garden that I cultivated in America,” Yang said.
While studying at Carleton College, Yang recalled the intimidation of the holes caused by her public education. She fought toward graduation, where her grandmother had promised she would be with Yang.
Before that day could come, however, Yang recalled her grandmother’s death. This was the beginning of Yang’s writing journey.
Yang’s grandmother had never been to school. She had never had the opportunity that Yang was now partaking in.
“Spring was coming, and life was continuing as if she had never lived,” Yang said. “I held a piece of paper and I decided I was going to write everything that I would never forget about her. I would always remember her single tooth, who had been fearless, who had gnawed on Jolly Ranchers and bones. My grandmother, who used to tell me to send wishes on airplanes instead of stars because then they would be somewhere in the world waiting to be found.”
Yang promised her grandmother that she would have peace,and strength in her legs to walk far. Yang began to write to tell her story.
“The work I wanted to do in the world was bigger, more important than my fears,” Yang said. “I made a decision to live in the words of my grandmother: ‘I will build a life because of my faith, not because of my fear.’”
Yang closed with an invitation to the students in attendance to remember that the impossible happens every day.
“I am here to share the stories not only of a people, but of a young girl who rises up; who understands from the moment of her birth that the impossible happens every single day. To all of us in this room: we will build our lives because of our faith, not our fears.”
Kao Kalia Yang is the award-winning author of The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father and A Map Into the World, a children’s book being released later this fall.
Next Devotional: Michael Dunn, BYU Broadcasting
Michael Dunn, managing director of BYU Broadcasting, will deliver the next BYU Devotional on Tuesday, October 1, at 11:05 a.m. in the Marriott Center.
His remarks will also be broadcast live on BYUtv, BYUtv.org (and archived for on-demand streaming), Classical 89 FM, BYUradio and will be archived on speeches.byu.edu.