I have so much love for this book that I don’t know how to write about it. Will you just bypass it because, it’s a book that you haven’t heard of? Or maybe you don’t read memoirs? Or non-fiction? Why am I being so negative? Maybe instead you are excited because it is a book you’ve not heard much of! Maybe it’s interesting because it is memoir! Non-fiction! Hurrah!
Amazingly, I won The Song Poet from a Library Thing giveaway. (I seriously have the worst of luck when it comes to book giveaways). And what is perhaps more amazing is that I picked up the book and read it, within a few weeks of receiving it. I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to physical books. I buy them and then, save them for the end of the world or something.
Anyway, the book must have called out to me. It was meant to be. And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. A book that sings and cries, a book that laughs and shudders. A book I brought along on a Bart ride to the city to pick up my passport from the Singapore consulate. It sat with me on the crowded train, it rocketed up many storeys up to the consulate building, then it basked in the sunlight at Ferry Building where I sipped a tiny and expensive mocha and watched the traffic on the Bay Bridge.
This may sound silly but I first learnt of the Hmong on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy. Grey’s Anatomy may be overdramatic and too many ridiculous things happen to one doctor at one hospital (she puts her hand in a body with a bomb, she steps in front of a gunman etc). But it was also one of the very very few popular primetime TV series to have a lead Asian character, and it wasn’t about Christina Yang being Korean. Or Asian. She was just a doctor. A friend. A crazy, intense, very intelligent person. But still. She was a person. But this episode has nothing to do with Yang. An episode in Season Two featured a patient, a young woman, who needed surgery but because she is Hmong, her father refuses. They decide to call in a shaman before surgery. I hadn’t the faintest idea if this was a good portrayal of the Hmong culture or not (the blog Petite Hmong Mommy found it kinda ridiculous) but it made me wonder about the Hmong culture. I later learnt more by reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, published in 1997, a work of non-fiction about a young Hmong girl living in Merced, California, who suffers from epilepsy. It is a moving, tragic book, in case you haven’t yet read it. But it is not by a Hmong so it’s still from the point of view of an outsider looking in.
The Song Poet seemed to me like your typical refugee in America kind of memoir at first. But the prologue opens with ‘Album Notes’, in which Yang writes about calling her father, Bee, a poet.
“I grew up hearing my father digging into words for images that will stretch the limits of life for my siblings and me. In my father’s mouth, bitter, rigid words become sweet and elastic like taffy candy. His poetry shields us from the poverty of our lives.”
His song poetry is hard to explain, and Yang describes it as such:
“The only way I know how to describe it as a form in English is to say: my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of traditional Hmong song poetry.”
It sounds fascinating.
The Song Poet is a story of struggle, of hardship, of determination, and quite simply of back-breaking, hardworking parents trying to make enough money to put a roof over their family’s heads, to put food in their kids’ mouths. This is a story that moves from Laos, to Thailand, to Minneapolis. And it is so very very difficult, to read of all the pain that other people put this family through, because they are different, because they are Hmong. They were driven from the Laos because of war and communism. In Thailand they lived in refugee camps, where the author was born. Then wanting to be more than just refugees, the family traveled to America. But in America, their lives are still difficult – Bee takes on backbreaking, dangerous work at a factory in order to make ends meet. His wife works the morning shift, he works the night shift. Just so that there is a parent around for their children.
Yang’s voice is just beautiful. My favourite part of the book is ‘Side A, Track 4: Love Song’, where she writes from her father’s perspective of his love for his wife Chue Moua, and all the many things that they have gone through, many miscarriages, across countries. I read and reread that chapter, trying to find something to quote here, but it is a chapter to be read as a whole. A few sentences, a paragraph, wouldn’t do justice to this emotional chapter.
Instead, I will leave you here with a quote from another part of the book. Equally unforgettable.
“In America, my voice is only powerful within our home. The moment I exit our front door and enter the paved roads, my deep voice loses its volume and its strength. When I speak English, I become like a leaf in the wind. I cannot control the direction my words will fly in the ear of the other person. I try to soften my landing in the language by leaving pauses between each word. I wrestle my accent until it is a line of breath in the tightness of my throat. I greet people. I ask for directions. I say thank you. I say goodbye. I only speak English at work when it is necessary. I don’t like the weakness of my voice in English, but what I struggle with most is the weakness of my words.”
You can read an excerpt of The Song Poet over at Literary Hub
I read this for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf challenge