#AWP18 Featured Presenter Q&A with Kao Kalia Yang
AWP | November 2017
Event Title: Writing Place, People, and Culture: Nonfiction at its Finest, Sponsored by Grove Atlantic Press and Rain Taxi Review of Books
Description: Join award-winning and critically-acclaimed writers Bob Shacochis (Kingdoms in the Air), Kao Kalia Yang (The Song Poet), and Molly Brodak (Bandit) as they discuss crafting nonfiction narratives across myriad forms. From journalism to memoir to travel writing, all three authors explore the challenges of mining one’s past and present, and the joys and difficulties of bringing place, culture, and people to vibrant life on the page. Moderated by Eric Lorberer, editor of Rain Taxi Review of Books.
Participants: Molly Brodak, Bob Shacochis, Kao Kalia Yang
Location: Ballroom C, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor
Date & Time: Friday, March 9, 1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
Q: What are some of the conference events (besides your own) or bookfair exhibitors you look forward to seeing?
A: One of my favorite features of AWP is the fact that I get to discover new writers and books each time I visit. What I find thrilling is the unexpected, unanticipated, the delightful surprises--whether this is the wisdom of a particular writer or a gem of a book that I passed and picked up, that I had not previously known about.
Q: What book or books that you’ve read over the last year would you most highly recommend?
A: In poetry, I so appreciated Ocean Vuong's Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Mai Der Vang's Afterland, and Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead. In prose, I found Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, and Louise Erdrich's LaRose to be important reading this last year.
Q: What are a writer’s main responsibilities in this particular cultural moment?
A: A writer's main responsibility is to engage creatively with the contents of our time. My father is keen on saying, "All of life is a garden of meaning waiting to be harvested." The job of the writer is to harvest from life the important lessons, the beautiful moments, the situating of the human condition in the wilds of a bigger world. As a writer, I have made a commitment to planting the seeds of humanity where and when I can.
Q: Has public funding for the arts made a difference in your life and career as a writer?
A: YES. I am a three-time recipient of grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Most of my library talks are paid by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund voted into being in Minnesota on November 4, 2008. My first book, The Latehomecomer, is now a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read title, a program that supports community readings across the nation. Much of my writing life is made possible through public funding for the arts.
Q: When AWP was founded in 1967, there were a dozen creative writing programs, now there are approximately 1,800 undergraduate and graduate programs. What do you think has changed for readers and writers since creative writing became ascendant as an academic discipline?
A: Right now, there are more celebrated writers of color in America than there has been at any other point in our history. Some of us come from low-income, first generation homes. There are those of us who are refugees whose families and communities are caught in the daily demands of survival, the traumatic aftermaths of war. Virginia Woolf and others have made clear: literature for so long has been the domain of wealthy white men who have "rooms of their own." The proliferation of writing programs has brought into being writers like me. Under the auspice and care of writing programs such as the graduate MFA, writers like me have found time away from and the space of heart needed to begin to tell our stories. The creative writing program's ascendant as an academic discipline has allayed the fears of our loving parents, by providing entry points for us to serve as teachers in our schools and universities while we walk the tight rope of literature, make our way from one place to the next, high above the earth at times.
Q: If you could run into any author, contemporary or historical, at #AWP18, who would it be and what would you talk about?
A: I want to meet and be in conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston. Not only is she one of the first celebrated Asian American writers in this country, she is for me a beacon of possibility in how literature and different genres can speak to the real-life magic of believing beyond the mainstream. I want to talk to her about ghosts.
Kao Kalia Yang is the author of The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, which was a finalist for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and received the Minnesota Book Award. Her most recent book is the National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated The Song Poet. Kao Kalia Yang, a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts, is a member of the Hmong ethnic minority. Born in Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, she is now an American citizen and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her family.
(Photo Credit: Shee Yang)