Books In Conversation
Mai Der Vang with Alex Dueben
Mai Der Vang’s first book of poetry is Afterland. Just released by Graywolf Press, the manuscript won the Walt Whitman Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2016 and has received a lot of advance praise. Afterland is Vang’s exploration of what it means to be Hmong, finding a way for herself to understand, personally and historically just what that means. As Vang explained, she can’t assume that a general audience knows who the Hmong people are or what the Secret War was that led to so many coming to the United States as refugees. Vang doesn’t want to speak for her community, but she is interested in exploring her identity and what it means historically but also exploring this sense of “afterland” in many variations that range from living in exile to notions of the spirit found in Hmong culture to the end of a relationship. Vang manages to explore her own identity but also manages to explores this space where we all find ourselves at some point, when we no longer recognize where we are.
Alex Dueben (Rail): I’m curious, how much of these stories and background of your parents and other members of the community did you hear growing up?
Mai der Vang: I grew up hearing about “a war” of some kind, but I didn’t have the context or information to piece together how I as a Hmong person fit into that war. When I was a child, my parents shared very little about the war. But at family gatherings, I recall that my uncles would sit and tell stories about the fighting and the running. During Fourth of July, I remember how my mother used to be so bothered by the sound of fireworks because they resembled exploded ordnances. Growing up in a multigenerational household, I also have many memories of accompanying my grandmother to the post office to ship items back to relatives who were still in Southeast Asia. She would often send and receive letters that were vocally penned in the form of voice recordings captured on cassette tapes. I knew they often made her emotional as she listened to relatives recount the poverty and hardship of their lives (most of these were relatives who remained in refugee camps in Thailand). And then, because I was quite the curious child, I remember once going through a briefcase that contained my parents’ refugee documents. I wondered to myself what all of the documents meant knowing it had something to do with them leaving the old country. So while I did not know this war directly as a child, it was all around me, implied in the people who raised me and understood as a Hmong part of me that I would grow into.
Rail: We’re about the same age. For people of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, do they talk about about Laos in terms of a place they’ll never return to? As a lost place? Or how do they speak of it?
Whenever I ask my mother about the possibility of returning to Laos to relive the life she once had, she offers the same response: we would love to go back, to be as we used to, but it will never be that way again. While taking a trip to Laos is not entirely out of the question either, some elders are a little wary of the idea because they still fear for their safety. Even so, I recognize that many of them feel a tremendous yearning to see their homeland again. Sadly, that desire is coupled with the stark realization that it isn’t the same and will never be. This is what it means to be in exile, to be a landless people who won’t ever really have a country to our name.
Rail: When you speak to a general audience, do people know who the Hmong are, do they understand?
Vang: Many times, the answer is no. It’s not surprising either given that most teachings of American history fail to include the Secret War and the U.S.’s involvement in Laos. Whenever I speak to an audience that may be unfamiliar, or when I write an essay, or whenever I’m working on a proposal of some kind, I always have to preface my work with some historical background on who the Hmong are and how we came to be here as refugees. It’s burdensome and exhausting to go through life always having to explain myself, but it’s part of the process of educating others. There are times, too, when I unapologetically choose not to provide historical context so that my reader or listener is encouraged to do the heavy lifting of researching who the Hmong are.
Rail: How much of this was you taking stories that you heard and wanting to explore certain ideas and how much was invented. Something like “I Am the Whole Defense” which is a historical piece for example. Because I look at poems like “When the Mountains Rose beneath Us, We Became the Valley” you juxtapose these familiar images with mythical and stranger images. You seem interested in doing that throughout the book. How do you think that plays out in the book as a whole and balancing those two elements?
Vang: My family’s experience helped create the foundation for the collection, but I also drew from a variety of other sources that included historical research, Hmong community stories, and of course my own experiences too. The first poem you reference was definitely inspired by historical research. Many of the poems are historically or culturally grounded. What I absolutely love about poetry as a craft form is its ability to blend historical and cultural tellings with a creative shape-shifting force that allows for a new narrative or new experience to emerge.
There are certainly moments in poems where I give my voice free reign to create, distort, and dislodge from reality. But I think these inventive moments are subconsciously rooted in a kind of reality and history that is so much a part of my Hmong identity. For example, some of the surrealism in my poems are inspired by folklore and Hmong shamanic beliefs. So for me, I feel a natural synergy between how the imagination receives historical and cultural information, and then how it redistributes that information back out.
