Starting with Fire: A Conversation with Mai Der Vang

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Mai Der Vang is a Hmong American poet and author of the Walt Whitman Award-winning poetry collection, Afterland (Graywolf Press, 2017). The daughter of Hmong refugees who fled Laos after the Vietnam War, Vang’s familial history is largely shrouded in mystery. During the war, the Hmong people—an ethnic group native to Southeast Asia—were recruited and trained by the the US Central Intelligence Agency to fight against the North Vietnamese Army in what has come to be known as the Secret War. When the US eventually pulled troops out of Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s, aid was halted to the Hmong people, who were then left at the mercy of a hostile and heavily armed government.

Much of Vang’s poetry grapples with this dark history—a history whose details are often censored and left obscure by global powers. Her latest collection, Yellow Rain, out from Graywolf Press tomorrow, is the product of extensive archival research into the oft-disputed use of chemical weapons against the Hmong people. Yellow rain, for which the book was named, fell in droplets from the sky and dried into a powdery substance. Anyone who came into contact with it became severely ill and died horribly. What the substance was and who was deploying it were questions never definitively answered. Instead, the tensions of the Cold War and high-stakes disarmament negotiations engulfed the conversation, leaving the displaced Hmong with few answers and little hope for justice.

Vang teaches at the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State, in the city where her parents resettled and where she was born and raised. In Yellow Rain, she explores new possibilities for poetic form, combining poetry, visual imagery, and collaged compositions of archival texts to bring the reader into the messy, fraught business of unearthing a buried history.

I spoke with Vang on the phone in advance of the book’s release about redacted documents, the intersection of visual and poetic forms, and the poems we write and rewrite that haunt us.

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The Rumpus: When was the first time that you heard about yellow rain? And when was the first time that you started writing about it?

Mai Der Vang: The first time I caught wind of it was probably when I was still an undergraduate student. I was just your typical undergraduate college student, dealing with the world and dealing with academia at the same time. I was going through this phase in which I had so many questions about my own history. I grew up in a Hmong refugee family, and my parents didn’t tell us very much about the war as we were growing up, even though we knew that there was something traumatic about the experience that brought them to the United States. That created a lot of questions as we were going up about what happened. As I was researching it during my undergraduate years, I had come across this thing called yellow rain. I had just read about it in a cursory way. I really didn’t look into it at all.

To find out about it and to invest myself in it didn’t happen until much later in my life when I was pursuing my MFA degree and the whole situation with the Radiolab episode happened. That was during my first semester in the program, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop coming back to my early memories about it, too. I wrote my first poem about yellow rain for my collection Afterland. At that time, I didn’t think I was going to write a full collection about it, but I knew it was something I wanted to investigate and explore further.

Rumpus: This collection involved a lot of archival research. Did you conduct the archival research before writing the poems, or were you writing and researching simultaneously?

Vang: The process was interesting. First of all, I didn’t know what to do, because of the sheer amount of information that I knew I could go and seek out. Like, what do I do first? What I ended up doing was investing myself in research. Hours and days and weeks of research. I spent a lot of my time during my MFA program digging. I didn’t write anything—like I said, I wrote that one poem for Afterland—but I was really just reading and trying to bring myself into a place where I felt like I could get a better grasp on it. And all of the research, the archival work, the database work ultimately led to me then going to the National Security Archive in Washington, DC and digging through boxes of hard-copy documentation.

The real writing of the poems didn’t come until after I did all that digging. I did write a few poems as I was doing the research, but the bulk of the poems in the book weren’t written until after. Then, finally, I felt like I was in a place where I could begin to mold what the book would become.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little more about what your response was going through these documents? What was surprising about going through all of that information?

Vang: I think what surprised me most how much of a storyline there was that hadn’t really been shared before. There were parts of the yellow rain narrative that I don’t think people fully understood or that had never really been addressed. The most interesting thing is that yellow rain led me to all these other places, too. It led me to diving into the Cold War and the residual impact that had on how yellow rain would play out. Also, looking into things like human subjects, experimentation, and thinking that maybe this was more than what I expected to take on.

