Visiting Writers: An Interview with Mai Der Vang
By Amy Trotter
In anticipation of her visit to American University’s Visiting Writers Series this Wednesday, Mai Der Vang graciously answered a few questions about her explosive new collection, Afterland, and her involvement in the Hmong writer’s community.
AT: Have you been busy traveling to promote Afterland?
MDV: Yes. Actually, I did a couple of events in California in March, one coming up in New York in April. A few here and there, not too much. I am trying to pace myself, but yeah I really love having the chance to go out and engage with audiences and meet people. I am thrilled to have the invitation from American University to have a chance to read and meet their MFA students. Right now I am in Chicago. I’m a visiting writer at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve been teaching at the MFA program here, and it’s a one-year term, so I will be heading back to California, my home state, just after I finish here in mid-May.
AT: You are part of the Hmong American Writer’s Circle. Is that something that’s still going on, something you’re still involved with?
MDV: Yes, the Hmong American Writer’s Circle is still going. As capacity allows, the group is still meeting and holding monthly workshops. These workshops are open to anyone really who wants to engage in the creative writing process within a community space outside of academia. Those workshops are still happening pretty informally. They’re really picking up a lot of traction, actually.
AT: I’m so glad to hear that is going well. Did you ever do any residencies with that group or was it more informal?
MDV: The group is so informal because it started out as a grassroots effort by my friend Burlee Vang, and he started the group back in the middle 00’s or something. He started the group because he felt so alone as a Hmong writer, and I think that was the reality that most of us were experiencing — we didn’t know how to find each other. There were, and continue to be, so few of us.
So he started this group, and people would just come to his house, his mom would make egg rolls, and we’d all talk about poetry and writing, so it really was a grassroots undertaking. The group is still happening today, but because it is grassroots, there isn’t a lot of capacity to do supplementary activities like residencies, but there are times when we did hold residencies for some of the writers in the group, like a writers’ retreat and such, but it’s such a grassroots effort that it can be hard to maintain that kind of sustainability.
AT: That kind of community sounds incredible. Talking more about community, I know you were also a Kundiman fellow. How was that?
MDV: I was! Way back in 2013, I did participate in the Kundiman retreat. That was really exciting because it was like reaching out and engaging with another sort of community — it was like broadening out more with Asian American poets on a much more national level. Even though that was in 2013, I am still very connected and in touch with a lot of the folks from Kundiman. The network has really grown over the years, and the organization has also grown. Now they have staff, and it really wasn’t that way before.
AT: How much of the work in your book Afterland were you able to share and pass along to the community you’d found in HAWC and Kundiman? How much of your work was informed by those experiences?
MDV: Looking back on that, a pretty substantial amount of work came out of that time in my life. When I moved back to California, a lot of the work kept circulating in my mind, so I continued to write poems then as well. But yeah, absolutely, I feel like the strength of that community was so important for me to be able to ground myself in my work, hearing what other people were exploring, what others were writing about, and sort of investigating their work inspired me to start thinking about how I could push myself as a poet.
AT: Speaking of pushing yourself as a poet — your book Afterland is intense. It starts off like an explosion and then you reach back over the landscape and explore your heritage and your identity. It’s so powerful. One thing I found especially interesting was your exploration of spirituality and the Shaman. I’m wondering how much of the poetry, for you, is a spiritual journey?
MDV: I grew up in a family that practiced, and still practices, Shamanism. So it is so much a part of my upbringing, even if I didn’t always completely understand the rituals or what the adults were doing when we had ceremonies, it was still a big part of my reality — seeing the shamans come to our house and the rituals.
For me, growing up and realizing that not everybody did that — I eventually came to a point in my life where I realized that Christianity and Western religion dominated this country— I began to push [Shamanism] away because it could be “bad” to be a shaman — people could see it as witchcraft. But as I started to look into it more deeply much later in my life, especially during the time that I was writing this book, it really opened up a whole new way of seeing the world for me.
I really latched on to it, because I think that it helped me understand my parents better, to understand the Hmong history and the Hmong peoples’ use of it historically, and then to examine our society today.
And even beyond that, it helped me to journey through language and poetry. So I found myself writing a lot of these poems. I found myself naturally moving towards that part of myself. I don’t really know why it just started coming out in a lot of the poems because I was exploring the landscape quite a bit.
I was exploring the way a shaman can move through these landscapes, and oftentimes the movement between those landscapes sometimes mirrors the journey of a refugee. Having to always be shifting around and traveling between spaces. And it also made me think of the natural progression between life and death.
There was this sort of experimenting with the notion of movement and landscape — where you go first and where you go after. Hence the idea of Afterland. I think somehow all of these thoughts came together into the collection, and I found myself weaving in and out of these places too. Someone even commented that there is a way in which the work of the poet is a kind of shamanic exchange as well. To be able to go in and out of these places. I didn’t even think of it that way — the poet as a Shaman.
AT: I definitely think that rings true throughout your book. I am especially thinking about two poems — “Towards Home” and “Transmigration” — those feelings of leaving something behind and moving towards something that you’re not sure of, and having that anchor of spirituality to lead you through that. It’s really powerful. This might be a little premature, since I’m sure you’re still basking in the glory of Afterland, but are you writing now or what are you doing looking forward?
MDV: Right now I am teaching, but I am also really excited to have some time over the next year to work on a second book. I’m really fortunate to have that. So that is what I will be doing, trying to get back in the swing of writing and committing myself to the page. So absolutely. I am writing.
Image: Author Website
Amy Trotter is a guest contributor to Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.