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Where Rivers Part

A Story of My Mother's Life


About The Book

An Esquire Best Memoir of 2024

A mesmerizing and hauntingly beautiful memoir about a Hmong family’s epic journey to safety told from the perspective of the author’s incredible mother who survived, and helped her family escape, against all odds.

Born in 1961 in war-torn Laos, Tswb’s childhood was marked by the violence of America’s Secret War and the CIA recruitment of the Hmong and other ethnic minorities into the lost cause. By the time Tswb was a teenager, the US had completely vacated Laos, and the country erupted into genocidal attacks on the Hmong people, who were labeled as traitors. Fearing for their lives, Tswb and her family left everything they knew behind and fled their village for the jungle.

Perpetually on the run and on the brink of starvation, Tswb eventually crossed paths with the man who would become her future husband. Leaving her own mother behind, she joined his family at a refugee camp, a choice that would haunt her for the rest of her life. Eventually becoming a mother herself, Tswb raised her daughters in a state of constant fear and hunger until they were able to emigrate to the US, where the determined couple enrolled in high school even though they were both nearly thirty, and worked grueling jobs to provide for their children.

Now, her daughter, Kao Kalia Yang, reveals her mother’s astonishing saga with tenderness and unvarnished clarity, giving voice to the countless resilient refugees who are often overlooked as one of the essential foundations of this country. Evocative, stirring, and unforgettable, Where Rivers Part is destined to become a classic.


Chapter 1: Bad Luck Woman CHAPTER 1 Bad Luck Woman
When Mother married Father he took her home to a house full of people. He had been married twice before her. His first wife, the true love of his life, had given him five children, four boys and a girl, but he had not been faithful to her. As a provincial leader, he traveled frequently across the mountainous villages of Xieng Khouang Province. In his travels, he’d met another woman, gotten her pregnant, and made the decision to take a second wife despite the protests of his first. His second wife gave him two more daughters but could not give him the rest of her life. She divorced Father shortly after her second child was born. She left both girls with him. After her departure, he remembered his love for his first wife, but by then the heartache had taken over her body. She lost her appetite, grew frail, turned away from his offerings of rice and soup. She lost her ability to pull her children in her arms and hold them close to her beating heart. That heart, which had been loyal and true, torn asunder. She died on a quiet morning, surrounded by my weeping father and his children. After her death, Father was full of sorrow and remorse. But his feelings of loss, as strong as they were, could not bring her back to life nor could they attend to the house filled with children. His oldest sons were already married at the time. His youngest ones still cried for a mother’s breasts. A year after her death, Father decided he would marry again. He was in his early forties by then. Mother was seventeen.

Mother, like Father, had been married twice before. Her first husband, in a practice of old, had kidnapped her against her will to be his bride. He was the son of a relative. They had played together as children. In their early teenage years, he’d professed his love. She’d denied it. In a fit of frustration, he’d gathered his family and clan. They caught her alone on her way down to a village stream and carried her home, like a pig to the slaughter. By the time her parents were informed, there was little to be done. The sacred chicken had been flung above their heads, her spirit had been severed from her ancestral home and welcomed into his. Mother fought him for four months, turning away from him in their marriage bed, sitting as far as she could from him at the dinner table. In a fit of despair, the young, unwanted husband left the mountain village where his family lived to go buy salt from the lowlands. There, he contracted a sickness and died upon his return. She was a fifteen-year-old widow.

Her circumstances were not unique. It was 1932. Laos was a French protectorate. Mother and Father and their families lived in the high villages surrounding the peak of Phou Bia Mountain. Once a year the French levied taxes on the farming families. In order to pay the high taxes, the families worked hard, tilling the land. Numbers mattered profoundly. Young girls and young boys married in the name of love and in the name of family, but more often than both, they married in the name of survival. Fate was in the hands of the rich and powerful. Widows abounded, and there were practices that had been created to continue the possibilities of life.

When the young man died, his family decided to marry Mother off to another of their sons. In the time she’d spent with them, they had learned that she was not only beautiful but also a most determined and hardworking young woman. They believed that she would give the family strong children. She protested once again, but to no avail. In her heart, she was able to recuse her second husband of any personal wrongdoing. He had nothing to do with her first marriage. In fact, she wondered if he had any say in his own marriage to her. Despite the budding affection between the two, her second husband, a healthy young man with an easy laugh, fell suddenly ill after six months of marriage. He died quickly and painfully. She contracted whatever illness had befallen him but did not die. His family grew afraid of her: now a thin young woman full of sorrow and sickness. When news of her health and the family’s fear reached her father, he came to collect her, knowing his daughter was now considered a Bad Luck Woman.

