Curiouser and Curiouser with Kao Kalia Yang

When A Map into the World found its way to my desk last year, I had to remind myself to breathe. This gem of a book cap­tures feel­ings of love and friend­ship in a way that cross­es gen­er­a­tions and speaks to each of our hearts. What else had she writ­ten, I won­dered? Her mem­oir for grownups, The Late­home­com­er: a Hmong Fam­i­ly Mem­oir, caused quite a stir when it was pub­lished in 2009. She fol­lowed that book with a book about her father, The Song Poet. If you haven’t read them yet, I high­ly rec­om­mend that you do so. Kali­a’s lan­guage is not only lyri­cal and soul-touch­ing, but her vision is pierc­ing, her sto­ry­telling astute. Her newest pic­ture book, The Shared Room, will be released in June. It is the sto­ry of a fam­i­ly’s grief at the loss of a child, a sis­ter, a daugh­ter. It is a book that will help you when your own need to grieve presents itself. The Shared Room will encour­age your chil­dren to devel­op their own empa­thy. We are for­tu­nate that Kalia gen­er­ous­ly answered our ques­tions about the work she does and how she does it.

What does your workspace look like?

I have a white desk before a white framed window. There is a big firebush on the right side of the house and it is so big and tall that it now tangles with my perspective of the world outside. In front of me, there’s a quiet street. The house across the street is well-tended but mostly empty; its owners live on a farm in a state down south and visit only once or twice a year. Our mutual neighbors, a lonely father and son, take care of their yard. It is lush, an even green. My own yard is not so lush or so green. The dandelions love my yard. They flourish here among the grass: yellow blooms, low to the ground. I stand at this desk or I sit before it and I write whenever I can.

Kao Kalia Yang's office
Kao Kalia Yang’s office

What mementos do you have near your writing space?

There is a picture on the wall to the right of my desk. It was a wedding gift from a mentor of my husband’s, whose husband, Peter Leach, took it at the Japanese garden at Como Conservatory—when they heard that I loved the place. There’s dark water reflecting the tangling of tree limbs, bare bark, rising from green growth among big rocks, set against a backdrop of darker green. In the mirror of the still water, tree debris float like speckles across ancient glass, there is a touch of sky, against its light, we see the reflection of the limbs. I know the garden well but I do not know where this photo was taken and I like it that way. There is a touch of mystery, a story that I don’t know even as I love what I can see, what it remembers, what it recalls.

What are your writing tools of choice?

I journal before I write. I write on my laptop. My journaling is for me. I use up notebooks, some actual diaries and special books I’ve received as gifts, but I’m not choosy. I’ll happily take up a regular notebook and work my way through, line by line, page by page. I write with the everyday pens I find littered about the house, the free ones that I receive at writing conferences, the few from college presidents given to me as gifts, the many from older men and women who come to my readings, ask for my signature, and give me as a token of their generosity, the writing utensils from their purses and pockets. There is no greater satisfaction for me than to see a pen’s ink run out in my hands, to see the words fading into the impressions I’ve made on the paper. I journal the mundane details of my life, upload all manners of feelings and thoughts that cloud my head, shift my focus, and store my problems away before I tackle the work of actual writing on the laptop. Journaling is my way of meeting the world as I know it before journeying to worlds unknown to me.

Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang (pho­to cred­it: Shee Yang)

Do you have a routine or a ritual about writing? A certain time of day, a way you begin? Do you write every day?

Before I had children, there were things I loved to do in the mornings. I liked to water my collection of orchids, my vines, the growing things around me. I made a cup of hot mint tea and admired the things outside of my windows, one at a time. When I made it to my writing space, I turned on my feet warmer (I work in Minnesota!) and then I opened my journal and I started there, then transitioned to my laptop. I sipped from the hot cup, watched the steam rise and rise and rise and the words flowed from my fingers just like air.

After I had chil­dren, the over­whelm­ing feel­ing was of exhaus­tion and while time stopped at all hours of the night with the most imme­di­ate child in my arms, each time I made it to the page at all, whether only to my jour­nal or that and the lap­top, all I could do was pon­der the sweet, gift of sleep. I was so tired all the time. To stay up, I shift­ed the mint tea into Earl Gray. I turned off the feet warmer. I cracked my neck. I hunched over my desk and I made myself work. Writ­ing became hard work. All the rit­u­als and rou­tines I’d loved were replaced but the ele­ments I need­ed to ensure work could be done.

Now that the chil­dren are big­ger (a six-year-old girl, iden­ti­cal twin boys who are four) I’m some­where in between giv­ing into what I love each time I write and doing the work I need to do to ensure that the peo­ple I love are sup­port­ed by the work I do. I have dis­cov­ered that the only rit­u­al I need is the jour­nal­ing before the actu­al writ­ing, the depar­ture from where I am phys­i­cal­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, intel­lec­tu­al­ly into the place I want to go on the page.

How does an idea gather energy for you to turn it into an essay or book?

