Summary and book reviews of Somewhere in the Unknown World by Kao Kalia Yang

Somewhere in the Unknown World

A Collective Refugee Memoir

by Kao Kalia Yang

Somewhere in the Unknown World by Kao Kalia Yang X
Somewhere in the Unknown World by Kao Kalia Yang
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  • Published:
    Nov 2020, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book

Book Summary

From "an exceptional storyteller," Somewhere in the Unknown World is a collection of powerful stories of refugees who have found new lives in Minnesota's Twin Cities, told by the award-winning author of The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet.

All over this country, there are refugees. But beyond the headlines, few know who they are, how they live, or what they have lost. Although Minnesota is not known for its diversity, the state has welcomed more refugees per capita than any other, from Syria to Bosnia, Thailand to Liberia. Now, with nativism on the rise, Kao Kalia Yang―herself a Hmong refugee―has gathered stories of the stateless who today call the Twin Cities home.

Here are people who found the strength and courage to rebuild after leaving all they hold dear. Awo and her mother, who escaped from Somalia, reunite with her father on the phone every Saturday, across the span of continents and decades. Tommy, born in Minneapolis to refugees from Cambodia, cannot escape the war that his parents carry inside. As Afghani flees the reach of the Taliban, he seeks at every stop what he calls a certificate of his humanity. Mr. Truong brings pho from Vietnam to Frogtown in St. Paul, reviving a crumbling block as well as his own family.

In Yang's exquisite, necessary telling, these fourteen stories for refugee journeys restore history and humanity to America's strangers and redeem its long tradition of welcome.

1
From Irina to Irene

ANY PASSERBY CAN tell you that Irina has dark hair and dark eyes, but if you look carefully at her, you'll see that Irina's thick hair is a deep auburn and that her eyes are a blend of brown and green—like gardens of kelp beds and seagrass meadows.

Irina was ten years old. She was excited about the coming New Year, her favorite holiday.

Underneath the bed she shared with her older sister, Edith, there were four bananas ripening. Each year, Papa received them as a bonus from the trucking company he worked for as a mechanical engineer. They were the only bananas the family got all year. The coming of the bananas was an occasion of pride and joy for the whole family. It was always with great ceremony that Papa unveiled the bananas from his work bag. They were green and hard. Mama would grab a small basket from the kitchen, line it with a white towel, and then carefully place the bananas side by side. Papa placed the basket underneath the girls' bed and told them ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The collection is authored by Kao Kalia Yang, who was once a refugee herself. Though the stories are written by Yang, each is attributed to the person who told it. The accounts she has gathered are ones of escape and resettlement from her family and friends. This is a unique book in that the accounts read like short stories. There is not much background information regarding the political situations in individual countries, as the focus is on the refugees' personal and emotional reactions to their own experiences. Somewhere In the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir is a reference point for understanding issues facing refugees. It answers the reflexive question, "Why are you here with us?" Because of war is the simplest answer. So children can have a brighter future. The collection, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not, unearths the darker side of the refugee psyche...continued

Full Review (799 words).

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(Reviewed by Valerie Morales).

Media Reviews

Shelf Awareness
Affecting...Yang offers glimpses of lives before, of escapes, of stopovers, of arrivals, of transformation....These voices...provide an intimate window into once faraway lives, now intertwined together in a community they call home.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
In this book, there is no avoiding empathy...Reading these stories is like opening doors and finding yourself in the living rooms of neighbors you’ve hardly talked to. Thank you, Kao Kalia Yang, for opening these doors.

Publishers Weekly
[L]yrical and frequently harrowing...This heartfelt and exquisitely written account shines a poignant light on the immigration debate.

Library Journal
This title joins a growing body of vital refugee literature, including Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Displaced and Dina Nayeri's The Ungrateful Refuge.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A work of technical as well as empathetic mastery...The stories are as powerful as they are unique...Yang's delicate touch allows us to see what is right in front of us: luck. If we are not refugees, we might have been. If our lives have been relatively stable, they may not remain so. A potent lesson in empathy that is all the more powerful for never presenting itself as a lesson.

Author Blurb Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee
With grace and empathy, Yang reaches to the heart of each of these fourteen tales of refugees in Minnesota and connects them to her own past and future. Reading this book is like watching an explosion of texture and color as ordinary people place their formative stories in the hands of an artist and fellow refugee who weaves them into a single elegant tapestry.

Author Blurb Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland
Kao Kalia Yang has long used her own voice and refugee story to create transcendent literature. With Somewhere in the Unknown World, she brings us many voices whose powerful, individual tales converge in one state to create a prism of humanity. In a time when the term 'refugee' is so often flat and faceless, this is an essential book of poetic beauty and social witness.

Author Blurb Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem
Kao Kalia Yang raises a mirror to her home state of Minnesota and a kaleidoscope of refugee stories comes tumbling out. This is a book that burns with personal accounts of survival. But it's also a reminder that we, as a nation, will never know where we're going until we understand where each and every one of us has come from.

Author Blurb Helen Benedict, author of Wolf Season
As borders are closing against refugees and derogatory stereotypes are promulgated by nativists, Kao Kalia Yang's delicate, respectful book is especially welcome. With masterful concision, Yang presents these refugees' lives with a poignant honesty that puts prejudice to shame and opens doors to the heart.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Somali Resettlement in the United States

Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Minneapolis Amid ongoing civil war, more than a million Somalis have fled their homeland in recent decades and now live somewhere else. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Kenya is host to the largest number of Somali refugees, with 256,186, followed by Yemen with 250,500 and Ethiopia with 192,082. Many Somali refugees have settled in the United States; the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement states that the country admitted 90,000 refugees from Somalia between 2001 and 2015. By current estimates, the total Somali diaspora population in the U.S. is as high as 150,000.

The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota is often referred to as "Little Mogadishu." Everywhere you look there is Somali culture, ...

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