Kao Kalia Yang was nervous the night of her first book launch.
Mostly, because it was room of 300 people who weren't just her family and she knew she was expected to speak, to say something about the memoir she'd written.
Also, as a Hmong refugee living in the U.S., she spent years as a selective mute. Yang got through her early schooling with smiles and nods of agreement. Public speaking was new and not at all natural.
Three times she tried to get up to speak and failed.
Her father, also sensing the nerves, took her hand and gave her the encouragement she needed. It was a seminal moment for the author. She would spend the next three years doing book publicity and speaking engagements.
That was a decade ago almost to the day. Her book "The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir" continues to gain audiences and relevance. Much of that is thanks to the National Endowment of the Arts selecting the book as part of its annual Big Read program.
"It's not often a 10-year old book is still harvesting its power," Yang says.
The book tells the story of Yang and her family escaping from Laos in the late 1970s and coming to America as refugees. The Fresno County Public Library made the book the center of it programing, with a host of events over the last month, leading up to Yang's talk and reading.
"I write about poor people, because that’s what I am," Yang says.
"I write about refugees and new Americans."
And thanks to The Big Read, she's been able to talk about them, too, at events like this across the country.
These are important and relevant conversations, she says, perhaps especially so in Fresno, a place with strong cultural diversity.
It happens to have a large Hmong community, as well. Vang had cousins in Fresno growing up. Since the book's release, she's been inundated with messages from readers in Fresno and is already being tagged in Facebook posts by readers who are eager to meet her in person.
" It’s exciting to come and meet them," Yang says.
"We’re making history."
This is the first time a Hmong author has been chosen as part of The Big Read.
If reading a book is like listening to a CD, seeing an author in person is akin to taking in a concert, Yang says. She will be reading passages from "The Latehomcomer" and also its followup "The Song Poet."
But mostly, she intends the event to be a conversation with the audience.
"It’s always dynamic," she says.
Kao Kalia Yang
- 6 p.m. Thursday
- OAB Auditorium, Fresno City College
- Free, $1 campus parking