Michael Kleber-Diggs and Kao Kalia Yang on How Minnesota’s Literary Community Is Reacting to Racial Injustice
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
Poet Michael Kleber-Diggs and memoirist Kao Kalia Yang join co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to discuss Minnesota’s complex history with immigrants, as well as how the Twin Cities’ literary scene is responding in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. First, Kleber-Diggs reads from his forthcoming debut poetry collection, Worldly Things, and talks about being a Black poet in Minnesota. Then, Yang reflects on her experience entering the literary community as a Hmong refugee, and reads from her new book, Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir.
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player above. And check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel and Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel. This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
Worldly Things • There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love: Letters from a Crisis edited by Tracy K. Smith and John Freeman • “Letter From St. Paul: On the Complex Flavors of Black Joy,” Literary Hub • You. Are. Not. Welcome. Here. Being Black in Minnesota, Minnesota Reformer
Kao Kalia Yang
Somewhere in the Unknown World • The Latehomecomer • The Song Poet • A Map into the World • The Shared Room• The Most Beautiful Thing • What God Is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color co-edited with Shannon Gibney
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman • Walter Mondale, Ex-Vice President Under Jimmy Carter, Dies at 93, The New York Times • The Center for Victims of Torture • The Advocates for Human Rights • ‘These People Aren’t Coming From Norway’: Refugees in a Minnesota City Face a Backlash • Refugenius/Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay
With Michael Kleber-Diggs
Whitney Terrell: Minneapolis became this incredible, maybe the second biggest city of publishing in America, other than New York. I’m proud of Kansas City and we’re doing cool things here. We have Andrews McMeel, that’s a really good press. But there’s a ton of great presses there and all kinds of literary life that grew up during this time. And yet at the same time, I’m wondering how that literary life has been reacting to the murder of George Floyd.
Michael Kleber-Diggs: Yeah, you make a good point, Whitney. We have Milkweed here, Coffee House is here, Graywolf is here, Mizna is here, and we have a vibrant and thriving literary arts community. When events happen that shape a city, when Derek Chauvin kills George Floyd and before that, [the death of] Philando Castile and before that, Jamar Clark, and since then Daunte Wright … you start to get a sense for the character of a place. Minnesota is not one thing, and it’s not one place. And there are a lot of people who live here, representing a lot of different traditions and philosophies and ideas. And we express that a lot of times through literature. When I think about our literary arts scene, I’d like to think that we are close-knit, in some respects. I’d like to think that we’re not given over to scarcity thinking, that we can be generous and supportive of each other and gravitate toward abundance, and recognition that if it’s not my turn tonight, it will be next year or the year after. But I also would say that some of the same separation that exists in Minnesota at large exists within our literary spaces.
I think from time to time about this Dick Gregory quote—the comedian and civil rights activist and vegetarian who was really prominent in the 60s and 70s—he said, [“Down South, white folks don’t care how close I get as long as I don’t get too big. Up North, white folks don’t care how big I get as long as I don’t get too close.”] And one of the things that exists within our communities here is real spatial separation. People of color tend to gather in the metro areas in the Twin Cities and within specific neighborhoods. And white people tend to largely inhabit the suburbs and exurbs and specific neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, but that also happens a little bit in our literary community. There are a lot of people here who are making a conscious effort to promote racial equity, gender equity, to eradicate ableism and misogyny from our literary scene here. They are a group of writers who are working hard to make sure that, for example, poetry readings always include people of color, and consider racial diversity as they’re putting panels together and things along those lines. We also have a number of writers of color who are gathering in community, who are doing just fine. We’ve got our own thing and we’re super happy with how it’s going. Everyone’s welcome to come, and if only our people come, we’re cool with that. But I think there’s been an effort to be more inclusive, to challenge racial injustice and to look for ways to bring forward voices that have historically been excluded.
WT: So, your book is a 2021 book …
MKD: It’s a 2021 book coming out in June.
WT: My university in the state of Missouri with a bunch of other universities is starting a Maya Angelou Book Award for writing about social justice. The applications are due May 3. Call your publisher on Monday and send something in!
MKD: Yeah, absolutely! By the way, I do have a Maya Angelou story. When I was 14 or 15, she came to Wichita. And my mom’s like, we’re going to go have dinner with friends that we ate with often and a very special guest is going to be there and you have to come. My brother and I were both at that age where we had our own calendar—I don’t want to go have dinner with some poet or whatever. Anyway, we were required to go. It was amazing. I couldn’t get over it, her voice, her personality, she was super down to earth and engaging. And she acted the entire time like someone who was always at that house for dinner. And then after we left, I started to check out her work and got a sense for who I shared dinner with. I was in awe of her before that, but after that… I’m glad I didn’t know—I would have been too nervous.
