Writing from the Absence: Voices of Hmong American Poets
We invited 2016 Walt Whitman winner Mai Der Vang to curate a five-part series that highlights a small community of Hmong American poets whose voices enrich and bring greater diversity to the literary landscape of this country. Each month, Vang will feature a poem by and discussion with a Hmong American poet as a way to showcase their work and explore the themes that drive them to write.
This month, we present May Yang.
Mai Der Vang: There are many fascinating qualities about this poem, one of which is the subject matter. Your poem wrestles with racism and the aftermath of violence. As revealed by the title (which interestingly, you position at the end), the poem revisits and confronts an incident that made national headlines in 2004 when Hmong deer hunter Chai Vang shot and killed six others and wounded two more during a hunting trip in northwest Wisconsin. All of the victims were white. Vang had wandered on to the private grounds of a hunting party and was asked to leave. There are conflicting reports about what happened that led to the shooting, but Vang said he was accosted with racial slurs and that one of the individuals had shot at him first. He was sentenced to life in prison.
It’s courageous of you to take on this contentious issue as, perhaps, a way to reclaim the narrative or to give voice to another perspective. There are moments in the poem when it seems like the speaker is directly addressing Vang: “You had taken your leave… / …their life tipped, / at the end of your rifle.” Other moments, such as the opening stanzas, seem to be searching for consolation. You also reference the names of plants and herbs. Can you tell us about the poem’s subject matter and its multiple layers?
May Yang: Multiple layers? Bear with me. When I first heard about this devastating incident on the news as a teen, I felt a surge of emptiness and stored it somewhere in the back of my mind as a strategic move for survival. This was one of the few representations I saw of a Hmong person on white American media. After undergraduate studies I became well aware of the silence around Hmong history and intergenerational trauma, and the lack of documentation or research on these topics. Upon realizing that Hmong Shamanism is its own praxis, I learned that it can directly address intergenerational trauma. Some time last year I was googling “Hmong Shaman” and an article came up about Chai Vang. Immediately, I began to cry. I realized I was also mourning loss. Something that sat in the back of my mind crawled out and fell from my eyes as tears, anger, and frustration. Writing this poem was not so much a conscious act of courage, but more so a method for myself to process this event.
It may be easy for the public to read about Chai Vang and demonize him, dismiss it, or disregard him as an Asian man who went too far. As I read the articles and watched the documentary produced by Mark Tang and news snippets on YouTube, I immediately recognized how Hmong men are historically equipped with guns—and it is political. My grandfather was a soldier for the French 47 Marquis, my father was a Forward Air Guide and worked with the C.I.A. in covert operations, at the Fresno Hmong New Year celebration in the 1990s little Hmong boys ran around with plastic AKs, and many of my own cousins go hunting. Chai Vang was a military sharpshooter, and he was highly skilled. This is not to suggest that Hmong men should not use guns, but only to acknowledge that guns are systematically normalized. War and weaponry are also racialized projects. I wondered at the possibility of peace in a world where racialized and ethnicized groups of people are demarcated for war, violence, and ultimately suffering by larger powers such as the United States. Recently, I saw a post on Facebook of a white-owned gun range that uses images of black teens as targets. At the gun range, people fabricate false threats. This racialized visual lexicon at a gun range is as disturbing as it is dangerous. With this in mind, in the poem I let the word freed hang there as a transition into a morning glory, as a way to point out the paradox of freedom in America race relations.
What angered me and drove me to frustration about the politics of this situation was that the white people involved positioned Vang to defend himself—to defend his own life. The very structure of the American imagination—the representations we are conditioned to operate through—disallows us from seeing that white people can also be offenders of justice, peace, and freedom. This made it difficult for people to accept that these white people were not completely innocent. What Chai Vang did was not “right,” per se. But we must consider the fact that we may never have found his body if he did not perform those devastating actions. Like Chai stated during his trial and like I have written, Chai left when they asked him to. Why, then, did the white man gather more white people to chase him down and harass him, and then shoot at him while his back was turned, as they were driving off? Isn’t this what white people have done and continue to do to black men as well? The difference in this situation is that Chai was Hmong and had specialized training as a sharpshooter. He was equipped to defend himself. Considering this, I wanted the confrontation to be centered in the poem.