Grandfather was not a typical man of his times. He was a humble man who had married an unexpectedly beautiful woman, a woman who was smart and able though rumored to be promiscuous. There were vicious suggestions that their oldest, my mother, was not his biological child. Village folk wondered out loud, close to his family and friends, how such a short man with no bridge on his nose to speak of could have conceived of a child as lovely as her? Her hair was the color of the winged birds that sat high on the tall trees, so black it appeared blue in the bright light of morning. She had eyes to match, deep and dark, open wide and unafraid. Her slender body was long and strong. There was a grace in the curve of her neck, a refinement in the turn of her head. The villagers worried that my mother looked more like the child of the village chief than the poor farmer who raised her with devotion. Grandfather didn’t care. He was committed to his daughter, his firstborn, his champion. From a young age, whenever Grandmother lost her patience with him, it’d always been their firstborn who would silence her: “Mother, do not speak to my father in that fashion.”

As a child, Mother often accompanied Grandfather into the fields when the striped-chested, yellow-beaked migratory birds flew into the mountain villages on the east wind, announcing, “Pob kws ua kauv kaus, pob kws ua kauv kaus.” She walked in front of her father, carrying a small woven bamboo basket that he’d fashioned just for her, marveling at how the birds were speaking in Hmong, letting all the farmers know that it was now corn planting season, singing, “The corn has rooted, the corn has rooted.” Mother had always been Grandfather’s dearest companion.

When Grandfather took his oldest child home by the hand, her few belongings in that same woven bamboo basket from her childhood, he did not stop to look at the villagers who gawked as he walked by with his daughter. Her feet meandered behind his own, her head bowed low. She who had always walked a straight line did not know where to place first one foot and then the other. She was not yet sixteen, and yet in the eyes of the villagers she was a full-grown woman, led home by her father, the weight of multiple tragedies on her shoulders. At home, he tucked her into the warm bed of her youth. He called shamans from far and near to find her frightened spirit and return it to her body.

Mother spent a year living happily with her parents and siblings in the house where she had been born. During the day, she tended to her younger brothers and sisters, helping with the hard work of subsistence farming, feeding the hungry pigs in their pen and giving corn and rice grains to the chickens in the yard. She had no desire to marry again. Neither her first nor her second marriage had been her choice. Being home with her family after the ordeal of both, hearing her mother’s sharp voice call with the rooster’s crow early each morning, was a comfort. At the family field, her father offered her the tenderest ends of the sweetest sugarcane stalks. Mouth full of fiber, throat sweetened with its juice, she told her mother and father that she would never marry again. The elderly couple accepted her words as a matter of course. Who would want to marry again after all that she had been through? Their love of her and support softened the bite of the gossipmongers who suggested that something more ominous had happened to Mother in her time away from the village.

News of my mother’s return to her family home traveled with different people as they trekked from one village to the next, visiting family, attending funerals and weddings, spirit releases, and hand-tying ceremonies to bless those in need. It did not take long for the news of the beautiful bad luck woman to reach Father’s village. One of Father’s relatives knew Grandfather and thought highly of him. He brought up the possibility of a union between Father and Mother, saying, “Her father is a kind and thoughtful man. I understand that she has these same qualities, this bad luck daughter.” At first, Father was not interested in marrying a seventeen-year-old. She was younger than his oldest child by five years. What did she know about the responsibilities of a mother? She’d barely been a wife. And then he heard a detail about her that he kept coming back to: she was stubborn, refusing to look the villagers in the eyes. Some felt it was an act of resistance and not shame.

Father agreed to visit Mother’s village with a marriage contingent. He was not a poor man. He made the trip with two male relatives, each of them pulling the reins of a horse, all three walking in a line. When they entered the edge of the village, the children ran to different houses, speaking quickly: “There are men in our village with horses!” The little ones did not know what this meant but the elders understood it was a formal visit, one that would end in marriage. Old folks peeked out of their doorways as the men passed. Some called out greetings, others asked questions about how far the men had traveled and if they needed water for the animals or a place to rest for the night. Father responded, “No, we are fine. Thank you for your hospitality. We’ve come to visit with the Thoj Clan.”

