Process Talk: Kao Kalia Yang on Generous Memoir and the Dance of Picture Books

For me, the art of making the picture books is much like a dance, an orchestration of my words with someone else’s images. I lead. I follow. We move together across the page.

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is a poet, teacher, speaker and the author of three picture books written from the depths of her own experience as a Hmong American woman. Her debut children’s book, A Map Into the World is an American Library Association Notable Book, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, winner of the Northstar Best Illustrator Award, and winner of the 2020 Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature. 

I encountered Kalia’s work when I had the honor of judging the McKnight Artist Fellowship in Children’s Literature earlier this year.

I asked Kalia to talk to me about her picture books, including her new one, with this jewel of a jacket image:

[Uma] Kalia, what’s the relationship between poetry and picture books for you? 

Photo courtesy of Kao Kalia Yang

[Kalia] I come from a strong oral tradition. From a young age, I was taught that words must be able to write on memory. As well, the Hmong language is a tonal language; every breath I breathe into the world carries meaning. In this way, my use of language tends to live on the poetic possibilities–the way words look and the way they sound matter. For me, the art of making the picture books is much like a dance, an orchestration of my words with someone else’s images. I lead. I follow. We move together across the page. It is the flow and it is energy we create together that constitutes the final thing; it is not until the music ends, when we are breathless and free from the movement that the work is done. The very best picture books have always been like poetry to me. They make use of the air in my lungs and take me into a seamless performance between words and images. 

[Uma] The structure of your stories is fascinating to me. They turn unexpectedly, and the patterns they create recur in interesting and surprising ways. Can you talk about using the story cloth image in A Map into the World, say, or the beautiful connection of the child’s hands on the grandmother’s feet in The Most Beautiful Thing? How did these images fall into place for you and how did they become so integral to the story’s structure? 

[Kalia] In A Map into the World, it was very important to me that I write a story about a Hmong girl and her life in America–not the story so much of how she got here. I love the story cloth because it is such an integral part of the Hmong culture as a way of documenting the past and dreaming into the future–so I knew I wanted to name my protagonist Paj Ntaub. The story cloth, in my conversations with my own children, emerge as a kind of map for being–not just where to go but how to go. These aspects were important to me and I wanted to preserve them in the book because they are true to our lives but also represent so beautifully the experiences of first and second generation immigrants and refugee children. The things our parents carried are the things we used to become, make sense of, and build with in  the new places we call home. My hands as a child held and hugged my grandmother’s feet. The way her skin felt and the way my skin felt were the early contrasts in our relationship. I wanted to honor these facts and also enter into them fully for The Most Beautiful Thing. Much of my relationship to structure is built on my relationships to the people whose very lives have inspired and compelled me to tell their stories. My hands knew the feel of her feet more than my words, thus I needed the image to fulfill those long ago but persistent memories.

[Uma] “A melt in the freeze of their hearts.” What a beautiful line that is, and how it makes that family a single collective voice in The Shared Room. The conventions of western children’s books push us toward seeking a single protagonist. Here, this family, together, are the character. They move us precisely because they hurt and heal together. Your thoughts? 

[Kalia] From my very first book, I was interested in pushing the form of the memoir to be a more generous thing than it has traditionally been in American and western literature. Traditionally, the memoir is a form that belongs to the rich and famous, the illustrious individuals whose lives were of supposed interest. For me, that could never be what memoir was. So, in my very first book, I wrote The Latehomecomer and called it a family memoir. In this way, The Shared Room, continues the work that I started way back when I was still quite young, 22 years old. In a more particular war, the book is a story of grief. Grief is a shared experience in a family. To be true to that reality, I had to call on the single collective voice of the family.

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer something. What did you learn from writing each of these books?

[Kalia] A Map Into the World taught me how to stretch the seasons and make them longer, make them last on the page even as I and my characters acknowledge and grow with their passing. The Shared Room taught me how to carry grief as a member of a community without caving in, how to weep in the world of the picture book with my characters and my readers. The Most Beautiful Thing teaches me that every elder is a treasure trove of stories and to untangle the threads of one leads necessarily to the other. Grandma’s stories are not done. There are no happy endings in a story where a child dies, but there are many reasons to nurture the fire she’d lit with her life. All the things we love and have stored in our hearts will be for others, in their moments of need, maps and story cloths for the life that is still here. The books have taught me in process, they teach me still now that they are in the world and in the hands of readers.