I am not only addressing Chai Vang when I say “You,” but also other Hmong men who have been harassed, threatened, or murdered by white bodies. When I wrote those lines, I also thought about the people in Laos and Vietnam who were murdered by white military from France and the United States. I thought about the U.S. cluster bombs in Laos and Agent Orange in Vietnam. I thought about Afghanistan’s civilians and the U.S. military’s use of drones on people whose backs are turned, people who don’t see death coming in the shape of a bullet, bomb, or chemical agent. I thought about how complex it is to be human in the face of an aggressor. Then it occurred to me that your humanity is also bent on the symbols, language, and logic of your body. To have life and to be human is coupled with the extent to which your personhood is legitimate in the larger hegemony. If you are illegal, refugee, alien, indigenous, and especially if your history is not written, you are illegitimate and easily murdered without question, and essentially forgotten.
It is a curse to be in Chai’s situation. If you don’t defend yourself, you risk becoming another missing person. If you defend yourself, you risk becoming a murderer—if you are Hmong of course. If you were a white hunter who was approached by other white hunters—I can only imagine all the safety precautions they would have taken for one another. Native Americans in the late 1980s and early 1990s were also harassed by whites because of fishing right disputes. So, is it a curse to be Hmong in white America? Not necessarily—it’s a curse that whiteness operates on the subjugation of people of color. To be human in America is to be able to effectively represent yourself in the larger symbolic order. I put the title at the end, because I want the reader to really consider the complexity of what occurred on that date as a lingering thought.
MDV: It’s valuable to also note what you’ve done with the structure of this poem. You’ve positioned stanzas opposite one another on the page, almost as if they’re slightly at odds. And there are some lines in the middle of the page. Your last line, “the heavens from above see all…” seems to gesture at the notion that a greater power has also witnessed this clash between the deer hunters and will serve as the final judge. What can you tell us about the form of this poem and how it leads up to the end?
MY: To answer this question, I have to address the metaphysics of Hmong life. I believe that Hmong shamans hold an important role not just in the Hmong community, but also in the larger imagination of human life. They are healers, whether they like it or not, and we need them to attend to our ailments and spiritual suffering. From listening to many healing rituals, I am well aware that Hmong shamanism enacts a completely different understanding of life and does not operate on the linear time of neocolonial logic—which is very liberating. I felt even more anguish when I thought about how Chai Vang was positioned to compromise his own humanity, to defend his life, but also to cripple it at the same time—in this world and in the spiritual world. This is where I thought of how Hmong people have traditionally called upon the earth and the heavens as witnesses to their life and actions. Life on earth, including plants, is witness to the chaos of humanity. In the poem, I listed different plants that grow in Wisconsin’s forests. I was also interested in the fact that these plants have Eurocentric names, and by writing them I called upon white bodies as witness to the atrocity that was enacted on both sides. In the documentary I saw that Chai’s mother had called out to the heavens as witness by saying “the heavens from above see all,” and this resonated with me.
MDV: You’re not only a poet but also a visual artist. Much of your work, including this poem, has explored themes of culture, community, gender, and politics. What do you think is the role of the artist or writer when it comes to these issues? What intersections do you see between poetry and the visual arts?
MY: Essentially, both poetry and visual arts are languages. These are the languages that help me process the world in creative and critical ways. They allow me to make relations between my positionality and the structures of power we operate in, while simultaneously imagining possibilities for an alternative future. I enjoy writing poetry because I hear music when I write. I enjoy making visual art because it’s a meditative conversation with myself. More importantly, I utilize both to create dialogue between myself and the public. There are many roles that an artist or writer can perform, but no matter what type of art or poetics you are involved in you are fundamentally grappling with a diverse spectrum of human conditions, even if your own humanity has come into question in dominant History. Every creative thinker has a different intention based on their experience, so I am in no position to decide what their roles should be concerning these issues.
MDV: You recently won the Robert Dana Prize in Poetry awarded by Anhinga Press for a first book. That’s a tremendous honor and a big win for a poet who comes from a community that has historically lacked literary representation. You also wrote the collection under a persona you created named “Hauntie.” Can tell us more about this persona? What does it mean for you to win this award and to have a first full-length poetry collection come into this world?
MY: It means a great deal for me to be able to put my work in the public arena and I am grateful to Anhinga Press. I think they are being incredibly courageous in representing my work. I never imagined myself as a creative writer before this, although I have been writing for about ten years now. I only began to believe that I could be a published writer when I started finding published poetry by other Hmong writers. (Thank you all!) Before this, I never could imagine myself in the larger scheme of the American narrative. Many of the writers who influence me are black theorists and writers such as Frantz Fanon and June Jordan. Black literature taught me how to understand American grammatology and how I could possibly make sense in it all, being that Hmong people only started entering the United States in the mid-1970s. Before reading black literature, English itself was very difficult for me. I could not see my subjectivity within it.
