Fresno poet, Mai Der Vang’s poetry collection Afterland will be available on April 4, 2017 from Graywolf Press. Afterland is the winner of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, selected by Carolyn Forché. APR caught up with Mai Der to discuss her poetry.
See: What was the process like for you in writing this book?
Mai Der: Almost the whole book was produced during my time as a graduate student at Columbia. I didn’t write with the idea that I would submit to the [Walt Whitman] prize but it became the action that I did after I had finished the manuscript because I did want to get it published.
See: The book focuses on the journey and the experiences of the refugees and some of yours. What did you think about when wrote these stories?
Mai Der: I was born in the very early 80s, right after my parents resettled in this country. Although I wasn’t born in the refugee camp, I still had to live the early refugee resettlement period and I had to experience those things. I pulled from my family’s history, my own history growing up, and the collective Hmong history as well.
See: Did you grew up being informed of these stories or did you have to seek them out?
Mai Der: In the case of my parents, and I think is true for many other Hmong parents as well, is that they don’t often share what happened during the war. For some parents, it’s still very traumatizing. It’s something they want to move forward from. I had to do some emotional digging and historical digging to find out some of these things. A lot of it has to do with research to know more about the war and to find out some of the larger political issues that led to it.
See: What did you find that were surprising to you or perhaps you were not expecting?
Mai Der: What continues to puzzle me or eats at me is how so many people in our country don’t know who the Hmong people are. That continues to be a reason for me to keep writing. No matter how you try to tell your story, it feels like you’re still not being heard and people still don’t know who you are.
See: In your process, who did you think you were writing for or hopes to read your work?
Mai Der: When I started writing, it used to be about wanting to write so our community can have a voice. Then it became so my family can have a voice. Eventually it became I write so I can have a voice. In some ways, the audience is myself too, more than anything.
See: The first poem in the collection is “Dear Soldier of The Secret War.” This story resonates with me as a Hmong person because I have heard it before. What were you thinking about when you wrote this poem?
Mai Der: You hear stories about this and I also saw this images in the Hmong story cloths. When I wrote the poem, there was a kind of anger, a kind of rage about how humanity could let this happen to the Hmong people. I think that kind of anguish came out in that poem and I didn’t filter myself. It was a poem in which I sort of imagine where I was talking to a soldier who was left behind.
See: “Yellow Rain” is a vague poem. Sometimes poetry either contain a lot of details or is very vague. Do you think that people who don’t know Hmong history will understand your poem?
Mai Der: That’s something I struggle as a writer is the tendency to explain everything to my readers because you don’t know how much they know or don’t know about Hmong American history or Hmong in the Secret War. I learned to let go of that and trust my readers to understand what I was trying to convey. Even if they didn’t understand the history, they would understand the emotion I’m trying to get across. It’s also an invitation for the reader and even myself a poet to keep discovering and revealing what Yellow Rain is.
See: To the Hmong, we remember the Long Cheng military base in Laos by the name of the valley it was based in. You included a poem called Lima Site 20. What came about choosing to use the Lima Site name instead of the Long Cheng name?
Mai Der: I chose to use Lima Site 20 because I think for that poem in particular I felt like I was trying to grieve the loss and the fall of Long Cheng. I was trying to grieve the abandonment and the people who were left behind. For me to use the word Lima Site 20 was almost a way for me to reclaim the name the CIA gave, to be able to say that Lima Site 20 is not a code name anymore, people know about it now.
See: The title of the collection is called “Afterland,” which after reading your poems, makes me think afterlife. Is that the feeling you wanted as the outcome?
Mai Der: It came out naturally and I explained the concept of afterland in my own head as a place that you go to when you’re done with your life. In the refugees, it’s the new country they go to… that’s afterland; or a relationship that you have that didn’t work out and you move to a new city… which becomes the afterland of that relationship. When thinking about after life in the Hmong cosmology, afterland is the place of the ancestors. I was thinking a lot about where we go to after we go through a crisis of some kind.
See: What did it feel like for you after the collection came together?
Mai Der: A huge relief and a little bittersweet because I have been working on this for 2 to 3 years and I finally see it in the stage of publication and finally a book. It’s bittersweet because I can let it go and fly out into the world and be in the hands of other people, which is great to see. Part of the writing process is to learn how to let go.
Editor’s correction: In the print publication on March 29, 2017, it states the picture of Mai Der Vang is credited to See Xiong. The photo is actually courtesy of Mai Der Vang, credited to Ze Moua. Mai Der Vang graduated from UC Berkeley with her undergraduate studies and attended Columbia University for her MFA.