Rumpus: Do you feel like you gained a sense of clarity through that research, or did it leave you with more questions?

Vang: It absolutely left me with more questions. I don’t know that writing the book was about trying to find answers. I think when I started the book, I had hoped for that. Any writer hopes to achieve some kind of resolution by the end, but I don’t feel like that happened for me with Yellow Rain. Halfway through the work, I realized that wasn’t the point. Maybe the point is not to dig for the answer but to really have a chance for the other to be able to speak back. Even if it’s just as simple as that—to have another version of the event.

Rumpus: That reminds me of a line near the end of Yellow Rain, where you say, “It was never about finding out what actually happened to the Hmong.” When you say, “it,” are you referring to the larger discourse—the scientists and politicians who were arguing about what this substance was—or is “it” your project of digging through these archives?

Vang: When I first wrote the line, it was the former. It was about the scientists and the politicians and all of the stakeholders who really had no interest in finding out what had really happened. Now that you mention it, I think you can also see it as something clicking inside of myself as the writer realizing that maybe this isn’t what it’s about. But when I had written that, I was really focused on just the sheer regret of knowing and acknowledging that they had no interest in finding out what really happened.

Rumpus: Something I enjoyed about Yellow Rain is that it’s one of those books where you can really see the brush strokes. There was a sense of frustration and struggle that was palpable. Is that an intentional stylistic choice, or is it more a product of this particular undertaking that’s so large and overwhelming?

Vang: I think it’s both. It’s the work of the poem to try to navigate and see its way through but not know where it’s going. It’s also the researcher within me being open to whatever comes of this, but not really having a rooted place to start from. That’s hard to do because we want to know the answers. We want to feel secure and to have a feeling of certainty. If we can’t have that, then there’s a way in which we resolve ourselves to knowing that we may never know. And then there are questions around the access of knowing—who gets to know and who doesn’t get to know.

Rumpus: In the epigraph, you quote the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who also wrote about atrocities committed against his people. I noticed a lot of parallels between your work and his, and I wanted to know how his work has influenced your own.

Vang: I’m a huge fan of Zurita’s work. I really admire the courage with which he comes to it. That particular epigraph was pulled from the collection, INRI. It’s a powerful, startling collection in which the voices of those who have been lost to what was inflicted by the government there finally get to be remolded and come back into life. I was reading it in the midst of wrapping up Yellow Rain, and it was, for me, so transformative, the idea that a work could speak across time and space to reach other parts of the world and other communities. That’s why I wanted to bring that quote into this collection, the echoes of what Zurita had written.

Rumpus: Zurita also said in a 2016 interview, “I do not distinguish between visual form or poetic form. To me, it is all the same language.” Yellow Rain incorporates a lot of visual elements. You have these word collages, the “compositions.” What is the connection that you see between the poetic and visual forms? Do you feel that they can be distinguished?

Vang: I think that’s important to think about in relation to this book, because of the compositions. My work, especially with the first collection, was all rooted in a text-based form of expression. I think with this collection, I had so much information that I had accumulated and so much research that I had undertaken, and the task for me was to figure out how to synthesize all of that for my reader. How do I offer it in a way that they could walk this journey with me, rather than inundating them with all this jargon and government language and scientific speak. I found myself moving towards the visual because there was a way in which the visual could also have a text-based power.

When I think about what poetry really is at the barest of bones, it’s the assemblage of words on a page. That’s what it is. It’s the arrangement of words in a compositional manner on a page. The compositions that I do are also an arrangement of language on a page. There was a careful curation that I was thinking about when I was choosing how to compose these images, what words to put next to what and what information from the documents to put where, and next to what, because there’s another narrative that comes out through that simple, compositional arrangement.

Rumpus: Some poems have additional text or images in the background in a barely visible shade of gray. How did you decide which images to bring in and which poems to attach them to?