Hauntie is essentially an embodiment of my personal experiences of being Hmong/Asian/Female/Orientalized/Hypersexualized. It is influenced by Hmong horror movies such as Zeb Thiab Sua and Hmong dab neeg, where a female is usually murdered and seeks retribution after death through hauntings. Hauntings are terrifying, but when we deconstruct them it is easy to see that they are essentially a battle for karmic balance. In Zeb Thiab Sua two men murder a pregnant woman, and she haunts them to death in the end. Watching it as a child, I was very fearful of this woman figure. My cousins and I used to imitate the ghost’s voice to one another jokingly. Looking back, I have realized that this is a story with hefty moral teachings. Being Hmong, you know that hauntings and scary stories are told to teach us boundaries, empathy, compassion, and respect for all living things. Even when you go camping, someone usually offers food to the spirits before settling in on a campsite and eating. If you don’t, the spirits may come bother you at night. However creepy this may seem, it teaches you to respect nature and to share the world through embodied practice. Some believe these stories are just moral teachings, while others believe they are based on a spiritual world that is very real. I think they are both.
The figure of Hauntie as an auntie-mother who takes care of orphans calls into question two things—the role of the orphan and the role of the widowed woman in the Hmong historical narrative. Growing up, I always heard elders say the phrase ntsuag nos. My niam tais [maternal grandmother] said that it refers to the history of Hmong people being refugees and not having homeland. It is very common in Hmong culture to regard a fatherless child as an orphan. I was very confused when people started calling me an orphan after my father passed away, because I still have a mother. We were even called lower than dirt. Many Hmong female widows or divorcees are also looked down upon. I talked to my niam tais about how problematic it was that Hmong women without husbands are treated terribly, even when it is known that many Hmong families have gone without fathers for many centuries due to war and displacement. My pog [paternal grandmother] was an orphan, and when her father died she and her mother were sold by their own male relatives as slaves to a wealthy man. She was born part of the Lor clan, which at the time had relations with French colonials. She and her mother had to be bought out of slavery by my grandfather. Hauntie is a persona that I move through to beckon the history of colonialism, patriarchy, and rape in the Hmong narrative to light. It is the ghostly figure that seeks retribution from the violence of patriarchy, and calls upon any Hmong male elder to speak about the violence they may have also participated in alongside colonialism.
MDV: Other than the forthcoming book, what’s ahead for you? Are you working on any new creative projects?
MY: I’ve been researching the social construction of time and its relationship to neocapitalism today. Neocapitalism relies heavily on linear time theory in order to operate. There must be a beginning, middle, and end product. I think this is very problematic, especially in terms of how history is documented and how our bodies become a product at the intersection of linear time and hegemonic history. I also wonder how hauntings are related to time, memory, and illness. I think these ideas will probably funnel themselves into a Hmong horror movie. I’m currently writing a script, but it’s a bit wonky so far. Besides this, I’m working on a series of drawings that are helping me process loss and absence. My ultimate goal right now is to create a Hmong artists collective in Fresno. That would be really wonderful, and would give me a future to look forward to.
Mai Der Vang: This poem, with its rich imagery rooted in California’s Central Valley, gifts the reader with a delicate and gorgeous rendering of an environment in transition. The speaker’s sense of awareness arises through auditory and visual offerings, such as in “dark now gown[ing]” the day, or “stars reveal[ing] this threadbare night,” or in the decoding of a cricket’s “monosyllabic words.” I love these moments! Beyond the depiction of the speaker traversing a tattered landscape, the “upturned fields” and “knotted stump[s],” the poem seems to leap emotionally out and away from the space of this rustic wreckage to gesture at a kind of loss that happens because of time passing. How did you arrive at this poem? What was it about this particular landscape that roused your senses and emotions?