WT: She was born in St. Louis, which I didn’t know. So we’re reclaiming her or trying to claim her for Missouri and her family’s involved in this. I never got to meet her. I’m jealous.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: That is such a cool story. I’m imagining little Michael hanging out with Maya Angelou. I think one of the things that you just said about Minnesota literary culture that’s so interesting to me is that we don’t have a culture of scarcity. And I think that one of the ways that that manifests kind of aesthetically is that there’s a feeling to me here that one can take artistic risks, that there’s greater freedom to do that. Because there’s not such a premium on, for example, space. You see a lot of writers who maybe in other cities would be writing alone in their apartments, but maybe here they’re doing performance things that they might not have space to do elsewhere. That’s just one example. And then I think it leads to interesting takes on form. And one of the poems in your book that made me think about this was the poem for Freddie Gray. I’m from Maryland. I thought of asking you to read this. And then I looked at the poem [holding it up to screen], for those of you who are not on our YouTube channel, check it out. You can see the visual of this poem, which has some really stunning elements, there’s boldface, strikethrough, there’s like this way that the poem handles time, as though many different timelines are happening in the poem at the same time, which I found to be a really powerful way to think about Freddie Gray’s murder. And it’s such a visual poem, I wondered how you think about reading it aloud. Also, I would love to hear you talk about playing with form and text on the page when you’re writing.
MKD: So in the form in that poem, literally, the reader’s asked to imagine that a journalist has written a newspaper article about what happened to Freddie Gray, who was killed in police custody as a result of a “rough ride,” which was common in Baltimore at the time—that police would put someone in the back of a van and then do hard turns and sudden stops while they’re handcuffed, just absolutely brutal behavior. So in the poem, I imagine that a journalist has written a newspaper article about that incident and in that article, they’ve extended to Freddie Gray full humanity, he’s an actual person, he has siblings. When the article talks about where he lives, there are no pejoratives that are applied to it. It’s just a place where people live, no assumptions are made about the knife. And to the extent that his history with the criminal system is referenced, it’s contextualized. But then an editor comes through and strikes out certain passages, and adds new descriptors in bold type. At the time, I was working in a law department at a logistics company, and I negotiated a lot of contracts. The way that that’s done is you track changes, and you delete things that don’t work for you, and you add new language as a proposal. So what doesn’t work is removed, or proposed for removal. What you’d like to add appears in bold type and then a different color, usually. I was drawing on that background and writing that poem and hoping to have a conversation about journalism. And the way that journalism talks about people who’ve died as a result of institutional or state violence, and the tendency to embrace—all too willingly—negative stereotypes. Also to not speak about the people who have died as real people, as full human beings, to set them within the context of a lived life.
In terms of reading it, I’ve done it two ways. Because I’ve been Zoom reading a lot, I have been able to put it on a screen. So I read what the journalist wrote, and behind me the text has been changed. When I recorded the audio book for Worldly Things, it’s two poems, and I just read both versions, back to back. But when that idea came to me, it kind of allowed me to have a conversation that I wanted to have. That’s a conversation that is important to me in the book itself. In my life, I never want to plead for my humanity to be seen. The people who can’t see it are not the people I’m trying to reach. But I do want to place within context our national tendency, and I’m sure it exists in other countries as well, to blame the victim. To begin early on the practice of justifying what happened to them, even if it’s absolutely not justifiable, even if a nine-year-old would know that it’s wrong.
With Kao Kalia Yang
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So we spoke earlier in this episode to Michael Kleber-Diggs about the ways that Minnesota’s literary community has responded to the murder of George Floyd, the protests and uprising last summer, and the recent verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial. And your memoir, The Latehomecomer, was published by Coffee House and you’ve won Minnesota Book Awards. So I’d like to ask you how welcoming the vibrant literary world of Minnesota, and specifically the Twin Cities, has been to writing by Minnesotans who are also refugees.
Kao Kalia Yang: I am part of a small movement in terms of the emergence of the refugee writer in the Minnesota landscape, a state that is dominated by white folk. When I came out, I think nobody quite expected the book to do as well as it did. I remember having a conversation with Chris Fischbach, who was then the editor and then became the publisher and is no longer with the press, but who continues to be a friend of mine, about the book and I said, “what if it’s huge?” And he said to me, “I don’t think so, Kalia. We’re not going to move that fast.” First we want it to be, and then we want it to survive. And we’ll hope that it continues. The journey of The Latehomecomer has been in many ways a modest journey, a grassroots journey. First, it was the teachers who taught students like me, who welcomed the books into their book clubs, and then their classrooms. And every step of the way it was individuals who were connected to the refugee story in some fundamental or professional perspective, and could say, “that guy did it alone.” With that said, I’ve had an incredible journey as a Minnesota author. I’m not what people think about when they think about Minnesota, but when I emerge, I think people are kind of pleasantly surprised that a writer like me can thrive and survive here. And the truth is, Sugi, as unprepared as literary America was for me, as white Minnesota was for me, I was also unprepared, I had a lot of learning to do along that journey. And in many ways, the halts and the stops have allowed me room and space to grow and develop in a much more deliberate way than what instant fame and recognition and acceptance would have done for me.
