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Exploring the ‘Afterland’ of Refugees: An Interview with Mai Der Vang

Exploring the ‘Afterland’ of Refugees: An Interview with Mai Der Vang

Mai Der Vang’s debut poetry collection, Afterland, won the 2016 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, selected by Carolyn Forché, who offers these words about the collection: “Here is deep attention, prismatic intelligence, and fearless truth.” Afterland details the violence against the Hmong people during the 1960s and 70s, explores the afterlife for those who did not survive, and follows the survivors in the exodus to their own “afterland.” I had the pleasure of interviewing Vang last month.

Sarah Blake: I felt the afterland concept so strongly in the relationship between afterland and homeland. Can you talk more about that?

Mai Der Vang: The afterland, in its obvious sense refers to the place after death, but it also embodies the after-place or after-country of the refugee. Wherever that refugee ends up is the afterland, whether it’s a refugee camp on the other side of the river or California on the other side of the world. But the country that refugee has just fled is a kind of post-war afterland too, devastated by unexploded ordnances and political turmoil. I think of Laos in this case after the fallout of the Vietnam War. For me, afterland is the place we go to or the place that develops after we have been through a crisis of some kind.

Sarah Blake: By the end of the book the exploration of the afterland transforms into more of an exploration of the afterlife. I love the line “The dead cannot be reborn in metal” that starts the poem “Dressing the Departed,” and really all of the work done with death, the spirit(s), and the afterlife in this book. Was it difficult to write into this?

Mai Der Vang: In writing about death and the spirit realm, I certainly felt its emotional strain. I did a lot of reading and research into Hmong shamanic and spiritual views, and that helped put me in a frame of mind to contemplate and write on the topic. My family still practices shamanism, and as I began to immerse myself in readings about it, it opened up a complex other world teeming with primitive wisdom and a deep acknowledgement of the reticulated roots that form my lineage. I learned about the chants recited at funerals and the various phases undertaken by the soul to return to the land of the ancestors. In the end, however, it was important for me to always come back out of that realm, to ground myself in the people here in this world.

Sarah Blake: I love your use of short declaratives, and how you often use line breaks to call attention to the short declarative within a longer sentence. There’s such power there, especially in the metaphors you bring about, like “I am a bone of bullet hole. / I am locked in the ash oven of a forest” from the poem “Light from a Burning Citadel.” I wonder if you could speak to your relationship with declaratives.

Mai Der Vang: I think these declaratives give the poem another layer, another identity so to speak, as if there is a voice behind every one of those lines trying to shout itself into existence. And then all of those voices commingle on the page, in the stanzas, and between the lines. It’s also the separate self saying there is no other way to depict this except to say what it is, a  “bone of bullet hole” or “the ash oven of a forest.” As a Hmong-American poet coming from a culture and community that has historically lacked a robust and definitive literary tradition, I find that these declaratives and assertions become all the more impactful and necessary. I think of these statements as a way for me to flex my voice and sharpen my pitch in order to reclaim a kind of agency.

Sarah Blake: I’m completely taken with the ending couplet of “Gray Vestige”: “and this your body ancient / turned upside down.” I love how the form, the inverted structure of that phrase, reflects the content. I love the consonance of the repeated d sound. And I love how you have the material for this extended metaphor of the beached whale, but you resist it, you let the poem be completely about the humpback, until that last turn, and then it speaks so enormously to all the poems that have come before it and the position of this speaker’s ancient body. Can you tell us more about this poem?

Mai Der Vang: A couple summers ago while I was spending time on the Santa Cruz/Monterey coast, a humpback whale had washed up on the shore and it was slowly rotting away. We often fail to realize how enormous whales really are, so to see this massive creature shedding itself in the wind was an alarming sight of dishumanity. I still think of this whale and I try to imagine how it arrived at this terrible moment and realization of surrender. That said, I appreciate your observation on the poem’s ending. As a poet, I love what happens when words are inverted or positioned where we don’t normally expect in the English language. The sonic quality of “body ancient” resonated so much more for me than “ancient body,” and it seemed to give a name or title to this animal’s physique in this aquatic grave setting.

Sarah Blake: Can you tell us more about the probably near-constant negotiations you had to make with metaphor and what you wanted to, and what you felt allowed to, equate to other things, personal and historical?

Mai Der Vang: So much of what’s there in some of these poems are objects or images that stand in for the feeling of something. It’s like the notion of the objective correlative, that these set of ideas, objects, images, or circumstances conveyed in the poems are proxies that when combined are the parts that make up the Hmong narrative of war and trauma, at least seen through my eyes and perspective. In these poems, you can certainly also sense the weight and presence of metaphors.

Writing is so much about negotiation with the self, and I think every writer engages it at some level. In fact, for me, the process of revising a poem is the act of negotiation, figuring out what stays, what goes, what works, what fails, and what surprises. Reflecting on how I negotiated the objects, images, and ideas, I feel as though I gave myself free reign to be as odd and unexpected as I could be. And by connecting things that didn’t really go together or equate, there were many opportunities to complicate and create new meaning.

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Sarah Blake: There are a lot of images that thread themselves through the book. My favorite is how “To peel an orange” in the poem “Phantom Talker” transforms on the next page to “I peel to the center for the shape” in the poem “This Heft upon Your Leaving.” I would love to hear about what went into your ordering of these poems.

Mai Der Vang: When I was compiling the collection, I noticed I had inherently done that to the two poems you reference here. As other poets can relate, I experimented with numerous methods and ways to order the poems, which started at first with spreading every page out on my living room floor. Initially, I considered ordering the poems by themes. And then I got rid of the themes and considered ordering the poems by their voice. Finally, I settled on starting out with the more war-related poems in order to depict the landscape that would later lead into the afterland concept. I felt the war poems were a little more raw and raging; by placing those early on in the collection, I hoped they would set a kind of tone.

Afterland by Mai Der Vang
Graywolf Press
Published April 4, 2017

Mai Der Vang is the author of Afterland (Graywolf, 2017) which received the Walt Whitman Award winner from the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review, New Republic, and elsewhere. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, along with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from Columbia University. She lives in Fresno, California.

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