Andre Yang: I’ve always been moved by the sight of fields of trees ripped out of the ground and, in the poem, contrast that image with my memories of family trips along the blossom trails as a kid. I often think about the appreciation of beauty and usefulness—how time can take this appreciation away for some, and how it can strengthen it for others (such as myself). This poem, and the leap it makes, is an attempt to understand the odd constant state of liminality that I have noticed the first two generation of Hmong Americans are experiencing. It also speaks to that part of me that is a Hmong person existing in this world, how we don’t have a home country and therefore have nowhere to return. Considering the United State’s current xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment (along with the perpetual foreigner status Asian Americans face), the idea of this country being home is still being built on an uncertain foundation.
MDV: Among the visual details, the poem also includes some description of sound while alluding to the power of hearing. There are the “crickets chirp[ing]” along with the notion of using the “ears as guide.” Near the middle and at the end of the poem, “voices / of others” enter the space, and these could be the obvious “voices” of the siblings or perhaps even something reverberating beyond the living. Can you tell us a little more about these voices?
AY: The world doesn’t make much sense to me. I came a bit late to poetry; I was in my mid-twenties when I finally discovered poetry had been asking for my serious consideration all my life. I really appreciate this question and what it’s asking me to pay attention to. The more I think about this poem the more I am realizing how the presence of voices in this poem represent the opinions and perspectives of the people in my life. Some I understand, some insist I accept their truths, some I disagree with, and some go completely over my head. I’ve always chosen to follow my intuition when faced with the inability to understand what people (and the world, for that matter) expect me to understand or accept. It’s a reassurance to myself that as long as I am the one making decisions, and I own those decisions, I can and will be able to navigate this uncertainty we call life.
MDV: At the end of the poem, the speaker experiences a kind of surrender, a letting go: “let go / of any pretending to be at one with...let the voices / around you spread beyond…” There’s a realization of something happening here that transcends the current setting and moment of the poem. What was your thinking behind this letting go?
AY: While writing the ending to this poem, I was considering conversations I’ve had with a number of friends who’d moved away from the Central Valley and were glad they’d done so. Some have even told me how hopeless Fresno is and that I should leave as well. I tell them I stay because what I do can be done anywhere I choose to be, so why not Fresno? There were moments I seriously considered leaving, but the fact that I am able to do what I love doing (writing poetry and teaching) in Fresno helped me shake that pressure to move. I don’t know if any of those who leave will ever return, and that’s okay. On a larger scale, the Hmong won’t ever return to other countries they’d once called home, and that’s okay too.
MDV: As a founding member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC), which started in Fresno, California, you’ve witnessed the evolution of a regional literary movement within a niche community. What long-term literary hopes do you have for this movement? How can others, both Hmong and non-Hmong, become engaged in these efforts?
AY: First off, I’d like to say I am completely indebted to HAWC. I was there at the first meeting and hung around for about a year before writing a really weak first poem in our workshop. HAWC was a home for me before I realized I needed it as home. Throughout the years we’ve had many conversations about how we could be better able to nurture other marginalized voices and have actually also housed people from other ethnic backgrounds. I really don’t think there is any one way to nurture writers (especially ones from marginalized backgrounds), but I believe our existing despite coming from a people who had no documented written language prior to the 1950s, our continuing to conduct workshops, and our continuing to publish will inspire other people to form their own groups and communities and assert their existence—in literature, and hopefully beyond.
MDV: You’re hard at work on various projects at the moment. What can we expect to read from you in the near future?
AY: The project I’ve been spending the most time on lately is my first poetry manuscript. I come from a lineage where my grandfather from nine generations ago (who wasn’t ethnically Hmong) was adopted after his adopted parents were unable to have children. Years after his adopted father passed away, he needed to perform a ceremony to feed his father in the afterlife in order to ensure his spirit’s well-being but none but none of his uncles would show him how to perform it. Eventually his adopted father returned to him as a ghost, led him to a cave, and showed him a ritual uniquely different from the ceremony the Yang clan traditionally performed. All of my grandfather’s descendants have since performed this feeding ceremony in this same exact way. When I first heard this story from an uncle I had to sit and process it for a few days. Either my grandfather’s father really did come back as a ghost to help him, or my grandfather got tired of being given the run-around and redefined cultural practices for himself. There are elements of the Hmong cultural practices that I am critical of because I find them too limiting or restrictive. Taking a lesson from my grandfather nine generations ago, my manuscript aims to explore the afterlife and reconsider certain cultural practices of my people.