Whitney Terrell: When you talk about learning along the way what are you talking about, specifically? What kind of things do you think you’ve learned during that journey?
KKY: So for the Hmong, the written language is new. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a French missionary devised a written script to translate the Bible for the Hmong of Laos. Legend says that we had a written language many years ago, in the lowlands of China. There was a cultural genocide, and the language was outlawed. The women and the girls tried to hide it in our clothing, Hmong women are known internationally for embroidery. But there was a reason why. So we tried to hide the language for generations, and now it is a language lost to flowers and symbols. So when I became a writer, I really didn’t have a model for how to do this. I come from an incredibly rich oral culture, an oral culture in which my uncle would tell me that the purpose of a story is like the stop sign on the road of life. That we must stop, check both sides, check the trajectory of the horizon before we continue. Entering into the form of the story, I knew that I would never meet an interpretation like that, unless I put it there and had room to contribute. And so seeing even the spaces and places of something new along this journey as well. Everybody knows The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman’s seminal work. And for so many that was their introduction to the Hmong culture. The way the Hmong family is portrayed in that book—as folk caught in the traditions of the past, as perhaps primitive people here in America meeting this medical industry, that’s what people expected. And so for the first three years of my life I had to sit through many, many conversations where very well meaning people were like, “you speak English so well,” or “we’re so impressed with your journey.” As if it was a singular thing. I’m a communal thing, a writer emerges from a community, not just a family. But there was a lot of that for me to learn, and to begin to stake my ground and to articulate who I am, and what I’m doing in the landscape. So all in all, from the form itself to my audience, as well as the pathway of a writer, these were things that I knew were part of that journey in establishing for my people and many other refugee people who are also new to what is written.
WT: So this commitment to refugees has a history in Minnesota. And Minnesota is a famously progressive liberal state. Walter Mondale, who recently died, won Minnesota and that was the only state he won when he ran for president against Ronald Reagan. The state still votes Democratic, but in recent years, especially outside of the Twin Cities, it’s starting to be more and more conservative. So what is this change about and how does it reflect attitudes toward refugees? Is Minnesota willing to be liberal and welcoming only up to the point at which the overwhelming white majority begins to worry that it’s not so overwhelming anymore?
KKY: That remains to be seen. We are in the trenches of that operation in many ways. Minnesota first became a stopping point for refugees because of its incredible churches: Lutheran churches, Catholic churches, all of the churches here were part of the original resettlement program. And then once these refugees were resettled here, they continued to sponsor other family members. And then because Minnesota is a headquarters state for so many corporations like 3M or Medtronics there were a lot of low skilled jobs in the factories. That is one reason why my mom and dad came here and left the fields of California, where other Hmong refugees were headed. Because they knew that they had two girls, they knew that the size of our hands and our feet were small, and that we would not be able to venture far on the fields. They hoped that perhaps within this framework, they could get jobs and we could get educated. And one day we could be able to build with our hearts and our minds. They understood well the limits of the human hands. That’s how we ended up here. And that’s how I think so many families and other refugees continue to enter into the state.
What is interesting is that places like Rochester or Mankato are also becoming focal points of refugee resettlement. So populations like Somalis are popping up in places like Marshall, Minnesota, because of poultry farms and those factories. And so slowly around these things, not just within the Twin Cities, we’re beginning to see models of the Twin Cities in other parts of the state. And I think that’s alarming for a lot of folk. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Daunte Wright was murdered in Brooklyn Center. Brooklyn Center, if you look at the history of the suburb, in the last 25 years, more than any American suburb, its demographics have shifted. It was white, and now the predominant population is no longer white. And so I was personally not surprised by what happened there. I interviewed and thought extensively about writing about Brooklyn Center in Somewhere in the Unknown World, and of course, it never made it into the manuscript. But I think that is a part of these cities that we have to reckon with. Minnesota is a state full of paradoxes. We have the Phillips neighborhood, the most linguistically diverse neighborhood in the whole country here. We have more Korean adoptees in the state than any other, beyond just the refugees. We have all of these interesting things happening. We have more international Chinese students here at the University of Minnesota than any other institution across the land. There are a lot of influences, a lot of thoughts and ideas, and a lot of realities converging here. I think to deliver a new Minnesota there’s going to be a delivery process. And I think that is perhaps that we’re seeing. Optimistically, I hope that’s what we’re seeing.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope, Audrey Seider, Iris Borne. Photo of Michael Kleber-Diggs by Ayanna Muata. Photo of Kao Kalia Yang by Shee Yang.
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