Poet Mai Der Vang was born and grew up in Fresno, California. As she describes in the Spring / Summer issue of American Poets Magazine, she was about 10 years old when she wandered into her uncle’s house to look at his books. And there on a shelf, among the textbooks he was using for his courses in mechanics at a local community college, were several National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1960s. The issues had one thing in common: stories about the Hmong people of Southeast Asia.
For Vang, it was a life-changing event. She discovered where she came from. And she would also discover where she was going. And her discovery would lead her to poetry and other literary writing and the Walt Whitman Award.
Afterland is Vang’s first collection of poems, and many if not all of its 57 poems are about the Hmong people. They live (and lived) in southeastern China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. During the Vietnam War, thousands were recruited by the CIA to fight both the North Vietnamese and the communist Pathet Lao. Without U.S. support and protection, the Hmong would find themselves especially vulnerable.
In 1975, when the United States abandoned southeast Asia and the communists took control, the Hmong began to flee, knowing the reprisals would be forthcoming. They left any way they could find, and thousands swam with their families across the Mekong River to reach safety in Thailand. Many did not make it across the river. Here’s is Vang’s poetic translation of that event.
can curse the air.
of endangered stars
evicts itself to
the water. Another
convoy leaves the kiln.
The crowded dead
turn into the earth’s
unfolded bed sheet.
We drift near banks,
creatures of the Mekong,
heads bobbing like
ghosts without bodies,
toward the farthest shore.
With every treading
soak, the wading leg,
we beg ourselves to live,
to float the mortared
cartilage and burial
tissue in this river yard
of amputated hearts.
Vang writes of burning towns, migration, refugees, war, and survival. The last poem in the collection is the title poem, and it is a bringing together of history and hope. All of the poems are moving and haunting, pricking our collective memory of the war and reminding us that the people who helped the American war effort often turned out to be the most vulnerable when that effort failed. And yet these are not the poems of “victims,” but rather poetry that points to a people’s resilience in the face of war, loss, displacement and exile.
Afterland was awarded the 2016 Walt Whitman Award by the Academy of American Poets, given for first poetry collections. The award includes a $5,000 cash award, a six-week residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy, and distribution of the book to the members of the Academy. That distribution, underway this spring, almost guarantees that it will be one of the most read books of poetry of the year.
Vang’s poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including The Missouri Review Online, The Cincinnati Review, The Asian American Literary Review, The New Republic, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She received a B.A. degree in English from the University of California-Berkeley and an MFA degree in Creative Writing / Poetry from Columbia University. She lives in Fresno.
Vang notes in the American Poets WHICH? article that the Hmong people had no written language until the 1950s. At that time, American missionaries arrived in the region, and to preach to the Hmong, they developed a language based on the Roman alphabet, which continues to be the primary written language of the Hmong people today. She is an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers Circle, founded in 2004 to “discover and foster creative writing among the Hmong people,” and co-edited How Do I Begin: A Hmong-American Literary Anthology (2011).
Afterland is a collection of poems about a people’s past, but a past that never really remained there. It has carried forward into the present and the future, and the poetry of Mai Der Vang will help ensure its place in literature.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish