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Professor Kalia Yang on writing, dreams and history

“I knew I would leave Carleton and do a lot of things, and maybe one day come back. I didn’t think I’d leave Carleton, die, and then come back.”

Athough she is a poet, Kalia Yang is not taking poetic license with that statement. Between the time that she graduated from Carleton to pursue an MFA at Columbia University and this fall, to when she returned as a Benedict Distinguished Visiting Faculty of English and American Studies, she died.

It took Yang a long and interesting journey to get here. She credits classes at Carleton for introducing her to a lifelong passion of writing. As a senior, Yang had a paper due for a Women’s and Gender Studies course with Professor Jane McDonald. Instead of submitting a paper, Yang submitted a long love letter to her grandmother, who had just died.

That letter confirmed for her that she should become a writer. Professor McDonald received the letter with affection and encouragement. Yang’s father, a poet himself, said something that stuck with Yang: “If you dream in the right direction,” he said, “you never wake up, and the dream never dies. It only ever grows bigger.” After that letter, Yang thought of herself as a writer.

Yang’s writing draws on the rich past of her family history. After she graduated from Columbia, she went on to write a book of poetry and two memoirs. One  memoir is about her father, a song poet who created his art by collecting things that he heard people say to each other in their day-to-day lives. Her other work is about the story of her family and their journey to the United States. As Yang was writing, she also married and began a family. She first gave birth to a daughter, and then became pregnant with twin boys. She had a healthy pregnancy, but after the birth there were complications.

“I thought I was going to die,” Yang says of the experience. “I literally saw the hands in the OR stand still, but everyone was still moving around me.” Although a friendly nurse told her that she was fine, complications with an epidural and local anesthetics combined to stop her heart. “The most horrible moment was when I was coming to,” she says. When they asked her to say her name, she replied in Hmong, so the doctors thought she was incoherent and made a central line to her heart.

Thankfully, she recovered well and is currently teaching two fall courses at Carleton: Writing Across Genres, a creative writing class, and Unwritten America, an American Studies class. “I came here to teach the courses that I wish I could have taken,” she says. Both of her classes include an element of personal creation, because her goal for her students is to teach them how to become producers of knowledge. “History is nothing more than the lives that men and women documented,” she says, and in her classes, each student writes their own history.

Kalia is making history herself as the first Hmong professor at Carleton. Although Hmong students have attended American colleges since the early 80s, there are still very few Hmong faculty members across the country. Kalia does take not that position lightly. “For first, second generation Hmong, immigrants, children of refugees,” she says, “We have to understand that history is made by people like us.”

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