Mai Der Vang: Your poem achingly echoes with loss and grief and reflects on those emotions within the context of a very intimate landscape. I love that you navigate how losses of a deep kind can often be intertwined with a physical location, the ordinary everyday places where we go to memorialize those losses. For this poem, that place is the garden, which feels so hauntingly appropriate. We often associate gardens with life, abundance, nourishment, and growth. And here, as revealed by the title, it is the garden of a mother who can no longer return to tend its roots: "Who will / help me love the castor bean tree now? / Which of these plants will speak for you?” Can you tell us a little more about your take on the relationship between the garden and the grieving?
Khaty Xiong: When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in my mother’s garden. While she grew the common Hmong staples like Thai basil, mint, lemongrass, culantro, dill, Vietnamese coriander, and mustard, some of the more memorable ones that she also grew were perilla, iresine, castor bean, mugwort, pennywort, taro, and pokeweed, all of which are rather close to my heart. What’s funny is that it was actually a painstaking process to look up the names for these herbs, in part because I never learned or was given their English equivalents (since my parents didn’t know their English names), and because I knew practically nothing about botany, it made for rather challenging research. Because I had also forgotten the Hmong names, it was definitely a hopeless endeavor. Much of my research was solely based on descriptions like the color, shape, or smell of the plant—however, through sheer determination, I was able to render the names of the above-mentioned plants. It’s safe to say that this challenge resembles how I have always felt or stood in my pursuit of poetry as a Hmong American: I am constantly searching and attempting to own this unsettling identity; I am also partly or wholly useful for my medicinal properties (poetry), wielding names that are not easily identifiable.
My mother’s garden is especially dear to me because it is there where I first discovered love and hard work. My mother came from a line of farmers, and the garden had always been a place of solace and community. She loved her garden like it was her own little country. When she grieved, she’d tend to her garden; when she longed and mourned, she’d harvest the medicinal plants she had been growing. Like many surviving refugees from the Secret War in Laos, my mother suffered from severe trauma and untreated mental illness. While she raised sixteen children, she was very lonely and often sought out the garden as a place to soften the pain. At least, that’s how I remember her. My mother passed away unexpectedly back in May 2016 in a car crash. When she died, the care of her garden fell to the side. When I went to attend her funeral, I was shocked to see how the summer heat (and lack of tending) had quickly and greatly affected the garden. My mother loved her garden, and it was apparent that the garden also loved her. When she passed, it seemed as though the garden was aware its caretaker was no longer present in this realm, at least not fully, and not in the way that could sustain the garden the way it used to. Despite my sister-in-law’s desperate tending, the garden grew unruly. I mourn this painfully. My mother’s sudden and violent death really shook me; our family had been grieving the loss of my older brother, cousin, and uncle when she was then sideswiped at an intersection. She was on her way to see my late brother’s widow and his children, but she never arrived. She left this world with a lot of hurt. This is what I grieve most; her passing was unspeakably traumatizing. I think it’s apparent that this poem comes from a place that is utterly unforgiving.
MDV: To depict this landscape, you employ imagery, alluding to insects, a “makeshift shed,” and other generous details. There is also the character of the mouse that appears, runs away, but is ever present to the speaker, through the “droppings” it leaves behind. When writing poetry, how do you settle on an image? How do you navigate imagery in general, as both a reader and writer?
KX: Great questions. I always find it hard to answer questions about how I settle on images (or any other craft points) in my poems because so many variables inspire which ones stay and which ones don’t, for instance. I do know that when I read my work out loud, that will often help with the “settling,” and if I find myself unable to navigate the poem, I will meditate on its shape (or the memory that is the source of inspiration for the poem), on the voice that is trying to come through. An image is an invitation, and it is also a vessel of transportation; achieving these two things has never come easy for me—in part because the images I do settle on are very traumatizing. It always feels like I go through several circles of hell in order to arrive at the places the poem has rendered for me. It sounds dramatic, but this is what it’s like to inherit trauma and write about the subjects as I do, tirelessly and at the front lines, resisting extinction. Being a visual artist has helped me craft images as well. Photography is my other “eye” for poetry. When I’m not shooting, I’ll collage, and If I’m not collaging then I’ll go find a place to just sit and observe.
About the images you pointed out in the poem: Leading up to the weekend of her funeral, the week of zaub mov, I spent some alone time in my mother’s garden. It was evening when I found myself accompanied by a mouse that had clearly been living off of the place. I must have been so still and so quiet that it came out to take a drink from a nearby puddle, merely a foot away from where I was standing. The garden had recently been watered; the water was cooling as the sun was falling out of sight; and the castor bean tree was rustling and waving along with the lemongrass. It wasn’t long before the mouse took notice of me and scurried away into the lemongrass. I couldn’t stop thinking of that moment; I was so touched by this accidental greeting. It was obvious the mouse had not intended for company (nor did I). These moments are so trivial but often become a strong foothold in the creation of a poem.
