America is steeped in stories of immigrants. But what does it mean to be a refugee? And how does someone seeking refuge foster their native culture in a new and strange land?
Some answers likely will be part of The Latehomecomer, a Literature to Life event that will include shows March 16-17 – each at 7:30 p.m. – in the Gorecki Family Theater at the College of Saint Benedict.
The book, by Minnesota writer Kao Kalia Yang, will take audible and visual form as a single actor, Gaosong Heu, performs every character during the stage production.
Yang’s gripping memoir tells of her experience as a young girl, born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand. The narrative follows her journey to a new life in the United States at age 6. Including perspective from her parents and grandmother as well, the story explores themes of home, family, opportunity, acceptance and obligation.
Yang and her family are among thousands of Hmong families who made the journey from war-torn Laos to a better future. She felt driven to tell her family’s story after her grandmother’s death, providing an alternative view to a legacy generally shaped by others. There was no written language for the Hmong people until the 1950s. She said it took four years to write the content, but “centuries and centuries” to live it.
Yang’s work, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award for nonfiction and Minnesota's Book and Readers Choice awards, is the first memoir written by a Hmong-American to be published with national distribution.
The real victory, however, is the story of her journey from a quiet, reticent student struggling to speak English while facing racial discrimination, to a self-empowered young woman claiming her voice to tell the untold story of her people.
Heu is a Hmong actress and singer based in St. Paul. She has more than 15 years of training in classical music and traditional Hmong folk music. She received her bachelor’s degree in theater arts at the University of Minnesota and her masters in arts administration from Columbia University in 2020. The Latehomecomer premiered in New York City in 2021 and has been on tour ever since.
For more than three decades, Literature to Life has adapted American literary classics for the stage. Founder Wynn Handman championed American writers of diverse backgrounds as “voices worth hearing,” something that was a pioneering notion in the 1960s. Now under the leadership of co-founding artistic director Elise Thoron, the organization supports artists and educators who bring the voices of diverse authors to thousands of students and audiences nationwide, giving them the tools to become the empowered “voices worth hearing.” The goal is to inspire young people to read and become authors of their own lives, and that through literature we can all find common ground to build a just, inclusive society based on human truth.
Following each production of The Latehomecomer, there will be a discussion led by a teaching artist from Literature to Life.
Tickets, ranging from $8 for CSB and SJU students to $32 for regular admission, are available at https://www.csbsju.edu/fine-arts/performances. The show is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. The National Endowment for the Arts also contributed to funding for the show.
The Latehomecomer relates the experience of a young girl, born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand. The narrative follows her journey to a new life in the United States at age 6. Including perspective from her parents and grandmother as well, the story explores themes of home, family, opportunity, acceptance and obligation.