[Uma] What sustains you in this work?

[Kalia] It is a great joy to write for children. It is fun to travel through the layers of experience and the debris of the years to unravel for myself the magic of my own childhood, to open myself to the experiences of my own children and the world they are now living and growing in. To write for children is to offer up my imagination and my heart to the little stories that form the bigness of the world. It is a gift I cherish. 

Thank you, Kalia, for sharing your unique and stirring perspective.

All the Singing

In the time of COVID-19, when humans no longer crowd the streets, when airplanes no longer fill the sky, our mornings are once again becoming filled with birdsong.

Whenever I need to retreat from the world’s bleaker narratives, I find it helps me to think of birds. Sometimes they’re metaphorical birds, as in Mary Oliver’s White-Eyes:

In winter 
    all the singing is in 
         the tops of the trees 
             where the wind-bird 

with its white eyes 
    shoves and pushes 
         among the branches. 

Or a range of birds of all kinds through several centuries, as in The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee.

Or a photograph of vultures in India, seen here nesting on an ancient monument in Orchcha, Madhya Pradesh. Vultures are still in heartstopping danger despite grand announcements of recovery plans.

Then there’s the annual miracle of bird migration. It’s easy to become mesmerized by the flowing patterns of flight on the remarkable animated map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, created from millions of observations from the eBird citizen science database, and documenting the migratory movements of 118 different species.

Or this account of the massive scale and the fragile balance of the Amur falcon migration that goes in an east-west as well as a north-south direction, 2,400 miles from eastern Asia to wintering grounds in southern Africa.

“All the singing voices,” Mary Oliver says. And all the soaring wings. I try to carry them in me, to the best of my ability.

Visions of Revision

Art_of_losingA recent issue of the AWP journal, The Writer’s Chronicle, includes an article by Philip Metres titled “The Art of Losing (and Other Visions of Revision).”

Metres (is that not a fantastic name for a poet?) had me with his opening:

Recently, when I asked fiction writer Derek Green for a nugget of wisdom about revision, he relayed what Caryl Phillips had told him: “you never finish a work, you only abandon it.” I’d always heard that 19th century French poet Paul Valery had served up this wisdom, but I discovered that’s it’s much older than that. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo DaVinci apparently said that “art is never finished, only abandoned.” And probably DaVinci heard it from somebody else. No doubt, we’ll soon discover some grumpy cuneiform writer who is complaining about his busted stylus and the ending of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

This blog is named for the mythic scribe with an elephant head who broke off his own tusk to use as a stylus in order to keep a writing bargain. How could I not be hooked?

“The Art of Losing” goes considerably beyond common revision narratives of drudgery and loss.  It suggests that we need to make revision our friend. We need to move toward the work as it reveals itself.

Move toward the work. Here is the missing piece in how I have tended to think about writing. One half of the process, the way I see it, is to keep in mind the impulse that led to this story bubbling up for me in the first place. To honor my intention for it as a writer, and to gauge all critical readers’ comments in the light of that intention. That has always worked when I’m in draft mode, or even while I’m assessing feedback on a work in progress.

But somehow, by the time I get to revising, my beautiful intention always seems to get fragmented. What shows up on the page rarely gleams as brightly as the original spark. I begin to question my intention, and in that questioning, the work itself threatens to disintegrate. But Metres says the work is not full of mistakes and it’s not broken. It’s just not itself yet. So in revision, he suggests the writer needs to move towards the work that is still unfolding. Even, or maybe especially, if it’s going in a different direction from the one I might’ve envisaged for it? There’s a thought.

