Kao Kalia Yang’s autobiographical novel, The Latehomecomer chronicles the journey of a Hmong refugee family as they flee from the jungles of Laos to Thailand refugee camps and the processes of transition and assimilation in the United States. Yang explains that as she becomes aware of her cultural heritage she is motivated to preserve the endangered stories of the Hmong people. Her grandmother serves as the author’s largest resource, but the memoir also includes recollections from other family members as they recount the arduous and horrific odyssey of a Hmong refugee. Terrifying descriptions of escape from Vietcong soldiers, the atrocious conditions of refugee camps, transit to the United States, and experiences as first-generation immigrants help to inform our understanding of Hmong in the twentieth-century.
The fragility of life is a common theme in the novel. Generations of Hmong people have spent their lives in the company of death. Yang explains that the Hmong are a people without a country, first driven out of China, and then out of Laos. From 1960 to 1975, the Secret War in Laos devastated the Hmong population, “A third of the Hmong died in the war with the Americans. Another third were slaughtered in its aftermath.” Living as refugees in Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, death was still ever present. Yang was born in the refugee camp and describes it as a place where “death cries in familiar voices.” Hmong lives in the camp were lost to illness like dysentery and polio, or infection from spoiled food and unsanitary living conditions. The camp population was also reduced by suicide, especially around the New Year when Hmong saw the new beginning as an opportunity to escape their abominable conditions.
The Yang family eluded death more than once. Escape from Laos required crossing across a three-quarter mile-wide portion of the Mekong River. The author details how this precarious task was exacerbated by starvation, exhaustion, infection, and deteriorating heath. The author’s eldest sister, Dawb, almost succumbed to the conditions, but the infant refused to surrender. Polio put Dawb’s life in peril again at the age of two, but the toddler survived, a shorter left leg and limp, a reminder of the infectious disease. In her desire to provide her husband with a son, Yang’s mother was plagued by miscarriages, perhaps the result of nutritional deficiency. Yang reveals that her mother suffered at least six miscarriages at Ban Vinai Refugee camp, “babies who were formed enough for the adults to know they were sons, but who were small and blue and dead.” The author further explains, “Being sick was a horrible way to live because it meant that death was close by.” The refugee camp had a clinic, but Yang recalls that, “more dead people came out of that door than any other building in the camp.” The Hmong were constantly reminded how fragile life is, and we realize that the Hmong are survivors.
The Yang’s new life in...