The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang

In celebrating a father’s traditional Hmong song poetry, this memoir records the painful history of a loving family and a people.

song poet

In The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang related her family’s immigrant experience. With The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, she focuses on the life and art of Bee Yang: “my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of tradition Hmong song poetry.” The storytelling and emotional communication of that art form was a defining element of Bee’s contribution to his family and his culture, from their home in Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand and, finally, in the United States. When his mother died, Bee stopped singing, and Yang considers the significance of that silence as well.

As its title suggests, The Song Poet is lyrical and beautifully composed, with themes of loss and love, realistic and raw, but enriched by gentle metaphor. It is divided into “Side A” and “Side B,” the first told in Bee’s first-person perspective and the second in Yang’s. These points of view offer immersion in a Hmong culture that values family, and shares a complex system of spiritual celebrations and a way of life centered on the day-to-day necessity of growing and harvesting food. War and violence drive the family to Minnesota, where Bee and his wife do hard, dangerous labor, and are poorly equipped culturally to battle racism and exploitation. But they retain their reverence of family and tradition. The Song Poet is a message of love and thanks to a father who sacrificed for his children’s future, and a memorial to his art.


This review originally ran in the May 17, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 flip-flops.

One Response

  1. […] & Stranglers… and, for that final slot, I struggled between four titles and settled on The Song Poet. (Runners up were The Girls in My Town, Every Last Tie, and The Narrow Door.) I skipped the […]

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