April 2024

Where Rivers Part

By Kao Kalia Yang
Review by
In the extraordinary Where Rivers Part, Kao Kalia Yang writes with deep feeling and grace about her mother, a Hmong woman who escaped the cascading violence from the Vietnam War.
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Kao Kalia Yang’s mother grew up in a Hmong village near the juncture of two rivers that run through the forests and highlands of Laos, a land that Yang writes evocatively about in the opening chapters of Where Rivers Part: A Story of My Mother’s Life. The Hmong, an ethnic minority in southwest China, Laos and surrounding countries, were devastated by the Vietnam War, which began soon after Yang’s mother Tswb (pronounced “chew’) was born. Her home village, Dej Tshuam, was a place where people were bound by family ties and ancestral traditions; her family fled the invasion of North Vietnamese soldiers when she was 14.

The ruinous impacts of the war on the lives of Yang’s parents and relatives are related here. But the point and power of Where Rivers Part lies elsewhere. In an audacious act of love and art, Yang writes this memoir from her mother’s point of view. We hear from Tswb’s perspective about her own mother’s marriage at 15 to a much older man with children, and how her mother transformed herself from a submissive wife and daughter-in-law into a matriarch. Later we experience teenage Tswb’s decision to marry a handsome 19-year-old boy named Npis (pronounced “be”) she met on the trail while their families were fleeing capture. Soon there are doubts and reassessments. We witness the emergence of the fierce determination to survive that will see her family through harrowing years of deprivation in a Thai refugee camp, and that will impel Tswb, Npis and their children forward as refugees making their way in the alien world of Minnesota.

There are moments of poignant beauty. There are also humiliations. Tswb is small and brown; her English is not good. In America, she is easily overlooked. In this exceptional book, Yang shows what a mistake it is to underestimate her: “I wanted to claim the legacy of the woman I come from, the women who had to define for themselves what it meant to live in a world where luck was not on your side.” She has done so with deep feeling and grace.

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Where Rivers Part

Where Rivers Part

By Kao Kalia Yang
ISBN 9781982185299

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