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.

Building a Personal Reading List

faqsSome time ago, I got an email from reader Maxwell Shea who came across my FAQ lists and had additional questions. I’m posting my replies here, since they may be of interest to others as well.

Admittedly those FAQ lists are old and in need of updating, but that will have to wait until I have time on hand. Me and time, we’re constantly at odds.

Anyway, here we go:

MS: You said to try to read mostly newer books when getting a feel for how to write for children, but I don’t quite understand why you might say that, other than to say don’t try to copy other famous books.

UK: Well, here’s the deal. If you are submitting to today’s publishers, you’re just going to have to read a representative number of today’s books, to see where your voice is going to fit into the conversation. It’s not about copying someone else’s work, but rather understanding the range of subjects and sensibilities currently found in publishing catalogs, so you can figure out where the gaps exist that you and only you might be able to fill. Aside from gauging the field for submission purposes, I think a writer for young readers should read widely and deeply, across the age ranges, across the decades and also across borders of geography and culture. I tell my students that in each month’s bibliography they should read at least one book published before they were born, and one or two books published outside North America.

Nothing can replenish a writer’s wordbag like reading, so read generously. Learn to read critically. Write an annotation for every book you read, looking not for what you like and dislike but what you can learn from that book. If you want to write in a particular form (picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels), start reading now. Read 50 books before you try to write one. Read to see how others do the work you are seeking to do.

MS:Wouldn’t a voice with fresh ideas and some skill be equally at home finding inspiration in the richness of the early 70s as well as what’s on the bookshelf today? In fact, I actually am disappointed in a great deal of the new books I read when I go to a bookstore. There must be an insatiable demand for cuteness. I know there must be many more good books being published than I see at bookstores. I just can’t see how reading new books, whether as an adult would-be writer or as a child would be an improvement over a similarly rich bench of books from 40-50 years ago.

UK: We do have an amazing artistic history in our field, so sure, draw on whatever inspires you but remember that you can’t compete with books that are deemed classics, for one good reason. Those books are still around. Unlike in adult literary writing, where today’s writers aren’t competing with the giants of decades past, the nostalgia factor in the sale of children’s books is huge. I also think it’s a paradox of the art we work in that if we want to write something that endures, we must write the stories that matter to us and will resonate with children in a world that is vastly different from that of the 1970s. The word, in Paulo Freire’s terms, must connect the reader and the world.

Finally, don’t be too quick to write off today’s writers based on the overflow of cuteness on shelf at your local bookstore. If you can’t find indie bookstores with informed children’s/YA staff (and I know they’re scarce in many communities) scour library shelves instead. Get to know your local children’s and YA librarians. Read review journals and the many blogs that offer information and opinions on current books. Start making your own lists of books that speak to you, books that extend your thinking, books that make you want to read more, and books that make you want to write.

Reality, Fiction, and Why I Keep on Writing

The post that follows first appeared on author-illustrator and long-time e-mail friend and colleague Elizabeth Dulemba‘s blog. I got to meet Elizabeth in person when I spoke at Hollins University’s Francelia Butler Conference last year.

I’m reposting this piece here because I need to keep these things in mind as we embark upon a new year and the world seems to be plunging into ever greater chaos and cruelty. 00-01-ladyliberty

(More about Elizabeth Dulemba’s Lady Liberty poster here.)

It’s not always easy being a writer. A lot of people don’t get what I do. Many confess they’d love to write a children’s book. What they mean is that they don’t think it’s that difficult and so they’d love to be, not writers, but the authors of published books. It’s the product they’re after—the bright, glossy picture books, the cute middle grade jackets with smiley kid faces on them. Who wouldn’t want their names on books for young readers?

I’ll bet those same people would retract their wishes double-quick if I offered them a day at my desk. Working alone—four hours at a stretch without another human being to speak to face to face. A day spent writing 1,000 words and throwing out 500 of them. Facing the 15th revision of a novel and knowing I’m not there yet. Tossing out the picture book idea that has no traction, after spending months trying to wrangle it onto the page. And we’re not talking yet about fielding rejection letters.

So why do I write, other than for the inescapable reason that if I didn’t, I’d be unemployed?

I write because I have to. Because as a child growing up in India, I didn’t see myself in any of the books I read, so it took me until I was thirty-one and a new mother to figure out that real, live people could write children’s books. I write because the stories keep bubbling up. I only write the ones that won’t leave me alone, and there are still enough to keep me going for the rest of my days.

Sometimes I write in order to tell clear and simple truths. Out of the Way! Out of the Way! is the picture book story of a boy who takes a single, simple action, enables a tree to grow, and becomes witness to his changing community. No action, no tree.

Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh came from my interest in the stories of so-called “Mexican Hindu” families of California’s Yuba City and Imperial Valley. It began as an intellectual exercise and only became a story when I gave up authorial control and let the character lead the way. For example, I didn’t plan at first for the story to involve softball, but as I wrote successive drafts, that became inevitable. What sport would a girl pick, when what she longed for, above all, was to be recognized as American? I didn’t have a choice. That story led me to meet with descendants of those early Punjabi immigrants in Yuba City, to walk around Yuba City with a 1945 map in my hand, trying to see the place as it might have been.

In Book Uncle and Me, nine-year old Yasmin means to read a book a day for the rest of her life. When her supplier is threatened, she needs to take her nose out of her book and do something. There’s an election going on—isn’t that how things change in the real world? But wait—kids can’t vote. But then again, they have a voice. And they should use it, because sometimes grownups just can’t see sense.  I don’t say that last part in the book but I sure hope that kids get that subtext. I hope the readers of this book will grow up to be adults who vote, who keep an eye on their communities, who care about fixing corruption and unfairness in the world.

Let’s face it, the world is as beautiful or cruel a place as we humans make it. These days, there are times, especially when I turn on the news, that I’m just about ready to give up on humankind—our collective indolence, fear of powerful bullies, refusal to stand up for what’s right, the instinctive refuge we take in self-interest and self-preservation. But I also see stories of people who are brave and kind and generous and refuse to accept that cruelty and injustice are inevitable—people who put their own lives on the line for freedom and justice, or who volunteer their time and expertise in dangerous places, to help those who need it most.

And me? I write. And maybe, through my writing, I work on conveying a worldview that values hope and justice and fairness. If a book of mine validates child readers, if it helps to make them believe that a tree matters, if it shows them to speak out against unfairness, or imbues them with the will to make a difference—well then, I’ve done my job. I may not live to see that new and improved world for myself, but my readers might. Maybe some of them will even be instrumental in creating it.

 

Kazuo Ishiguro on Not Taking On a Creative Project Lightly

IMG_2140As the year comes to an end, and those of us who live by words take stock of our own, why not also take advice from the very best? Emily Temple gathers up a nice stash of writing advice from Kazuo Ishiguro, beloved author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go and our most recent Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Excerpt from Temple’s post on  LitHub:

Everything is built on the early part of the process. It’s important to be careful about what projects you take on, in the same way that you should examine someone you want to get married to. It’s different for everyone: should it be based on your experience, or do you write better at greatest distance, do you write best in a genre? Don’t take on a creative project lightly. —from an interview with Richard Beard.

That is up there with the best advice I’ve ever heard! Everyone always asks where writers get their ideas from. The truth is, ideas are cheap. Not every project that wafts through the mind will turn out to have staying power. Choose carefully.

I read The Remains of the Day in one big gulp years ago, and I still go back to it every now and then. It’s a beguiling dream that takes the reader through the narrator’s sad and lonely life. At the same time, it’s a critique of an unjust society that at once demands and ridicules his servility. And in the end, it connects the domestic world to the state of the larger world, to evils perpetrated there and to unwitting collusion with those evils. It’s a book that raises more questions than it answers and isn’t that the whole point? I also love that every book of Ishiguro’s is different. Each one is an experiment. Each one leaves its traces in my mind long after I’ve put it down.

This Globe and Mail interview offers a more personal view of a writer whose books I’ve long admired. Excerpt:

“I apologize to Margaret Atwood that it’s not her getting this prize. I genuinely thought she would win it very soon. I never for a moment thought I would. I always thought it would be Margaret Atwood very soon; and I still think that, I still hope that.”

And how about this? Ishiguro had been invited to attend the opening night of legendary Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa’s acclaimed production of Macbeth after the Nobel news broke, but decided not to go.

“We just had to cancel that because there will be Japanese press there and we just thought it might pull focus,” he says. “I thought it wouldn’t be right if people were trying to interview me about the Nobel Prize when they should be remembering the great Ninagawa.”

Isn’t that generous, courteous, humble, self-effacing, kind? Traits that are all in danger of going extinct in our time. Choosing carefully may be good advice for life as well.

Who, Me?

brokentusk
Recently a friend sent me this link: 5 Indian Authors that Your Child Must Read. “You’re on it,” she said.

Who, me?

Turns out I am indeed on that list–which was nice. Although it felt funny to see myself described as “a relatively new author.” Mind you, I suppose in comparison to Rudyard Kipling or Anant Pai, “relatively new” is just about right.

No problem, I’ll accept the validation!

The other day, I received an email from a child reader who wrote that her mom just gave her a copy of The Broken Tusk and she was enjoying the stories. Every writer has a book of the heart. This was my second book, edited by the wonderful Diantha Thorpe at a marvelous small press, Linnet Books, with a history of intelligent, interesting acquisitions–military history, literary reprints, and folk and traditional stories. Diantha taught me to write boldly, not to pull back when the going got tough. The message reminded me that this year, The Broken Tusk will be 10 20 years old. That’s right, 20! I can’t count, can I?

Just some of the fun stuff that happens when you’ve been at this business a while.