MDV: Toward the end of the poem, there appears to be a slight shift in the tone, starting with “Meanwhile, stay / dressed—help me be decent. Come away / from dreams…” It feels like the leap here is the speaker taking a step away from the garden locale before returning to it at the very end. The speaker’s voice, while it opened with a sense of mourning, seems to close with an affirmation of preservation: “There is shade. / Even the sun could not spoil you.” It’s a remarkable contrast to the heat at the beginning of the poem. Can you enlighten us on your thinking behind the shift in tone, and how you negotiated the ending?
KX: When I was drafting this poem, I was constantly caught between the image of the mouse and the image of my mother’s physical features at the morgue. I went with my sisters and sisters-in-law to dress my mother. It was a painful sight. These images enter from the very beginning of the poem: her “blackened” ears and her “crown the shade of a new moon.” The image of the common housefly is also a vulgar and ugly description of what actually happened when I came home for the funeral. During the week of zaub mov, the backyard had become this garden of carnage. It was also the beginning of the season of flies, so all the food preparations and butchering that took place outdoors caused the backyard to become a birthing ground for the common housefly. My first impression upon seeing the backyard buzz and twitch was that it must have been my mother’s angry and sorrowful spirit that had come to haunt her beloved garden. The phenomenon was similar to another that occurred after the death of my older brother, who also passed away in the summertime, in June 2014. My mother thought that perhaps my brother had come back in the ugly form of flies because he was heartbroken about having to leave us so soon. He had a rare form of lung cancer that manifested quickly, ultimately taking his life at the age of thirty-nine. I remember how much this pained her, how unforgiving she was about his death. My mother was a shaman and tried healing him until his very last day. To her, his death meant her failure. When she died just a month shy from the second anniversary of my brother’s death and I witnessed the same phenomenon of flies, it really disturbed me. I believed that it was a demonstration of her outrage and broken heart over her sudden death. The end of this poem was my attempt to console myself and make something beautiful of my mother’s ugly and unfortunate passing.
MDV: As poets, we often write in solitude. Is this sense of solitude or loneliness magnified in your case as someone living in a part of the country outside from your own community? In terms of being both a writer and a Hmong American writer?
KX: Living in the Midwest has no doubt been lonely, especially as a Hmong American writer. There’s this overwhelming anxiety to answer every “What are you?” and “Why are the Hmong here in the U.S.?” This responsibility is both a privilege and a burden; it’s nurturing and it’s triggering. It’s especially hard when you don’t feel at home with the local literary community. I currently reside in Ohio, where the Hmong population is pretty small (in comparison to California and Minnesota, for instance). I’ve been here for about eight years now—with two additional years spent in Montana pursuing my Master of Fine Arts degree—so I’ve been away from home for about a decade. I didn’t quite have a literary community in Fresno, California, then either, because I had gone straight to college before the Hmong American Writers’ Circle was formed, and I still don’t have one here in Ohio. I am grateful that I was awarded an Individual Excellence Award by the Ohio Arts Council in 2016 in recognition of my poetry. I was really taken aback because I kept wondering if there had ever been any other Hmong artist or writer who had been graced with this recognition before. It has certainly made me want to work even harder for underrepresented communities everywhere.
MDV: You’ve published a number of chapbooks along with a full-length collection, which happens to be the very first full-length collection ever published by a Hmong American woman poet. What are your plans to continue growing as a writer, as a poet, moving forward from here?
KX: The future is unpredictable as ever (as it should be, right?). I really never imagined that my first book, Poor Anima (2015), would ever enter this world. Truly, I am indebted to Alice Jones and Ed Smallfield, the editors of Apogee Press, who believed in the book and in representing marginalized voices. I also have deep thanks for my family, peers, and mentors who challenged and supported me in my literary endeavors. (So, thank you one and all.) I am also grateful to the University of Montana, New Michigan Press, and Platypus Press for accepting these parcels of war and trauma, for hearing my voice.
