For those who aren’t Hmong, it can be hard to put yourself into Mai Der Vang’s literary shoes. Most people come from a cultural background that includes a strong written tradition and a long list of great works of literature. Even if you never avail yourself of all that literature, it can be comforting as a writer to know that it exists, that you’re building upon and supported by that which came before.
Yet the Hmong language lacked a written language until recently. When the Fresno-born Vang, an aspiring and talented writer, found herself in the heady intellectual whirl of UC Berkeley, which she attended as an undergraduate, it was the first time that the lack of her culture’s literary tradition really dawned upon her.
Where, she asked herself, were the Hmong poets?
“I felt lonely as a writer,” she says.
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Things are different a decade and a half later. A new generation of fellow Hmong-Americans are helping fire up Fresno’s already combustible poetry scene, and Vang is a standout. After earning a master of fine arts degree at Columbia University, she won the prestigious national 2016 Walt Whitman Award, given by the Academy of American Poets to someone who has never had a book of poetry published. “Afterland,” her new book of poems about the Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War era, was released April 4.
A book launch will be held 7 p.m. Thursday at Bitwise South Stadium.
We caught up with her for an interview.
Q: Your love for poetry started in Fresno at McLane High School. How did it happen?
A: In my third year of high school, I had an English teacher who introduced me more seriously to the world of poetry. We read Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and many more. We also talked about what these poets were doing in terms of craft: diction, imagery, form, and etc. Each poem was an opportunity to discover something beyond the poem, about life and our humanity. I believe schools at all levels play an important role in helping students develop a love and appreciation for poetry, writing and the arts. I hope our local schools especially can deepen and continue nurturing students to explore and pursue literature.
Q: How do you think the lack of a Hmong written tradition until recently affected your journey as a poet?
A: Coming from a culture that lacked a strong literary history and didn’t have a formal writing system until the 1950s, I certainly felt the challenge of what was before me. I felt lonely too knowing that I didn’t have my own Hmong Whitman or Shakespeare. I realized, however, that even without a written language or history of writing, we still had the beauty of oral literature and telling stories. For example, the Hmong practice of “kwv txhiaj,” a type of vocalized sung-poetry, is a form of folk art and literature to me.
Q: In your poem “Original Bones,” you ponder this lack of a written Hmong language. What does the poem mean to you?
A: This poem explores my own literary lineage, and it takes me right down to the landscape I grew up in, the Central Valley. While my “original bones” might place me somewhere in southwestern China, I am also rooted here to the Fresno farms and foothills of my childhood.
Q: Tell us about winning the Walt Whitman Award.
A: Winning the Whitman has been a tremendous, life-changing honor! I received $5,000, a book publishing contract with Graywolf Press, along with a four-week writing residency at Civitella Ranieri in Italy.
Q: Does “Afterland,” the title of your new book, allude to ancestors in the Hmong perception of life after death? Or does it have to do with refugees traveling to a new home?
A: I think “Afterland” can be any place, terrain or geography in the aftermath of a crisis or conflict. It can be an individual experience or a collective experience rooted in a people’s historical memory. It certainly has to do with the after-place of the refugee, but it also has to do with the after-place of that post-war country from which the refugee has just fled. And in the obvious sense, I found myself also exploring the after-place of the spirit.
Q: Some of your poems are disturbing. In your poem “Dear Soldier of the Secret War,” you recount a terrifying scene in which a Hmong man’s tongue is cut off, boiled and forced down the throat of his brother. (This contrasts with a scene in which the average American, having just gotten up from a warm bed with fine linens, is blissfully unaware of the carnage as he or she gets a cup of coffee.) Was it difficult for you to revisit this part of your culture’s history?
A: You’re absolutely right to point out the disturbing imagery in some of the poems. As a poet, I never expected to write those kinds of things. But I knew I couldn’t ignore the realities of that war either. For me, these horrific scenes hurt even more when I consider them within the context of a people who were pretty much left behind when the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War in 1975. That’s how Hmong people became refugees. I acknowledge that the pain is on both sides, many American soldiers came back from that war with immeasurable trauma. In this poem, however, I wanted to tell the other side’s narrative, the Hmong soldier.
Q: You were born in Fresno, and so you weren’t a witness to some of the events you write about. Did you just absorb this knowledge growing up? Or did you make it a point to ask questions?
A: If my parents had stayed a couple more months in the refugee camp, I would have probably been born there instead. In order to write the poems, I drew from a wide of range of sources that included asking my parents about their experience, from books and other reading materials, stories I heard growing up, and a variety of landscapes.
Q: You come from a family of seven girls and one boy. Was it a big deal for you to go off to college, first to Berkeley and then to New York?
A: Absolutely! At the time, it was uncommon for Hmong girls like myself to leave home to go away for college. When girls leave home, it is often to get married. The idea of college and leaving home was new to my family. My parents were extremely hesitant at first, but they eventually came around. I don’t even know what made them change their mind. This progress created a pathway for my some of my other sisters to leave home too.
Q: Give us three words that you’d use to describe yourself.
A: Night-owl. Night. Owl.
Q: For someone reading “Afterland” for the first time, what sorts of thoughts/themes/ideas do you want to leave swirling in the head of the reader?
A: I hope “Afterland” encourages readers to consider the current plight of refugees globally by way of the Hmong story and experience. I hope Afterland reaches people who have never heard about the Secret War or the Hmong. I hope that the imagery and language I offer in many of the poems allows readers to see the world differently, in unexpected, surprising, and sometimes disturbing ways.
- 7 p.m. Thursday, John W. Dodson Theatre, Bitwise South Stadium, 700 Van Ness Ave.
- Event will include a book signing, a featured reading from Mai Der Vang and readings from her fellow poets Andre Yang, Soul Vang and Anthony Cody of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle Hmong American Writers’ Circle.
Upcoming ‘Afterland’ readings
- Fresno Poets’ Association Reading Series: 7 p.m. May 5, Alice Peters Auditorium, Fresno State
- Remix Reading Series: 8 p.m. May 11, Tokyo Garden, 1711 Fulton St. in Fresno