THE NEW YORKER
[Afterland] reminds us what a distinctive instrument the human imagination is, no matter what tune it plays. There is a story in this book, and an important one...Vang writes strikingly, often chillingly visual poems, their images projected one at a time, like slides in a lecture, or perhaps in a trial...The poems can feel like environments rather than narratives: they develop according to our wary movement through them, simultaneously registering both our outward point of view and our inner commentary...Afterland works its wonders with an intentionally rationed vocabulary, its counters combined and recombined in poem after poem: stars, water, hair, bones, fire...The style creates an atmosphere of impending marvels, and many of Vang’s poems perform, in words, the transformations that they describe...[Afterland] is among the most satisfying débuts by an American poet in some time.
- Dan Chiasson
Poets such as Quan Barry and Ocean Voung have brought us face to face with the Vietnam War, and now Vang, an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers' Circle, reminds us that the war in Laos—the largest CIA paramilitary operation ever—was equally horrific. From the first page, the writing is visceral and potent; in 1975, when "your Hmong village is a graveyard," a son's head lies "in the rice/ pounder, shell-crumbled," and a brother's tongue is cut out, boiled, and "forced down your throat," an American returning home says casually, "Sorry about your mountains." The reader staggers as the next poem says, "I am a skin of sagging curtain…/ I am locked in the ash oven of a forest." Vang then moves on the refugee experience, as her parents leave Laos, "a herd of horses never/ To reclaim their steppes," and live amid "Rusted sedan, wire zipline/ to stapled roof//," bringing the bitter proclamation, "My parents fled for this." Throughout, Vang keeps the energy ratcheted up to the tightest turn of the wrench. VERDICT An especially accomplished debut—it won the 2016 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, a first-book publication prize—this is important reading.
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
In this sinewy and unflinching debut, winner of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award, Vang shares the story of the Hmong diaspora who were forced out of Laos and into exile as a result of America’s secret war of the 1960s and ’70s: “This is a phantom attack/ that never happened, but our fallen know it did.” Vang refers to the U.S. recruitment of Hmong fighters to fight the People’s Army of Vietnam alongside Americans. As a result of Laos’s key location in the Vietnam War, areas of the country were subjected to years of bombing. “What ends the deepening numbers,” she writes, “resounding into night, a planeload/ releases every eight minutes forever.” Vang explores the depths of her inherited trauma (“I dig for my finest blouse, placenta/ of my home. It sleeps beneath// the bedpost,/ calling as the heartbeat underground”) and she shares the experience of the Hmong diaspora by chronicling the physical displacement of her people and a deep and reverberating spiritual disruption. Vang suffuses her poems with unnerving details of strife, which her attention to emotion and texture keep from feeling lifeless or exploitative. “Hmong people say one’s spirit can run off,/ go into hiding underground,” Vang writes, and she calls “for what left/ to come back,// and for the found/ to never leave.” (Apr.)
I don’t know of another spokesperson for the Hmong people. Laos, the land of ruins, is this unbelievably uncharted story. Mai Der Vang’s the historian of her ancestors from a burned world. She translates herself into the shatter and emerges as a goddess of history — painful, yes, but how amazing that language can savor to make awful things beautiful. Nothing is engineered or manipulated — line after line flow like a satin ribbon burning at each end with terrible truths. Mai Der Vang doesn’t have to “convince” us; her realizations — in unrelentingly stunning language — brings her story before our eyes, only inches away — there’s nowhere else to look. We already know history. We know horror; but until this book we didn’t have it so systematically illuminated in each poem. The global influence of the past is still with us. This writer makes it happen now with powerful indictments and reprisals in language where, after reading, nothing will ever be the same. This is a blazing book with lyrics that aspire to Mai Der Vang as a major luminary.
Afterland’s voice seems to transmigrate, riding the trance of memory from one image to the next. . . . Vang’s work moves in the realms of ecstatic appeal where meaning is revealed cumulatively. Her ambient revelations read more like incantations. . . . [She] tumbles headlong into the realms of memory and dream, expertly crafting fine and elegant passages on her way.
Mai Der Vang gives fiery, poetic voice to a secret war and a dispersed people in her powerful poetry collection Afterland.
A member of the Hmong diaspora community in the United States, and co-editor of How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology, the wildly imaginative and talented Vang sheds much-needed light on the U.S.'s clandestine military operation in Laos near the end of the Vietnam War, specifically on how the U.S. government recruited, then abandoned Hmong fighters. In these poems, Vang writes with the heartbreak of a refugee. The scenes of destruction and death and abandonment she describes become a tacit indictment of U.S. foreign policy: "What grief-song erupts/ when you see the last/ American plane take off/ distant above Long Cheng."
Vang digs beneath the chaos of war, searching the very conception of home for any familiar dimensions. To this end, her lines blaze with a distinct and vivid imagism. "Next came partitions of ice," reads the collection's eponymous poem. "Metallic roads./ Once, I was born in a bowl." While many of her images ring clear in direct, simplistic tones, Vang is not scared of the murkiness of the experimental. In several poems, the language leaps with surrealist impressions that at once deepen and obscure the poet's searching tenor. In "Light from a Burning Citadel," the sky "sleeps quilted in a militia of stars." In "Meditation of the Lioness," the "Violets are hatching volcanoes," and "Today's bees have swallowed/ The last milk of lanterns." These semantic fireworks color the collection's cooler, more settled truths. But it is the latter, the more subtle denouements of Afterland that linger in the mind like smoke, what Vang describes as "the sense/ of an answer."
—Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author
Discover: A member of the displaced Hmong people delivers a visually rich and heartrending poetry collection.
...[T]hese are poems to sit with a while, and to return to dip into again...They are, in fact, perfect for travel: Read one or two on a long bus journey through Laos and let your imagination roam into the lives of those most devastated by the war here, those killed, injured, or forced to leave their homeland in the aftermath. If you are not a usual poetry reader (we confess we are not) but are heading to Laos, we cannot recommend sinking into this collection strongly enough. Not only will you be discovering a new country underfoot, but you’ll be discovering a new voice in a new-for-you genre; and isn’t literary travel just as important as travel in the real world?
THE PARIS REVIEW, BLOG
In her poems, specters follow refugees like heirlooms, as painful and haunting as they are cherished; mourning and memory are the watchwords for dispossession …she writes about prehistory, loss, and the importance found in remembering it…Vang…succeeds in capsulizing her ancestors’ war-torn identity and consequent diaspora. We now know that traumas are genetically heritable—they’re not isolated instances but cascades of generational grief. What can’t be erased can be overwritten, but only if the pen is bold enough. Vang’s certainly is.
AVID BOOKSHOP | Athens, GA
Afterland is a storm; it is lightning illuminating the night ‘with the kind of light that can only/ Be found in the dark.’ Mai Der Vang’s poems are a reaching-out: to ancestors, to origins. She traces these origins from China, centuries past, to the Hmong exodus from Laos, to her family’s immigration to the U.S., in order to grasp onto a history that cries out with the ‘howls’ of the ‘clattering deceased.’ In this way her poems are a remembrance, but also a creation story of Hmong refugees in America. She meditates again and again upon people, especially the dead, as Story: ‘our/ bodies will be books...When the words burn, all that's left is ash.’ Vang’s poems are an important and timely evocation of so many dead, and so many still living, within a war-torn world, and within a nation that would deny their right to live peaceful lives.