There were no surprises when the men came to Grandfather’s house. In fact, Grandfather and Grandmother both stood in the open doorway waiting to invite them inside. The men were offered water to quench their thirst and wooden stools to sit on by the family’s fire ring. They talked of people they knew in common, of the weather, the coming harvest, and then Father broached the topic of marriage.

Mother was aware of the commotion in the village. She had observed the group of men walk into her family’s home, and yet she was surprised by the formal proposition of marriage. She was taken aback by the heavy satin of Father’s clothes, the soft-soled shoes that he wore on his feet. She was a farmer’s daughter. They walked the earth with their feet bare. Father, no longer a provincial leader, had established himself as a respected merchant. Although never formally educated, he spoke four languages: Hmong, Lao, Mien, and Mandarin Chinese. He was over twenty years her senior. Though such marriages were not unheard of, it was clear to her that there was a gulf between them beyond the years that separated their births.

When her mother called her to the fire ring, she kept her head low though her eyes did not remain on the hard-packed floor of her family home. On a wooden stool beside her father, she looked at the aging man across the family’s fire without reservation. She was surprised when he dropped his eyes and granted her space to study him. He was a slender man, tall enough, but thin faced, fine boned. She’d always favored men with a bit of meat on their bodies, men whose hands were strong and fingers long. My father had a merchant’s hands. His hands were small and elegant. His fingers were delicate, tapered at the tips. Those fingers moved over the satin of his pants, nervous before the young woman’s gaze.

Mother had grown comfortable with her reputation as a Bad Luck Woman. Who was this person, and didn’t he know of her past? She was certain he would run once her father told him the truth of her history. She was wrong about him. When Grandfather told the wealthy merchant of her two dead husbands, he accepted the words with a gentle nod of his head, communicated an understanding beyond fear. He said, “I believe then that your daughter and I are well suited. I also know what it is like to have bad luck in love.”

Grandfather meditated upon these words. In the end, he decided that two bad luck individuals could perhaps neutralize each other, and maybe, just maybe, they could even foster good luck. When he spoke, it was directly to his daughter. He said, “Here is a man who has gone through a lot in his search for partnership. He can care for you while you care for his youngest children. Unlike your first marriages, this time it could be a marriage without pretense or protestations.”

Mother shifted her gaze to the low flames of her family’s fire. She looked at the flickering light, chased the yellow sparks with her gaze, listened to the crackle of the burnt wood for long moments. As the flames of the fire danced higher with each piece of new wood Grandfather fed into its center, she listened to Father’s honest conversation with her parents. He told them that he had a total of seven children at home. He gestured in her direction and said that his oldest sons were older than she was. Three of them were married and two had children already. He extended both hands toward the heat of the fire, palms up, as he explained that the remaining four were young. The youngest child was just a baby, still hungry for breast milk. Mother looked at his open palms, tried to read the spread of the lines across their surface, but to no avail. The lines on his palms were too faint to read. In her search for some direction in his hands, she found herself making a decision, telling herself that if she could not be a good wife, then she could perhaps learn how to be a good mother. Unlike his palms, her own were etched with deep lines, an indication of a long life. She clasped them tightly when she looked up at the two men before her, her father and the stranger in the satin outfit.

On the first night of her marriage, Mother found a baby at her dry breast, sucking hard for comfort. She winced from the pain of the child’s hold on her tender flesh but dared not push the infant away. The baby girl’s hungry hands held her body fast, clung to her as if she were a lost mother. Throughout the course of the long night, she endeavored to become one with small, steadying breaths to control the throbbing pain in her breasts.

Beside her, the slender man slept on his back, still and silent. Together they listened to the sounds of his large family falling asleep across the connected houses, welcomed the deep, even breathing of the child in their bed and the chirping crickets from the other side of the wall. A strong wind blew and seeped in through the cracks. A chill entered the room, and the two adults in the bed shifted closer together. A heat grew where their bodies met. Outside, the clouds grew heavy with moisture. They covered the light of the moon and rain fell in the dark night. Inside, hushed breaths filled the room.