Every essay I have written or book I’ve worked on first began as a feeling I carried at some state of the world, some lived experiences, some story someone shared that pierced me. I carry it for hours, days, months, sometimes years until there is no more room inside of me to house them anymore. Then, I turn to what I know to oust these feelings into the page, offer them to the world in the hopes that they will find a home elsewhere, live as a brethren and a friend—not one more thing I must carry. Each thing I write first began as occupied territory inside of me, a feeling that holds my heart tight and squeezes and squeezes until there is rupture/rapture.

You have now had two picture books published. How do you go about this kind of writing in a way that is different than writing memoir or biography or the essays you write for The On Being Project?

Picture books are an offering to enter into a gentler space. They are a confined form; all I have is 32 pages to do the work of the story. They are collaborative. The words I write must have the ability to conjure up not only a setting and characters, but a story in the mind of another artist. Where I begin is only that: a beginning.

When I write for adults, it is very dif­fer­ent. I have more room to play in exper­i­men­tal forms and page num­bers. I’m not rely­ing on another’s artis­tic con­tri­bu­tion to make the book whole. I am in charge of the descrip­tions that will evoke set­ting, char­ac­ters, and the sto­ry in my read­ers. I am in charge of the begin­ning, the mid­dle, and the end of the sto­ry (of course with the assis­tance of edi­tors, copy edi­tors, and the pub­lish­ing team).

So, when I write for chil­dren, I have to write with a lighter hand, a more restrained hand, but also one that can fly at a moment’s notice. I have to leave room for the illus­tra­tor to enter with their imag­i­na­tion and their con­tri­bu­tions. I have to remem­ber that the world of chil­dren is a ten­der thing. I have to think about the work of a page turn very dif­fer­ent­ly than I do in the world of adult writ­ing; adults are chas­ing sto­ries, caught in the grip of lan­guage, chil­dren are curi­ous beings, their page turns are more like the end­ing of a line of poet­ry; it is a leap of faith, a space where any­thing is pos­si­ble. It is a fact in the world of children’s lit­er­a­ture than any­thing can hap­pen to a child at any point in time; time and space are not gov­erned by sim­ple knowl­edge; every children’s book author is mak­ing fire, blow­ing, blow­ing, gen­tle breath into embers, push­ing kin­dling close, hop­ing to light a fire for­ev­er. It is a dif­fer­ent respon­si­bil­i­ty entirely.

What is the process you go through to find the right words for a picture book?

At first, I play with a story. I begin somewhere and I take it all the way to the end. I can do this with picture books because they are a shorter form. Once I have the first draft, I read it and see if I’m moved by it. If I am, I share it with trusted family and see if they are moved by it, too. I’m not looking for edits at this point. I’m not editing myself. I’m looking for emotional honesty, hoping to connect and to build a strong emotion, to see if story I’ve written is alive. Once I determine that there is indeed the spark of life, then I share it with a professional, an editor or an agent, and see how they feel. If they are in, then we are in. We have something to work with and work from, to direct and to produce. I’m not married to the particulars of my first drafts, but I’m definitely looking at the draft to see if I can commit forever. Once I commit, I will do everything within my power to make it the most healthy and beautiful and life sustaining thing I can.

Do you picture your audience while you are writing your books? Are you aware of the readers with whom you’re sharing your mind and imagination?

I don’t picture my audience when I’m writing at all. I don’t think about them seriously. I know they are out there. I know they can be anyone. I want to keep that surprise alive in my writing. I want an old man to pick up one of my picture books and see his long lost grandchild peeking from the pages. I want a little girl somewhere to meet one of my stories and find some dream that they’ve had but couldn’t quite articulate. I want that magic to permeate into my process so I never limit my audiences to the folk I can imagine would be interested in my work.

With that said, I do take very seri­ous­ly my respon­si­bil­i­ties as a writer, my oblig­a­tions to my read­ers. I want to ensure that the mind and the imag­i­na­tion they are tan­gling with is as pure and as unadul­ter­at­ed as pos­si­ble, the real deal.

What have you discerned about the illustrator’s role in creating a picture book?

Illustrators are magicians and wizards and witches and fairies and they have power like ghosts to haunt, like vampires to suck blood from ink, the sacred ability to transform the world of a writer’s story forever and always. An illustrator is carrying the other side of the pole. Between us is a boiling cauldron of melted gold seasoned with pearls, diamond, and all manners of preciousness. We are balancing that treasure between us. We have to walk in-step, keep our balance, hold our end of the bargain, and make sure there’s no tripping. I have so much respect and trust in illustrators and their talent. They make books beautiful. I’m so thankful they are in our world. But do I understand them? Not really. I also prefer it this way: to preserve the mystery and the magic of their process.

Kalia, thank you for shar­ing your­self with our read­ers. I know they will grow to love your books as much as I do.

Intrigued? Please vis­it Kao Kalia Yang’s web­site for more infor­ma­tion and a selec­tion of her books.

books by Kao Kalia Yang

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