Local author releases collective memoir of refugee stories

Kao Kalia Yang recently released “Somewhere in the Unknown World,” piecing together refugee voices into a thoughtful and powerful collection of narratives.

Author+Kao+Kalia+Yang+poses+in+her+backyard+with+her+most+recent+book%2C+%E2%80%9CSomewhere+in+the+Unknown+World%E2%80%9D+on+Monday%2C+Nov.+9.+Yang+will+appear+at+the+Immigration+History+Research+Center+and+the+International+Rescue+Center%E2%80%99s+virtual+event+on+Nov.+16+to+discuss+her+new+work%2C+which+features+the+stories+of+refugees+in+Minnesota.

Emily Urfer

Author Kao Kalia Yang poses in her backyard with her most recent book, “Somewhere in the Unknown World” on Monday, Nov. 9. Yang will appear at the Immigration History Research Center and the International Rescue Center’s virtual event on Nov. 16 to discuss her new work, which features the stories of refugees in Minnesota.

Emalyn Muzzy, Arts and Entertainment Reporter

Capturing the stories of refugees isn’t an easy job, but for Kao Kalia Yang, sharing the lives of others is what gives her a purpose.

The St. Paul-based author released her latest book, “Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir,” on Nov. 10 and is gearing up for a virtual book launch with the University of Minnesota on Nov. 16.

“Somewhere in the Unknown World” tells the stories of 14 different refugees from across the world. Coming from places like Somalia and Russia, everyone in the book ended up in Minnesota, Yang said.

Minnesota has more refugees per capita than any other state in the country, according to the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota.

For Yang the stories are personal.

“Long before I knew I was going to be an author, I’ve been collecting refugee stories as a refugee myself,” Yang said. “I went across the stretch of my community, which was not very hard at all.”

Yang met fellow refugees at her son’s school, in the doctor’s office and through friends. Through the community connections, she was able to build together a web of stories, all sharing a similar experience but with different details.

“It tells stories from so many different people and communities. It helps us understand … what it’s like to have to flee for your lives in fear of persecution, what it’s like to be forced to come to a new country and start all over,” said Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. “But there are also stories of young people and people in love and people who are going through the same stages of young adulthood that everyone goes through.”

Lee commended Yang on her ability to take personal and unique stories and frame them in a way that everyone can understand.

“The book is both an evocative work of literature and an act of connection, letting everyone enter into lives and histories that aren’t usually visible,” said Yang’s editor, Riva Hocherman in an email.

As the first Hmong American author to publish a novel in the United States, Yang said she feels a great deal of responsibility when writing. She knows that by virtue of simply being a Hmong American writing and speaking about refugee experiences, she’s representative of her community.

She wants to use the power and recognition she has to tell refugee stories. “These stories are incredible. But they’ve been incredibly silent,” Yang said.

Lee said that refugee stories are especially important right now given the current government administration. In 2020, a maximum of 18,000 refugees are allowed into the United States, the lowest ever recorded refugee cap, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Before Trump, the lowest refugee cap was 67,000 refugees in 1986.

Yang is partnering with the University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center and the International Rescue Committee to host a virtual book launch on Nov. 16 at 4 p.m. Yang will read a book excerpt, have a conversation with Lee, and the IRC will talk about immigration policy.

You can find the Zoom link for the event on the IHRC website.

Yang’s book shows positive representation of refugees, something that the community desperately needs, according to Lee. For Yang, it’s all about using her gift with words for good.

She said, “Writing gives me purpose. Writing helps me find meaning. Writing gives me a venue to speak to the world that I love so much.”