Kho Kho Siab is loneliness in the Hmong language. Kho is to fix. Siab is to heart. Fix the heart. Please.
The woman laid on the sofa, her head on its leathery arm, her cell phone in her hand. She’d put on weight. With each breath she took, her stomach rose, a soft mound of flesh beneath the polyester shirt she wore. She needed a haircut. Her black hair kept short had grown long, its strands covering most of her eyes like a teenage boy’s. Her hair hadn’t been this greasy since the days when she worked the night shift and then spent the rest of her time caring for her young children. The time she could use to wash her hair, she used to sleep instead.
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In a plot of grass, behind a bar on Payne, right off Maryland Avenue on the east side of St. Paul there was once a blue house that I loved.
I remember the house the way it was: a blue two-story built sometime in the late 1890s. A farm house with a damp, earthen basement full of broken concrete on the floor, its walls sagging earth and cement. The house, whatever it had been, by 1988 was a duplex that was rented out to Hmong families.
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The Board of Sigma Tau Delta has conferred on me Honor Membership. In its 93 years, there has been fewer than 50 others. They include: Eudora Welty, Cleanth Brooks, Stephen Spender, Robert Bly, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Dickey, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, and Alexandra Fuller.
The house was a small 1.5-story home built in the 1940s. It was in a quiet neighborhood full of old trees close to Como Lake. The house, despite its cuteness and nice location, had been relegated as Section 8 housing. We were newcomers to America. We were low-income. The little two-bedroom, one-bath, government-subsidized house worked for us.
It was autumn time. I was approaching my 12th year. That fall, our first fall in the house, the big tree in the backyard let down its brown leaves and piles of fallen leaves were blown by the wind into all corners of the fenced yard. My siblings and I raked the leaves into high piles and jumped into them, heedless of our allergies.
Our move into the house came at a busy time in our life. Our mother and father both worked the second shift. During the day, they took care of the younger children while my sister and I went to school. Right after school, we replaced them as caretakers and our parents made their way in the used Subaru that coughed great spurts of cloud from its exhaust to the factory in Eden Prairie. They did not get home until well beyond midnight. We were each doing the work of surviving in America. There were no rooms for complaints or exhaustion in the tiny house.
Part of my job was to give the three younger children their evening bath. My older sister used that time to prepare dinner in the little kitchen with its closed door. She made simple broccoli-and-chicken stir-fry, Polish sausage with onions and tomatoes, or hot dogs, or instant noodles. She cooked quietly and efficiently. We never heard her movements in the kitchen, the shifting of pots and pans. We knew that dinner would be ready when we were done with the bath.
The bathroom in the house was tight. A bathtub lined one wall. On the opposite side, a toilet, a metal trash can beside the small sink. There was a single window between the bathtub and the toilet. The window had a screen on it. It was about six feet off the ground. There was enough square area in the room for an old rug my mother washed and rewashed every weekend.
Each night that autumn, I drew my siblings their bath. I unclothed them and sat them in the warm water. When we had bubbles, they bathed in white foam. When we didn’t, more often than not, they sat playing with plastic cups. Our habit was for me to wash them, the youngest to the oldest. Then, I’d leave them to play in the bath while I gathered clean clothing as quickly as I could.
When I ran back into the bathroom, worried about the youngest, the children often had leaves from the big tree in the backyard floating in the water with them.
“What are those leaves doing in the bath?”
Xue, the oldest, said, “Didn’t you come and put them in here for us?”
“How could I do that?” I grabbed the leaves as quickly as I could out of the bath.
I squeezed them in my hands before I threw them out into the metal trash can.
I was a mere 4-foot-7 then. It was hard enough for me to get the glass pane up, to open that window. To my knowledge, the screen did not come out. How could my arms reach six feet down to the ground to gather fallen leaves? Or reach how many feet up to get the leaves still clinging to the tree? I looked around the small bathroom. Nothing. The door to the hallway was in shadows despite the fact that the single light in the small area was on.
Hlub added, “Xue is not lying. You came in, your hair in your face, and you did that for us to play with.”
