A Review of Mai Der Vang’s Afterland

Caroline M. Mar

Mai Der Vang’s debut collection, Afterland, is an unforgettable and evocative book. The poems are full of smoke and ghosts, the kinds of lingering that make history manifest. The voices of these poems cry for that history, telling and retelling the stories of Vang’s Hmong community, particularly the stories of the Secret War that ultimately forced so many of the Hmong people from their homeland in Laos. There are poems that explore what it means to survive (or not survive) a war, to be a refugee, to define land, landscape, and home. Vang tackles these large and complicated subjects with a lyrical voice of lament. The book itself is a body, or perhaps more truly the body is itself a book, one that Vang is striving to write: “They say each birth is given pages / that equals the span of its life.”  

The collection begins with “Another Heaven,” a lyric of death and arrival: “I am but atoms / Of old passengers // Bereaved to my cloistered bones.” This opening poem, elegiac and opaque–though not closed off–begins the book’s investigations into death, the body, history, and secrets. “Another Heaven” is followed by “Dear Soldier of the Secret War,” a poem that, like its title, is forceful and direct in its addressing of history and narrative. Vang’s deliberate choice to begin with the lyric, imagistic, and sonic before launching into the specific, narrative, and historical instructs the reader in what kind of a journey this book might be. Like the stories the poet is telling, there are moments of clarity and matter-of-factness in these poems, but everything carries the echoes of the mourning songs of a people and nation displaced. This movement between elegy and history, between image and story, sets up the crucial conversations of the book. These ideas and themes slip against one another, sometimes uncomfortably and sometimes so closely a reader can’t tell which is which: the lyrical and the historical, the beautiful and the violent, the spiritual and the mundane, the secret and the unknown.

To have a collection of poems “about” a particular subject also means that all poems within the book are read through that lens. What happens, then, with poems that might not be about Laos, or the war, or the family’s displacement? Does the reader then read everything through the lens of the history she has been given earlier in the book? “Gray Vestige” is a beautiful example of this complication. The poem finds the speaker walking on a beach, coming upon the carcass of a whale. This is obviously not Laos (a landlocked nation). Three poems prior, the speaker places herself at the Pacific, so this too might be Pacific coastline, with heaps of kelp and the surprising Humpback’s remains. But a reader will hear echoes of the losses already catalogued thus far in the collection, “Some things / return, but never really do.”

In Asian American Literary Review’s most recent issue, “Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health,” there is included a deck of Asian American tarot cards, a creation of the major arcana of archetypal Asian American experiences. Included are more familiar tarot tropes like The Hanged Man and The Lovers, but also included are The Model Minority, The Adoptee, and The Refugee. About The Refugee, Mimi Thi Nguyen writes: “The Refugee symbolizes the present as the passage through simultaneously felt pasts and futures.” There might not be a better way to describe how Vang moves through time and space in her poems, her speaker’s address to her own spirit in “Transmigration”: “I am refugee. You are too. Cry, but do not weep. // We walk out the door.”  

This is not to suggest that more attention should be paid to the “aboutness” of Vang’s poems than to their craft. In “Light from a Burning Citadel,” the metaphors stack up not only in quantity but in the ways they echo and reinforce violence, from its early lines, “I am a skin of sagging curtain. / I am a bone of bullet hole. / I am locked in the ash oven of a forest” to a “militia of stars” until eventually, at the poem’s end, “I’ve become the shrill / air in a bamboo pipe—the breath / of an army of bells.” These are the metaphors of a poet who knows how to make connotation work for her. In “Your Mountain Lies Down with You,” Vang writes a poem of farewell for a dead Grandfather, one that is gentle as it guides the beloved addressee to find comfort in his final resting place. The speaker names natural feature after natural feature, filling the poem with the diction of place, “gray pine and blue oak” and “carpenterias and fiddlenecks” replacing the mourned “mangosteen and dragonfruit” and “petals on a dok champa.” And yet, the poem finds a way to comfort its speaker by comforting the departed: “You will see Mount Whitney is as beautiful as Phou Bia. / The moon is sharp enough to cut your ear as the one from your village.” The poet has found a way to put to rest the grandfather who came “seeking mountains / meaning the same in translation.” That this is the book’s penultimate poem, followed by the final section and long poem, “Afterland,” is telling. The settling down and rest of the grandfather, if not entirely easy, is part of the destination that the refugee speakers of the entire collection have been moving toward. There is beauty here, too, Vang tells her audience.