The other reason this article made so much sense, of course, is that it cited a poem I loved when I first read it and have loved more with each passing year. The poem is Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, which begins:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
The intent to be lost. That’s exactly it. Many of the other revision wisdoms in  the article have to do with words and lines and stanzas, the stuff of poetry. They’re all worthy and interesting but they won’t change how I revise.
But placing revision in the context of losing and loss, and celebrating it–that gives me a whole new metaphor to live with and write by.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Those were the words that led to Senator Jeff Flake’s spine suddenly kicking into gear, which in turn led to this week’s FBI investigation of the allegation by a decorous, professional, polite, restrained accuser, against an angry, outraged, arrogant, self-righteous candidate for the highest court in the land. Whatever might transpire, those spoken words remain. Look at me.

Important words. If you don’t look at me you are telling me that I don’t matter. If you don’t look at me, you are telling me you don’t care. But also, look at me and acknowledge that I have power. My words have power. They count. I count.

LookatmeIt’s no coincidence, I think, that the command, “Look at me,” so commonly used when an adult is speaking to an unruly child (so ludicrously appropriate when spoken to national leaders who have lost their collective way) is only a word and a punctuation mark removed from June Jordan‘s glorious poem, “Who Look at Me?”

Excerpt:

Who look at me?

Who see the children
on their street the torn down door the wall
complete an early losing
games of ball
the search to find
a fatherhood a mothering of mind
a multimillion multicolored mirror
of an honest humankind?

Say it out loud. Humankind–a word with depths of meaning from which we have strayed. The world could use a mothering of mind.

Tell Them We Are Nothing Without Our Islands

Laura_beach_n_tree_(170671778)

By Stefan Lins from Tokyo, Japan (Laura beach n’ tree) [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

The Marshall Islands were settled by master navigators three thousand years ago, fought over by European powers, Imperial Japan, and the United States of America, then bludgeoned during the cold war by the infamous US Bikini Atoll atomic explosions. I’d venture to say most people in North America still have no idea where they are. But we should care, because these islands are the canaries in the mine where we all find ourselves, like it or not.

Here, from Marshall Islands poet and activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, chronicler of her fragile homeland, is an eloquent plea:

What Others Miss

Now is the time to look, attend, be aware, pay heed to the infinite world.

IMG_1520.JPGIn the words of Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem:

There is a fire in the lashes of my eyes.
It doesn’t matter where I am, it could be in a small room.
The glimmer of gold Böhme saw on the kitchen pot
Was missed by everyone else in the house.

I have always wanted to be one of those people Henry James talks about:

Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, “Write from experience, and experience only,” I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

Monition. Now there’s a word you don’t hear too much these days. It’s a word worth reviving.

Because…look!​

​On the Isle of Skye, sheep! Dawdlers supreme, and a monition to attend to this minute. The only minute we really ever have.

“In the sea, they will hold funerals”

In case we are tempted to think of the  1990s as a cultural wasteland defined by incongruous clashing motifs and Prozac Nation, let us remember that was the decade that launched National Poetry Month. On the steps of a post office in New York City, we are told, with a reading of T. S. Eliot’s (what else?) The Wasteland, which begins:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Echo-cover-PRINT1
David Portrait 3Mixing memory and desire. Apt words to tap the yearning, unerring poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, best beloved Japanese children’s poet and a symbol if there ever was one of beauty emerging from sorrow. David Jacobson is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a picture book that not only speaks with honesty and grace about the poet’s life but also includes translations of some of her poetry. I asked David a few questions about his lovely book:

[Uma] Every book begins with a writer’s longing or a dream. What was your journey with this book?

SallyCover copy

Sally Ito, translator

Michiko portrait

Michiko Tsuboi, translator

[David] The dream came to me a year or so after I became acquainted with Misuzu’s poetry. Probing into her backstory, I learned of her tragic life, and was startled to discover that she was virtually unknown in North America.  I couldn’t believe she had been so overlooked, even by academics.  (I have subsequently been shocked to learn how few children’s authors from Japan get translated into English: only about 6 a year!)  I then made it my mission to spread the word about her through this book.  Fortunately, I was able to assemble a team of those who felt the same way: translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi and illustrator Toshikado Hajiri.

Toshi portrait

Toshikado Hajiri, illustrator

We are all so thrilled that the book is starting to reach those who never heard of Misuzu before, especially those who don’t have a particular interest in Japan.