I took the children out of the bath, one at a time. I dried them, their feet on the rug. We pretend we are on a boat. The ocean was so big. “Be careful, be careful, so you don’t fall off,” we say to each other. The children giggled and I kept them close. I dressed them one by one, then we all left the bathroom, its smell wet, not like fresh rain, but like some dampened well from long ago. I was afraid to look back once the light in the bathroom was off. I brushed away the feeling that something, someone, stood in the wash of the shadows, looking, laughing, hair in its face, long arms dangling by her side, waiting patiently, playing us gently.
On the weekends when my mother and father did not do overtime, we visited our cousins. They, too, lived in Section 8 housing. Theirs was a bigger house, much older than our own. The brown two-story was on the west side of St. Paul. Its best feature was a cement pond in the shape of a peanut. My boy cousins had successfully raised sunfish in it, feeding the brown fish broken bits of cooked rice, occasionally moldy bread, and once in a while: popcorn. I loved our visits to their house but only because it was always full of people when we were there.
The house was dark. There was a porch. While the porch had lots of windows, it was full of stuff, so no one really lived in it. Inside the house, there were square-shaped stained-glass windows high up by the ceilings, a fine row of them. When the sun came through them, colorful squares and triangles played on the worn wooden floor. When the sun did not, the house was cloaked in cool shadows. In the dining room, there was an old light fixture that hung from the ceiling. The chain was rusted but the bulbs did their work, reflecting like watery suns from the old mirror alongside the built-in buffet. All the light in the house felt weak.
One of my older cousins was having bad nightmares in her little bedroom tucked beneath the eaves of the house. She was scared, so much so that her parents had called in celebrated shamans and they had tied red strings to her ankles and her wrists, to bless her and protect her in her moments of fear. One particularly powerful shaman had even brought in a Hmong knife and asked his spirits to stay with her through the long nights. My cousin could only whisper of her nightmares outside the house in the yard, beside the peanut pond.
The nightmare: My cousin wakes up in her room, night after night. The little closet door at the foot of her bed opens. A shadowy girl emerges. She smiles at my cousin, a gruesome smile, full of rotting teeth and falling maggots. My cousin is never sure if she’s in a dream or if its real life.
The maggot girl whispers, “You think I’d be scared of that sword the shaman has placed beneath your pillow?”
My cousin is too frightened to answer. She frantically pulls at her pillows, tries to feel for the big Hmong knife, tied with a piece of red cloth, magic cloth that the shaman had sealed his chants in. Her fingers meet cool sheets.
The maggot girl laughs. The room resonates with her laughter. Her long, thin fingers, their tips black, stretch into the dark, point to the foot of my cousin’s bed. Somehow the magic sword, meant to protect her, is on the floor, its red cloth like dark blood seeping from its handle, closer to the maggot girl than my cousin.
They both make slow moves toward the sword. My cousin is at the foot of her bed. She can smell the maggot girl, a stench like deep, dark earth, cool and close. My cousin refuses to look. She does not want to know who will make it to the big knife first. She reaches her right hand, her fast hand, for the knife. A coldness folds around her hand. She jerks her hand so hard, she wakes, sweating cold sweat, smelling the musty odor from the open closet.
I loved my cousin. I loved myself. I loved my siblings. I wished desperately that we could all move to the happy, sunny homes that we saw in other parts of the city. But we could not move. My mother and father did not have enough money. My aunt and my uncle did not have enough money. We were all stuck in our love for each other, in our fears of the scary worlds waiting for us.
At school, we told no one of the ghosts and the hauntings that went on in our homes. We were already strange new kids, from far across the globe, and there was no room for us to make others warier of us, to speak of our fears, so we held on through autumn, through winter, through spring, into hot summer when we could spill forth from our houses and be with each other outside beneath the bright, warm, open sunshine.