Vang: Those pieces were really an attempt to express the fullness of the experience of having to dig through all those documents, to show that this is not just about the texts. It’s also about the things I was finding visually in those documents. I wanted to try and offer that as well in the book. Some of the pieces have this faded watermark in the background to accentuate what’s happening in the poem. In some ways, too, they distract from the poem, and that was slightly intentional on my part. I don’t want it to be overly busy or distracting, but I think that the experience rings true about the clutter of information and the redactions I had to live with in a lot of the source texts. There were even documents I came across that were full-page redactions. I wanted to convey that there were whole source documents I had found that were redacted except for the date.

One of the things that’s interesting about some of these redacted documents is that when you look at them, you see little spots where maybe the ink didn’t go through. They kind of looked to me like stars. I had this really unusual feeling of looking at these redactions and thinking that I was looking at this really dark night sky.

Rumpus: I love that idea that the incomprehensible mystery when you look up at the night sky is somehow similar to when you look down on these dark pages.

Vang: Exactly.

Rumpus: I’d love to talk more about the various tones you capture in the poems. In some of them, there’s a real palpable anger and frustration, and in others there’s a more mournful, contemplative feeling. The way they were all collaged together felt very nuanced and satisfying to me. How intentional was your approach to organizing and arranging these various tones and moods on the page?

Vang: It’s interesting that you point that out because the way that I had organized it—in some of the early sections of the collection and then moving towards the middle—there is a sense that the speaker is very frustrated and also a sense that there is this need to reckon with something. Then, in one of the latter sections of the collection, it moves towards this meditative reflective—like you said, contemplative—perspective. I had to think about what makes the most sense for how to move through the emotion of this experience for myself, for the reader, and for yellow rain, itself.

I’m always one to want to start with some fire. I think that the stakes are so high when you’re someone like me, who’s a Hmong writer. There hasn’t really been a space for someone like myself. I feel like the stakes are always higher for me, and I always have to push it further. I’m not afraid to start with fire and then to let that gradually move towards a voice that then is able to try to come to terms with what’s happened in the best way possible.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask you more about the stakes of this collection. How do you approach writing a poem about an experience that historically hasn’t been believed? A poem that might give voice to people who’ve been argued against and made silent?

Vang: I hope I have brought myself closer to thinking about what that poem might look like through this collection. Having grown up as a daughter of refugees and having not been able to see the potential of what we could do as a community, knowing that there is this potential, is exhausting. It’s exhausting to have to write these poems. It’s exhausting to have to constantly retell that story again and again and again. But it’s the work of having to undo what’s been done.

I think that this collection is one in which it almost feels like every poem is another version of itself, even though I tried hard to offer something new in each one. And I think I did. But when you think about it—and poets say this, too—we’re always writing the same poem forever. Every poem we write is going to be a poem that we’ve written that keeps haunting us. For me, I think the poem that you’re talking about—the poem in which we write back against what’s been done to us—is a poem we might be continually searching for for the rest of our lives. No matter how many collections we write, no matter how many poems we publish. That’s the grief that plays out over a person’s lifetime. Poetry has allowed me to explore that grief. The grief of a collective people.

Rumpus: What are your hopes for what this book can accomplish?

Vang: I hope this work, which people identify as being rooted in a kind of documentary poetics, encourages other writers, other poets, other readers—anyone out there, really—to do the work of digging to see what we’ve been missing all along. I hope that the work that I’ve done here invites other people to see what they can find out about themselves and about their communities. Things that maybe they’ve always wondered about but have never been allowed or given the permission to know or to question. And to then think of how we take our work and use it as a way to challenge those who have the privilege of knowing.

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Photograph of Mai Der Vang by Ze Moua.


Lily Houston Smith is an audio producer and writer based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Currently, she is an editor for Laid Off NYC and is pursuing her master's in Cultural Reporting & Criticism at NYU. You can see what she's up to by following her on Twitter at @Lily_H_Smith. More from this author →