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Photo: Brian Peterson
Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang with her father, Bee Yang. The daughter’s lyrical book about Bee Yang’s unconsciously artistic storytelling,
The Song Poet, will be turned into a youth opera in Minnesota.

When I was working at a magazine that focused on the concerns of lower-income communities, I sometimes tried to get the voices of immigrant authors in there. One such author was Kao Kalia Yang, a Minnesota Hmong writer whose work I greatly admired.

Yang spent her early childhood enduring the privations of a refugee camp in Thailand but eventually moved with her family to St. Paul, where poverty and a strange new culture made life difficult in whole new ways.

One of Yang’s lyrical memoirs focuses on her father and the way he sang stories about life in the old country that brought other Hmong immigrants to tears. Now it’s being turned into an opera for young people.

Jenna Ross writes at the Star Tribune, “Author Kao Kalia Yang’s father has been a farmer, a refugee, a machinist. But in a book about his life, Yang elevated his true vocation — poet. Soon, his story will be an opera.

“The Minnesota Opera announced [in April] that it’s creating a youth opera based on ‘The Song Poet,’ Yang’s acclaimed 2017 memoir about her father, Bee Yang, who composed and sang songs about life and politics, love and family.

“It’s the first time a Hmong story will be translated to the operatic stage, Yang said. … The book follows a young boy [Yang’s father] whose father dies, who grows up in a warn-torn country, who tries to find the place his father was buried. The tale begins in Laos, moves to a refugee camp in Thailand, then makes its way to Minnesota. …

“For its Project Opera, a youth vocal training program, the Minnesota Opera is scouting for stories that connect with young audiences and reflect the Twin Cities community, said Jamie Andrews, the company’s chief learning officer. When he sat down with ‘The Song Poet,’ he knew it would make an incredible opera.

“ ‘Kalia’s writing is just so lyrical and beautiful — so singable,’ Andrews said. … ‘The Song Poet’ becomes the third opera commissioned for Project Opera, which will premiere it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis in 2021. …

“Bee Yang has performed traditional song poetry, or kwv txhiaj, since he was 12 years old, becoming a keeper of Hmong history. ‘When I began singing song poetry, I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,’ he said in the book.

“This daughter’s telling of his story — and how it shaped her own — won the Minnesota Book Award for memoir and creative nonfiction. The 39-year-old author and Harding High School graduate is best known for her 2008 book ‘The LateHomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,’ which nabbed two Minnesota Book Awards. After graduating from Carleton College, Yang earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. …

“To ensure that the cast is diverse, the opera company will reach into the Hmong-American community, Andrews said. It’s working with the Saint Paul Music Academy and talking with Theater Mu, an Asian-American troupe. ‘It’s not just a Hmong cast,’ Andrews said. ‘But we’re doing some strategies already now for 2021, to build those connections and find those kids.’ …

“When Yang was young, she took the occasional field trip to the Ordway or the Guthrie. ‘You’d go in knowing that you’d be entering into a different culture,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, walking into a place and seeing something from the Hmong story represented.

“I hope that for those young Hmong people who get to see this, it opens up possibilities for them. Not just Hmong — but all refugee children.’ ” More.

I highly recommend Yang’s memoirs. Maybe some of you will check them out.

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A Lancaster, Massachusetts, woman who came to the country at age 12 without a word of English is giving back by helping immigrants get a start in farming — and her model is being picked up around the nation.

Jane Dornbusch at the Boston Globe writes, “Maria Moreira, 62, is fond of the proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ When her kids were small and she and her husband had a dairy farm in this Central Massachusetts town, she had plenty of milk, hungry kids to feed, and a need to make a little money.

“So she started a business making a soft Portuguese cheese — she calls it simply Portuguese fresh cheese — that reflected her roots in the Azores, where she was born.

“That was in 1986. A year earlier, she had seen another need, and, in her own inventive way, she’d set about meeting it. Moreira and her husband, Manny, had a 70-acre field, not far from their farm, that they used to grow corn.

“A Hmong woman, an immigrant from Laos, approached Moreira about using a small corner of the field to grow her own crops. Soon, word spread, and little by little the entire field was given over to immigrant farmers, each in charge of his or her own plot. Today, says Moreira, 275 farmers are growing more than 75 kinds of vegetables at what is now called Flats Mentor Farm. …

“Gus Schumacher, former Massachusetts commissioner of food and agriculture, came to know Moreira’s work when he served as a USDA undersecretary in the late ’90s. He notes that she was among a handful of leaders — others included John Ogonowski (one of the pilots killed on 9/11) and Jennifer Hashley, of New Entry Sustainable Farming Project — supporting refugees and immigrants in establishing themselves as farmers and market gardeners. It’s a movement that has since gained momentum nationally, he says. ‘But it all started in Massachusetts.’ ”

More at the Globehere.

Photo: Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff
Maria Moreira, of Flats Mentor Farm, holds some lemon basil.

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Here are a few recent photos from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I took all but the shivery January 1 New Shoreham plunge, which is the work of Sandra M. Kelly. I doubt I would have been brave enough even to go watch these hardy souls freeze on such a cold day.

What can I tell you about the other photos? The Hmong church near my grandson’s play school was a surprise. I knew about Hmong refugees in California, Minnesota, and Central Massachusetts. Didn’t know they were in Providence. A wonderful book about the Hmong immigrant experience is The Late Homecomer, by Kao Kalia Yang, who grew up in St. Paul.

I include a porcine household god from Providence, a bathrobe in the guest room where I awaited the arrival of my new granddaughter in December, and two aspects of the Seekonk River on January 1.

The photo I call “In Trial Realest, a Message from Beyond,” is one I was determined to capture while the sign was broken. It called to me from my office window as it lit up at dusk. I’m glad I caught it when I did, because the neon letters are now all working, and its message is no longer as interesting.

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My husband and I like Colin Cotterill’s quirky mystery books about Dr. Siri Palboun of Laos. The series starts with The Coroner’s Lunch, in case you are interested.

Cotterill has been involved in several worthy causes in Laos, including one addressing the abysmal lack of children’s books in the country. You can read how he got started on his quest for children’s books, here. That work is now handled by Sasha Alyson at Big Brother Mouse, who writes:

“Do you remember the excitement of rushing home to read a book that you hoped would never end? Many Lao children have no such memories, because they’ve never seen a book that was fun or exciting to read. Some have shared textbooks; others have never seen a book at all. We sometimes have to explain how books work: ‘Look, if you turn the page, there’s more!’ ”

Big Brother Mouse is a “Lao-based, Lao-owned project.” More.

Cotterill also works with http://www.copelaos.org to help victims of land mines left over from the CIA’s “secret war.”

And, pointing out that more than 75 percent of children in the far north of Laos have no schools, Cotterill funds efforts to get hill tribe students into teachers colleges. More.

Art: Colin Cotterill at http://www.colincotterill.com

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