The Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State University, Mankato hosted its final author event of the semester Thursday. Candace Black, soon retiring creative writing professor and host of the GTR Series, said she regrets not being unable to host in-person events.
“I’m hoping this was the last Good Thunder Zoom event,” she said.
Finalists for the Robert C Wright Award, named for a former MNSU English professor, saw their work honored. Winners included Tina Gross (first place), Ty Newcomb (second place) and Robyn Katona (third place).
Gross then introduced Hmong author Kao Kalia Yang, who has been writing award-winning books since 2009.
Yang began her reading with “The Most Beautiful Thing,” one of her newest children’s picture books.
“There is no better way to end the night than to read a children’s book. We’re going to do this old school,” she said, as she opened the book and turned it towards her camera so the audience could see the pictures.
“The Most Beautiful Thing” is a story of a young Hmong girl growing up with her grandmother in her home and how innocent she was to the troubles her family was facing.
“My grandmother is so old no one knows how old she is,” Yang read. “We know that my grandma was born on the other side of the world, across the ocean. … My grandma came from a time and a place where creatures lurked in the jungles.”
A consistent line throughout the story was, “she smiled at me.” Whether it was when the girl offered her grandmother an ice cube when they couldn’t afford ice cream, or a piece of bone from the soup when they couldn’t afford meat, her grandmother was smiling at her. And the smile was, Yang read, “the most beautiful thing.”
“This story is a memoir. Through my grandmother’s stories, I always felt like the little girl she was, was peeking at me from the past,” said Yang, closing the book.
She then moved to read an excerpt from “Somewhere in the Unknown World”, a collection of the stories from 14 refugees. “This book is for the refugees from everywhere, men, women and children, whose fates have been held by the nation,” Yang stated.
The story Yang read came from Myra, a Bosnian refugee to the U.S., in two different periods of her life. The first was her trips to refugee camps around the world as a representative of the American Refugee Committee, after she found solace here. The second, and longer story, was that of her childhood where she grew up in war-torn Bosnia.
She told of Myra’s experience growing up and being unable to open the curtains, of having to be prepared for bombs at any moment, of walking to school at the local refugee camp, of her father being away fighting the war and surviving on rations of bread and milk with her mother.
By the time the war ended, Myra was 8 years old and the town was in ruins. Her family was desperate to leave. They moved to the U.S. and, as she grew, Myra focused her learning on international studies and economics. She “wanted to help rebuild what the wars had broken.”
Yang ended the night with an emotional speech about her parents, specifically focusing on what they lost and what they tried to give her.
“If my mother could have it her way,” Yang said, “her daughter would write of beautiful things. Things like flowers that bloom without end, of incredible love, marriages built like the mountains themselves.”