Birth of a Song Poet
by Bee Yang
Translated by Koa Kalia Yang
“I didn’t have very many people around to say beautiful things to me.”
“I used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next
collecting beautiful things people had to say to each other.”
“By myself, I whispered the words to comfort my heart. One
day, the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born.”
I have waited to write this entry, hesitant on how to approach it, not wanting exuberant language to not live up to the respect this work deserves. Every year I have a favorite book that grabs a hold of my heart and imagination and makes a lasting imprint. In 2020, that book was The Song Poet by Koa Kalia Yang. Yang is a local St. Paul writer, who tells the story of her families journey from the jungles of Laos to St. Paul. It is a book that delves deeply into war, cultural displacement, racism, equity, fairness and the courage of love and hard work in the immigrant community so that children can have better lives than their parents. Mostly its a love story between father and daughter and the power of words to be trans-formative from one artist to another, from one generation to another.
On the opening page the first line begins; “My father would never describe himself as a poet…I am the only person I know who describes my father’s work as poetry….My father is not a writer. He does not write down his compositions. He is a singer. He sings them.” Koa Yang goes on to describe how as an adult listening to a copy of a cassette, worn and scratched with repeated play and then transferred to CD, she hears the sound of her father’s voice singing his traditional compositions through a fresh perspective as an adult. “What I found…was not a work of suffering. The first time I listened through my father’s album as an adult, it was striking to me that there was humor, irony, and astute cultural and political criticism. There was so much more than the hurt that he had harnessed in his songs. There was the beauty of endless hope….”
I have not been the father my children have wanted or needed me to be.
I have been, at my best and at my worst, only the father I imagined for myself.
In Koa Yang’s memoir I unexpectedly found a flood of memories. In the late 1970’s my childhood household hosted several immigrants and visitors for short periods of time, depending on your definition of short and time. The first were two Vietnamese helicopter pilots that were sponsored by the Presbyterian church we attended. It was right after the fall of Saigon. They were both highly educated engineers, resilient yet deeply emotionally wounded, having survived the war but also having left family and their hearts behind in Vietnam. I was 12 years old, not emotionally mature enough to totally understand the complexity of the situation, but very much cognizant of the upheaval their presence created in our home during their stay of about 10 months. They needed relatively little from us. Our house was a safe house in a way, a place to figure out their next steps in their new life in America, a place to save some money and decompress and plan. They quickly found good jobs and became the success story that is the immigrant experience that is idealized in America; they worked hard and moved to California where they married and continue to live good lives. However, in looking back I realize this was the start of my Mother using the cover of strangers living in our home for extended periods to do good work but also keep up the appearance that her marriage was not unraveling. It’s amazing what the presence of outsiders will do to keep the lid on stress within a family.
The stranger baton was handed from Bong and Long, the helicopter pilots, to my Mother’s adult cousins, who lived with us for one complete summer, while building a house and stored what seemed like all their earthly possessions in our basement, to a year long exchange student from Peru until eventually even the stretch wrap of strangers couldn’t prevent what was inevitable and my parents separated.