 

[Uma] The opening poem, Big Catch, is so brilliant and so startling in how it suddenly throws the reader off kilter, plunges us into empathy in spite of ourselves. And I loved how you framed this book so a child of the 20th century serves as witness to this older life. How did these layers of narrative come together for you?

[David] From the start, there were a lot of elements I wanted to include in this book:  Misuzu’s life story, the story of her rediscovery, the tsunami, and most of all, lots of examples of her poetry, in both English and Japanese.  Others tried to dissuade me from doing all this in a single book, but my publisher, Bruce Rutledge, supported me, partly because he and I felt that this might be our one and only chance to introduce Misuzu to the English-speaking world.  Given all those elements, we knew from the start that we would need to divide the book into a narrative section and a poetry section, and then within the narrative create a frame within which we could introduce Misuzu’s life story.  So the story laid itself out, and we just had to fill in the blanks.  Looking back at my first draft, I see that the structure was there from the beginning, but the specific text has changed dramatically.

[Uma] Tell me about the work you did with Sally Ito, the translator. 

[David] The work I did with Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi constituted the real core of putting the book together. We all stretched beyond our nominal roles in the project. Though ostensibly “translators,” Sally and Michiko made extensive textual and content-related edits to the narrative, which is why they got additional credit on the title page.  Though “author,” I edited their translations of the poetry and challenged their interpretations of the Japanese.  Over the course of about 4-5 months, we produced some 40 drafts of the narrative and multiple drafts of each poem (including a number that weren’t included in the book).  Michiko, who is Japanese born and bred, was a little shocked, I believe, by our occasional disagreements over wording.  But I think our close and sometimes confrontational collaboration, cemented by our mutual love for Misuzu’s poetry, made it a better book.

Echo_spread

[Uma] Thank you, David, for sharing some of the background to Are You An Echo? A literary life revealed for young readers, along with exquisite poetry, all in a lovingly crafted picture book container.

More from David on Sally Ito’s work translating Misuzu Kaneko’s poetry.

Poetry and Claiming Voice

IMG_1335.JPGIn Vermont this January, when author-illustrator Don Tate signed a copy of his beautiful picture book for me, he wrote, “Love words.” I always have. For many of us it was words and their power that drew us to the uncertain and often unpredictable vocation of a writer. And no form distills words better than poetry.

In times of crisis, poetry gives us a way to claim voice, assert ourselves, protest injustice; it enables us to “live in the along,” as Gwendolyn Brooks put it. It helps us maintain a kind of necessary conviction that we will, in the end, be right, even if that juster, kinder end seems deeply endangered at the moment.

Don talked to us in workshop about how he went about the work of creating this glorious picture book about poet George Moses Horton. What a story this is! Here’s an excerpt from the entry on Horton on the University of North Carolina’s web site, Documenting the American South:

By the time he was twenty, George Moses Horton had begun visiting the campus of The University of North Carolina….There he sold students acrostics on the names of their sweethearts at twenty-five, fifty, and seventy-five cents. For several decades he “bought his time” from his masters through the sale of his poems and through the wages collected as a campus laborer.

Horton loved words. That’s where it all began.

I was especially fascinated by how Don has integrated the poet’s experience of words into the design of his book.

img_1337Here is the preacher’s soaring rhetoric.

 

 

 

 

 

img_1339Here are the alphabets floating into the boy’s understanding, as he’s drawn irresistibly to the empowering skill of reading, a skill forbidden to his people.

There are lessons in this book that arise organically from its story and fall gently upon the mind. They arise from love and family and community, and from a boy’s deep, abiding desire to know the written word. A compelling story, brought to the page with a loving hand.

Thank you, Don Tate and Peachtree Publishers.

Indian Poet Gulzar on Translating Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore is a legend. My mother, who knows Bangla well, has always Gitanjalimaintained that the poet’s own English translations of his masterpiece, Gitanjali, feel clumsy and pale in comparison to the original text. Poet Gulzar talks about his translations into Hindi of two Tagore poetry collections for children.

To explain the meaning in a line is easy. You are not translating a word, it’s the meter and then shades of those words. A word has many shades and you have to choose the correct shade out of it. You won’t find that meaning in a dictionary.