Some of my imagery is rather bizarre, and for me, that is a personal craft preference. But even then, again, I think that preference is rooted in having grown up in a family that practiced (and still practices) shamanism. Perhaps for me, that is where reality and surreal meet—poetry then becomes the medium through which I attempt to translate and interpret that symbiosis. For instance, I grew up knowing that the practice of calling one’s spirit to return to the body is extremely important lest the body should fall ill. If a child accidentally trips and falls down somewhere, an adult must immediately sweep the floor where the fall occurred, either with a broom or one’s hand, while chanting for the spirit to get back up and return to the child’s body. There is a figurative quality to this practice, but there is also a very literal way of thinking about a spirit falling out of one’s body too. Being grounded in these kinds of beliefs and rituals certainly has impacted my approach to poetry. It’s helped me harness poetry’s shape-shifting abilities and potential for creative fluidity between the literal and the figurative.
Rail: The challenge of a project with this scope because on the one hand I’m sure you thought about this as trying to give to your community, to your people, but it’s also just you in another sense. Did that change as you were working on it?
Vang: I set out knowing that I wanted to write something about Hmongness, but I didn’t set out with the sense that I was going to write something on behalf of Hmong people. I’m certainly in no position to do that. Every Hmong person has a unique story and perspective despite the collective history we all might share.
I think that writing is the act of giving and the author’s completed work is an offering to readers. So in some ways, I do see this book as a chance to give to my community, and not only give through poems, but to give by bringing more visibility to Hmong American literature while expanding the national literary landscape. There are also ways, too, in which writing is the act of giving to my creative self. I see poetry as a muscle, and I have to keep it conditioned and sharpened. And then it also depends on the poem; some poems are written for myself out of pure enjoyment, and then other poems are considerations of the larger Hmong context.
Rail: Are you conscious of having an audience or writing for someone? Because I read a poem like “Original Bones” and clearly you’re conscious of being part of this cultural context and trying to represent it.
I’ve always thought about my audience as multi-layered. First, there is the Hmong audience, with which I share a cultural, historical, and communal affinity. Then, there is the poetry audience that includes practitioners and readers of the craft who will approach with a critical framework in mind. And then lastly, there is the general public that includes people who may not normally read poetry or know anything about Hmong people but may still come across the book somehow.
Over time, I grew tired of trying to please and tailor my work to these multiple audiences. I began to realize that my first audience should always be myself. When this became clear to me, I was able to let go and give myself permission to write the poems I wanted to write and to write the poems I wanted to read. More importantly, I wanted to write poems that I felt were missing in American literature, poems that I wish existed when I was in high school, and poems that embodied something about who I was as a Hmong American woman and a child of refugees. I came to recognize that I, too, was a member of my own audience, perhaps the most important one.
Rail: You’ve been writing for many years, clearly, but I’m curious about assembling a first book of poetry which is a very different process from writing a poem.
Assembling this collection started with the individual poems. When I was working on this book during my MFA years at Columbia University, I was’t able to fully grasp from the onset where I was going, but something in my creative subconscious was already going there, leading me to this notion of “afterland” and to these landscapes of the “after.” For example, I wasn’t aware that I had gone landscape-imagery-overboard but that’s what my obsessions were at the moment and that’s what I wrote.
I also experimented with several possibilities for how to structure the book. At one time, the title poem “Afterland” was much longer and had eleven sections. I saw this particular poem as a kingdom unto itself, separate from all the other poems with its own unique terrain, denizens, and sense of history. But then during the re-structuring process of the manuscript, I began to see that the poem was not the primary kingdom but that the book itself was the kingdom. Each poem was in service to this larger idea of these post-geographies. That shift in my thinking helped me better assess the inter-relationship from one poem to another, from another poem to the entire collection.
Rail: Why did you decide to call the book Afterland?
I had several title options and “Afterland” was one of the contenders. I took the word from the poem “Dear Shaman.” My workshop instructor at the time, Dorothea Lasky, helped me realized me how the concept of these “after” places were so innately tied to these dark and desolated landscapes. I also recognized that I was speaking about the obvious “afterland” which is the place where the spirit goes after it passes into death. And for Hmong who still practice shamanism, that “afterland” is where the spirit journeys to in order to join its ancestors. I thought, too, about all the different types of “after” places that mattered in this world of migration, love, and loss. It can be the “after” of a relationship. It can be the place wherever a refugee ends up. That new place becomes the after-country. It can also even be the after-state of that post-war country from which the refugee has just fled. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t set out with this specific idea of “Afterland” in mind. But as I kept writing and listening to what the poems were doing, it slowly began to reveal itself.