This didn’t stop my Mother’s need to do good work as a way of healing. When the second wave of immigration from Southeast Asia began happening in 1980 of Hmong refugees to St. Paul, our church again sponsored a family; my Mother put up her hand once more and invited into our house a family of seven from Laos, our home filling with the noises of a family and not the quiet it had become as result of my two sisters having left for college and my Father having moved out, my parents separated but not yet divorced. I was now a 17 year old and more aware and a bit resentful to all the chaos as well. The Hmong family lived in the basement suite, which was the old master bedroom with a private bathroom and large play area as well as their own entrance. They cooked in our kitchen and played in our huge back yard. It wasn’t good or terrible, it was just awkward. Unlike Bong and Long, who spoke fluent English, and were largely self sufficient, this family spoke no English, and were completely dependent on us and the church for all of their basic needs at first. This level of dependence was not exactly what I think my Mother had imagined. Their lack of English combined with the circumstances made all communication in the household difficult. My mother handled most of the interactions and negotiations that have to occur between two families living under one roof in sign language. But in reality, in the end, both sides just put up with each other, knowing it would eventually come to an end. The cultural divide was even bigger than the language barrier. It only lasted about 4 months, two of which I wasn’t there much. I dealt with it by trying to be home as little as possible, busy with athletics, a job and friends. I pretended it wasn’t happening. It wasn’t until I read Yang’s book that I really even thought about that experience again. Just like Koa Yang listening to her father’s voice as an adult helped her see her father through a fresh lens, reading Yang’s memoir helped put me back into those years, only to emerge with a new perspective, to acknowledge how awkward it must have been for that family as well as my Mother and myself. In her memoir I found new respect; and an acknowledgement of the courage and strength of that family, to come to America and their quiet dignity in accepting the support of the church and my family in living in our house, even if it just was my Mom and I living there at the time.
We all have those moments when we think about our deceased loved ones with sentences in our minds that begin with; “I wish..” I wish my Mother and I had read The Song Poet together when she was alive and used it as way to heal those few remaining cuts from those years that still require a few stitches. Not stitches in our relationship, stitches in ourselves. In retrospect when I add up all the things that happened in that short period of time from 1975 to 1980 and all the people that came and went from that house, with my Mother and I the only two people that were consistently together during about a 5 year stretch, it hardly seems real. It is hard to fit the narrative of all those experiences into so short a time span.
One of the curses and blessings that haunt immigrants as well as the generation that grew up in the depression of the 1930’s is the lasting impact that poverty has on your entire lives and the lives of your children. It creates this driving beat that underscores all conversations with children around the need for education and the need to work, to define success through the lens of a career. Reading Yang’s memoir it was striking how similar my experience in listening to my father growing up was similar in some ways to hers. I look back on that period today as a father myself, proud of his adult children, knowing I have done my best, like my father has done his best, but also knowing, like Bee Yang, I may not have been everything my children needed or wanted, only the father I imagined myself to be. Maybe that is the eternal song of all fathers from the beginning of time, the true curse of fatherhood, a piece of us becomes our own father’s victories and defeats.
On Yang’s opening page, she says; ” My father says that on his grave-stone he wants it known that his wife and children are his life’s work. He would love it if I could add: “All of Bee Yang’s children became good people.” Those lines set the table for the rest of Yang’s beautiful book and it was with those lines she had me as a reader. For it is exactly those same sentiments about her children that my Mother lived and breathed and sang her entire life. Not just to her biological children but all the other children she taught and cherished and adopted and loved over her years. My mother’s legacy in work was people. And she too would want me to add, all of her children became good people….
If you are looking for a book to help you think in new ways about the immigrant crisis from a lens slightly different than the one portrayed in the media, I can’t recommend The Song Poet highly enough. Though it speaks of another time and another place than the world we live in today, it is still relevant. It is a book that will wrap itself around your imagination and not let go and maybe bring to light much needed healing in your own life or at least shed light on the larger issues of migration and the immigrant experience in America and set it to a rhythm of mutual respect, born of courage to re-frame our lives to the challenges of today.
Song of Separation
by Bee Yang
Translated by Kao Kalia Yang
A son wakes up in the early morning.
At the threshold of his house, he says, “Father show me
. . where you have gone.”
He walks the dirt path to the garden he must till.
He wonders, “Is this the direction where my father
. . could be?”
At the edge of the forest, there is a buzzing bee, perched
. . upon a flower whose soft petals glisten in the morning
. . light.
The son wanders close and asks, “Father, did this flower
. . bloom for you years ago when this was your home?”
In the center of his garden, there is a young deer, head
. . bent toward the earth, eating shoots of green rice.
The son quiets his steps and he wants to know, “Is this
. . the animal who now carries my father’s soul?”