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Bee Yang, my father, the song poet, accepts the Sally Award for Initiative, given by the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
Bee Yang was born in the high mountains of Laos in the break of the Laotian Civil War and grew up during America’s Secret War in Laos. As a child, he sat at the knees of the great song poets of his time. As a young man, Yang became a respected voice in song poetry for his people, singing the songs of their lived experiences, giving voice to their grief, channeling generations of hope and despair. In 1979 Yang and his family made their way to the refugee camps of Thailand where he continued to sing the songs of his people, documenting their tragedies and yearning for home. In 1987, Yang came to St. Paul with his young family as part of the biggest wave of Hmong refugees to enter the country. He continued to sing at Hmong New Year’s festivals and family gatherings. In 1992 he came out with an album of song poetry, Kwv Txhiaj Hmoob, Hmong Song Poetry. His second album, Thaum Hluas Txog Hnub Laus, When the Days of Youth are Gone, was released in 2014. Earlier this year Yang was recognized as one of AARP’s 50 Minnesotans Over 50. He continues to practice Hmong song poetry for the elders who remember the times before, and also for young generations so they will not forget the beauty and artistry of the song traditions they come from.
Original article can be found here.
Autumn in my heart: An essay by Kao Kalia Yang
I remember my first autumn in Minnesota. I was six and a half. We lived in the McDonough housing project in St. Paul. Between our houses, there were stretches of green grass. There were not many trees, but across the street from our townhouse, there was a forest, a stretch of wetland, tall trees with their branches touching. I saw autumn first in those trees. After a particularly cool night of hiding under the covers with my sister, on our way to the bus stop on Timberlake Road, we noticed that the leaves of the trees down the road had turned yellow. We believed they were on the brink of death. All day in class, I thought about the dying trees. I had never seen autumn before. I had been born in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, Thailand. We knew the world took turns being wet and then dry. A December baby, I had been born in the coolest month of the year. Temperatures during the day averaged 79 degrees.
The trees in the camp were green year-round. Occasionally leaves fell from the high branches. When the heavy winds blew, pebbly fruit rained down on us. These, though, were reminders of a tree’s life, not its death. All around me the students went through the routines of the day, the teachers, too, and I could not fathom how the death of all the trees in Minnesota did not worry anyone, caused no grief.
When I was a child in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp it was underneath the canopy of the trees overhead that Hmong people, the hungry dogs and chickens, too, could find relief from the unrelenting heat of a burning sun. In the shade, we children sat on our bottoms in the dirt, playing with rocks, rubber bands, spinning tops. Sometimes, we drew hopscotch patterns in the dirt and took turns testing our skills and our luck. I could not imagine a world without trees.
In fact, it was on the high branches of the tall trees that I first saw the world. My father used to carry my older sister and me up to the tops of the trees, always in our best clothing. We couldn’t leave the camp but he wanted us to see the big world. From up high among the leaves, he perched us on branches like songbirds, and he would point to the far mountains in the distance. He would tell us about the world beyond the men with the guns, the place where I had been born. On my branch or in his arms, up high from the ground, I felt the lightness of the air, the lightness of my heart. I loved trees.
Now, the trees in Minnesota were sick and dying. They could not weather the coming cold. Everyone had warned me in Thailand about the cold in Minnesota. My thin cousins who were going to California with their families had wrapped their skinny arms around their chests, shivered for my benefit. In Minnesota, all the teachers had talked of snow and winter, of mittens and hats, gloves and boots — things I did not have. I looked at my bulky sweater and my short legs and I could feel pieces of me dying just like the trees.
The days went on one by one. The temperatures dropped. The sun grew further and further away. The leaves on the trees turned from yellow to orange, to pink, to red, to brown. Their beauty was not lost on me, their majesty in facing their end.
I made a promise to myself that first autumn. Without language, without words, I promised myself that I would never forgive or forget autumn, I would carry it in my heart always: the turning of the leaves, their flight in the wind, their inevitable fall to the ground, a return to the trees that had once upon a time made me believe in a world without end.
Original post of this article can be found here
RECOGNIZING THE POWER OF LITERATURE TO PROMOTE PEACE AND RECONCILIATION,
DAYTON LITERARY PEACE PRIZE ANNOUNCES 2017 FINALISTS IN FICTION & NONFICTION
The Song Poet is a finalist! Please read more about it here.
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