Many writers have conversations about “the reader,” and how much to consider one’s audience when writing. In a book that is tackling a complicated political subject (war, displacement, imperialism), Vang understands the power of language to her project. The book is written in English – the adopted language of the refugee, the language of the foreign power – but multiple poems in the book use Hmong phrases and address what it is to be a “people without script.” According to official history, Hmong had no written language until 1952, when the Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA) was created by white Christian missionaries (Vang uses RPA for Hmong in her poems). Vang writes about this complicated relationship with language and writing first in “Original Bones.” The poem weaves together the creation of RPA as well as the story of the farmer Shong Lue Yang, who created an entire written language for Hmong on his own, and the moments of the speaker’s own early writing, “when I drew / The letters of mai der”. The farmer Yang, also known as Niam Ntawv (mother of writing), makes another appearance later in “Mother of People Without Script.” Vang knows how fraught a tool language is, ending the poem, “When they could take no more, / when all that you had was given, // you lined your grave with paper.”

As an American poet, Vang is writing for an American audience, certainly, but her book is proof that “American” doesn’t mean only one thing, and that she is more interested in what language can and cannot accomplish for a writer across history and identity. In “Original Bones,” she closes the poem about Hmong’s orthographic history, “ There was a time / The mountain came to surrender / Pressed itself down as my page.” There is more to history and language than we can possibly know; the poet’s job is to imagine that history and language for us. As much as the book might teach a reader about Hmong culture, the Secret War, or the recent history of Hmong displacement and migration, its purpose is not to be an socio-historical guide. The reader will certainly have to do some work if they find themselves outside of Vang’s Hmong and Hmong American conversations, language, and themes. In other words, the book calls into question the ways in which poets of color and other marginalized identities are asked to “translate” themselves or their work for a presumed-white readership. How is the quality of a book impacted when it has to cater to this readership?

On the other hand, there is a tremendous risk to speaking for one’s people, whoever those people might be. This is a risk undertaken by all kinds of artists. But when a writer does it, this risk is heightened, because it draws attention to the people and history that she seeks to represent—people who are misunderstood or unknown to the dominant culture, who (along with the writer) are refugees, immigrants, and people of color. This issue becomes more compounded when that writer lives in a society that is most comfortable with what Adichie refers to as the “single story.” Vang takes this risk boldly, speaking for herself, for her family, and for a whole nation. Her poetry becomes a language for historical loss, as it becomes the history itself: “I dig and dig for no more roots to dig.”

The book’s final section is the long title poem, “Afterland.” Here Vang returns to and expands the sonic and non-linear imagery of earlier poems. “Afterland” represents a poem that is lyric over logic. This is to say that the poem prioritizes emotional truth rather than “sense,” which in poetry (and in particular, this poem) is its own kind of sense. Images from earlier in the book (objects, words, names) recur throughout the Afterland, reinforcing the kind of echo and conversation that Vang has elsewhere encouraged between her speakers and poems. This can be read as the afterlife that the spirits have been called to and from elsewhere in the book: the place they’ve been seeking. But Vang is not a poet of simplification, so the Afterland goes beyond just one place. The speaker goes “to funerals to meet the ancients,” sure, but she also traverses the many-stepped path of refugee-hood backward from Fresno to the Midwest to Thailand to Laos. Afterland is everywhere and everything–the landscape of Laos burned in the Secret War’s aftermath, the Laos of before, the American present, the family history. “To meet the end is to go back” at the poem that is the end of the book (but not the story). What does closure look like for a refugee? For the dead? For a poem?