Afterland, by Mai Der Vang
Review by John Venegas
The kind of art you never want to get used to is that which is both beautiful and covering a deeply unsettling truth. In part, this is because you leave yourself open for the full weight of the subject and the elegance with which it is explored. In part, this is because we have something of a moral obligation to not become desensitized. That second aspect is becoming an increasingly important issue in modern literature. The long overdue and still insufficient effort to give non-white voices platforms and space to express themselves has meant that we have seen a substantial rise in narratives that justly eviscerate sanitized and justified stories of neo-imperialism. And, predictable as clockwork, a good deal of the white establishment, including many individuals who are ostensibly progressive, thinks itself “saturated”. (For those persons of color who are reading this review, bear with me; this is the kind of concept that white allies cannot be allowed to take for granted.) Strangely, this creates a disturbing form of pressure on artists whose voices have been shaped by the wanton abuse of old and new colonialism. Their work is often required to be of the highest, most indisputable caliber to have a chance at recognition. The fact that their work so often meets that challenge is perhaps the greatest joy I find in reading and reviewing literature.
Mourn the poppies, the mangosteen and dragonfruit.
But you come as a refugee, an exile, a body seeking mountains
meaning the same in translation.
Here they are.
I bring all of this up because I want to explain my frame of mind after finishing Mai Der Vang’s Afterland. It is her debut poetry collection, and one of such intensity and beauty that I find it perpetually in my thoughts. As a whole, Afterland is primarily concerned with the Hmong, a people indigenous to Southeast Asia, and specifically the collection deals with those Hmong who have lived in Laos. Their experiences as refugees, betrayed military allies, and the victims of indiscriminate greed of imperialists are rendered here in poetic language that is philosophical, spiritual, accusatory, consoling, and empowering. The reader is spared little in the way of the abject cruelty that the Hmong have dealt with, whether on the macro-scale as the United States destabilized Laos and the Hmong by unnecessarily involving them in the Vietnam War, or on the micro-scale as survivors find themselves unable to escape the memories of mutilation, torture, and death. The lands of the Hmong are given no less respect and lament than the dead, as they too were brutalized, pillaged, and abandoned. How many Americans even know of the Hmong and their involvement in the war?
The crowded dead
turn into the earth’s
unfolded bed sheet.
Obviously, I cannot speak the authenticity of Mai Der Vang’s descriptions and depictions, but I also would find it extremely difficult to believe that her work here does not do these experiences justice in terms of representation. It strikes me as a beautiful and deeply personal tribute to her people. This may be Mai Der Vang’s debut collection but is crafted with superlative skill and a deceptively effortless grasp of language. In past reviews I have mentioned my fondness for those lines or sections of poetry that feel like honey on the tongue and are so satisfying that one can almost be forgiven for the import of the words. This collection is rife with such selections. None of the poems are particularly dense or obtuse in their construction, because they don’t need to be. The poet is not hiding her message or trying to reward an obsessive reader for pouring over word choice (though such readers will find themselves incidentally glutted anyway). This is straightforward graceful use of language to mold intense, almost kaleidoscopic imagery.
The man howls in my head,
his stony wind
uncoiling in every crevice.
One of the strongest thematic elements running through this collection is the concept of borders being torn down. This is present not only in the more expected ways, e.g. refugees seeking asylum and survival, but in more metaphysical ways. The speakers (if indeed there is more than one) and imagery of the poems transition at will between the natural and the spiritual and the human, between the horrifically violent and the transcendently beautiful. It is present when colonizers trample and invade, and it is present when groups of Hmong are on the move, seeking respite. Colors, stone and metal, fauna, the day and night cycle and a hundred other concepts and tangible things seem to be in constant motion and impossible to fully disentangle from the rest. The power of this is brilliantly and hauntingly evident. Mai Der Vang puts on display the idea that the cruelty and violence are self-inflicted, not in the equivocating sense that diminishes the identity of the Hmong, but self-inflicted because imperialists have committed these sins against those that are and should be their kin, against a planet that is their home. Moreover, this effect raises the specter of consequences and culpability, neither of which are mitigated by the ignorance of the descendants of the perpetrators.
It’s been forty years of debris
turning stale, and submunitions
still hunt inside the patina of mud.
Afterland is the kind of book that should be necessary based purely on its quality. And that quality is beyond question. Unfortunately, it finds itself just as essential given the culture and moment in history into which it is being introduced. In the rush to appear proudly declare ourselves either “woke” or as ignorant as humanly possible, we too often forget (or willfully disregard) the idea that there are real people who affect and are affected by the choices we make, whether those choices are picking political candidates or the kind of literature we read. Afterland is a collection that unashamedly demands attention, not through some forced pretentiousness but through an earnestness and a refusal to consent to people being reduced to footnotes on rarely-trod Wikipedia pages. It is upsetting and loud and intimate in all the best goddamn ways, and it is utterly fascinating to watch Mai Der Vang turn through the cycle of prophet, advocate, shaman, and artist, never truly divorced from any of those roles.
Afterland is available now through Graywolf Press.