Mother’s eyes were wide open before the early-morning rooster’s crow announcing the new day. She untangled herself from the sleeping child. In the gray, she studied the straight line of her new husband’s nose, saw the shadows beneath his cheekbone. There was no room to be angry, no feelings of betrayal or hurt. Here was a man she had agreed to marry. Here was her husband. Her heart thudded in her chest loud as the rooster crowing from outside.

On her first day as Father’s wife, Mother chose to wear a sensible outfit. She wore the traditional black wide-legged pants and the black shirt of the White Hmong, pulled the fabric together in front to cross above her breasts. She tied red and green sashes around her waist with a firm grip. She pulled her long hair back and secured the heavy bundle with a clip. On her feet, she wore her only pair of shoes, blue flip-flops. The only aspect of her body that she adorned were her ears; she wore the heavy silver hoops her parents had gifted her.

In the main part of the house, Mother started the fire for the morning meal, a routine she knew well. Once the scent of smoke filled the house, her new daughters-in-law each entered one by one. There were three of them, all shorter than her. The youngest looked her age. The oldest, a baby tied to her front, looked older. Each was shy before her, calling her Niam and asking questions about how much rice to rinse, if they should butcher three or four chickens for their first meal together. Mother told them, “It will take me time to learn how much rice this family eats and how much meat is needed to feed everyone. You will each show me what you know and together we will make this family work.”

My mother and father lived in the original structure, a wooden house set into the edge of a village of split bamboo huts. Connected to their house were others, the houses of my father’s grown sons and their families. While each tended their own fire, the main fire pit was in Mother and Father’s house. Each morning and evening, the large family gathered for meals together around their long wooden table. It was Mother’s job to supervise the preparation of the meals, the youngest girl strapped to her chest, her new daughters hanging on to either end of the red sash at her waist, her daughters-in-law moving around her in accordance with their age and place in the family, teaching her the norms of the family she had married into. Although she was young, Mother’s voice did not contain the uncertainty of girlhood. She spoke with the experience of one who had been a daughter-in-law, as someone who understood the fragility of the situation. Her voice rang with a somber confidence that afforded her respect. The oldest sons looked at her from the corners of their eyes, unsure of this young woman who they were to call Niam but ceding to their father, who had married her. Father watched her movements silently, without judgment or malice, only patience.

About The Author

Used with the permission of Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to America at the age of six. She is the author of The Latehomecomer, The Song Poet, Yang Warriors, and most recently, Where Rivers Part. She also coedited What God Is Honored Here? and is the author of a collective memoir about refugee lives called Somewhere in the Unknown World. Find out more at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (March 19, 2024)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982185299

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Raves and Reviews

"Yang keeps readers as close as possible to Tswb’s perspective, treating her history and hardships with care. Where Rivers Part is a sensitive, unforgettable account of one mother’s immeasurable strength and love for her family." Esquire

"Kao Kalia Yang's retelling of her mother's life is so many things: haunting, moving, riveting, powerful. It is a testament to the miraculous strength of women and the indomitable resolve of the human spirit. But above everything, Where Rivers Part—a story of unshakable love—is itself an extraordinary act of love in return." Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans

"Where Rivers Part confirms Kao Kalia Yang’s position as not only the most important figure in Hmong American literature but one of the most interesting memoirists at work today." —Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

"Kao Kalia Yang’s account of her mother’s survival against a backdrop of unspeakable violence is told in moving, lyrical language that I could not draw my eye away from. Where Rivers Part is a cherishing of a story and a community that has often been rendered silent, a love story in more ways than I can count, and an immense and important addition to the world’s literature." Vanessa Chan, author of The Storm We Made

"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." BookPage (starred review)

“Yang foregoes third-person narration in favor of her mother's first-person voice. This gives the book immediacy, authenticity and humor … In her daughter's exceptional book, Tswb shines in the lead role.” —Star Tribune

"Haunting and painfully relevant, Where Rivers Part continues this writer’s powerful family story." —Booklist

“Yang’s memoirs of Hmong life, traditions and displacement are not just powerful additions to the canon of immigrant literature — they are powerful books about life itself.” —San Francisco Chronicle

"Compassionate, lyrical, tender, and insightful." Kirkus

"Yang writes much of the account from Tswb’s perspective, giving tender voice to her struggles with the competing demands of family duty and personal fulfillment. The results are illuminating, uplifting, and difficult to forget." —Publishers Weekly

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