At the moment, I am working on what is supposed to be my second poetry manuscript. It’s not a secret that the collection will be another book of elegies, especially as I continue to explore my grief over the recent losses in my family, and (always) what it means to be Hmong American. I am hoping to have this collection touch more on Hmong and world mythology—to engage these myths in dialogue; I have this deep obsession with Hmong folklore and myth-making, shamanism, and the other roots of Hmong culture. I am haphazardly working on interviewing my father (a project I have pursued for a long time) for research. Although I was never gifted at kwv txhiaj, I want to believe that my poetry can be a kind of redemption, a way to honor my heritage, my parents’ songs and stories, the dead and the living. I want this collection, and the ones to come, to continue with strength and humility, love and solidarity. Right now, Hmong American literary voices are emerging all over the country, and people are starting to take notice. The literary landscape is shifting, and with the current political climate, we are seeing a kind of resistance we have not seen in a long while. I can’t wait to hear more from them, learn, build, and rise with them.
Mai Der Vang: Reading this poem, I’m struck by the speaker’s voice and the creative decision to navigate the subject matter from the perspective of the bomb. The bomb, though it is an inanimate object, can also assume and take on many animating qualities, as we can imagine. What prompted you to write the poem from the view of the bomb?
Soul Vang: Everyone and everything has a story. Some can tell their stories, some can’t. I imagined what story a bomblet would tell if it could. Though it is a created object, it has a life of its own, and its life and death has great impact on others.
MDV: Often, we find that narratives relating to themes of war can be overwrought with masculinity. The language of combat and warfare typically assumes a male persona that often overshadows any female presence. It seems to me that what you’ve pursued in this poem, however, is the opposite. Here, you ascribe more feminine qualities to the language of the situation, such as when you refer to “mother’s steel womb,” which is a very startling image. Can you speak to the feminine slant you took here and what inspired it?
SV: The word cluster invokes images of seeds, fruits, trees, nature. Some pictures of cluster bombs and bomblets remind me of peapods containing hundred of peas. From there, it is very natural to use the feminine to describe the cluster bomb. It is a steel pod/womb, containing hundreds of steel seeds, sent on the wind, sowing death wherever they land.
MDV: I sense there is also an educational component behind this poem. We know that the horrific reality of unexploded ordnances (UXO) exists in many countries and has taken too many innocent lives, especially those of children. As a Hmong American, the issue of UXOs in postwar Laos as a result of the American-led Secret War is alarming to me. I think many people can agree that President Obama’s increased pledge of $90 million to help Laos clear UXOs is an important step in continued progress, but so much more needs to be done. What kind of greater awareness do you hope this poem brings to the issue of UXOs?
SV: It has been forty years since the end of the Secret War, yet UXOs continue to kill and maim, especially children born decades after the war. I can imagine them continuing to kill and maim the innocent for many more years. And imagine the lingering effects of bombs used in current wars in the Middle East, how many decades into the future will they continue to destroy lives? These human creations take on destructive lives of their own that we, their creators and beneficiaries, must be more aware of.
MDV: Soul, you’ve been credited as the first Hmong American ever to receive an MFA in creative writing, at least to the best of our knowledge. You took to the pen at a time when very few in the Hmong community had even considered the idea. What was it that brought you into a life of writing?
SV: Growing up in Laos, I loved stories and folktales told orally by the fireside. Coming to the United States as a refugee child, I found this tradition fading away, so I turned to the public libraries to read books as a substitution. I was fascinated by stories from every genre and every culture, but I found stories about Asia especially interesting. One of my early favorites was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Finding no stories about the Hmong, I knew that it was up to us to write and share our stories.
MDV: A writer’s work is an ongoing journey. What can readers hope to see from you in the near future?
SV: My second collection, of which “Song of the Cluster Bomblet” is the title poem, is forthcoming from Blue Oak Press. I look forward sharing it with readers.
Soul Vang received an MFA from California State University, Fresno. He is the author of Song of the Cluster Bomblet (forthcoming from Blue Oak Press) and To Live Here (Imaginary Friend Press, 2014).
Mai Der Vang: Your poem pursues the subject matter of zombies and the apocalypse, which has in recent years experienced an incredible emergence or reemergence within popular culture. It seems to me that your work often ruminates on mortality and the apocalypse, so I can see how the zombie impulse might naturally figure into your writing. Apart from these observations, what was it that triggered this particular poem for you? In general, what do you find as the natural triggers for most of your work?
Burlee Vang: Any creative writing I do will often originate from an emotional response to something I’ve read or seen. And it’s usually a feeling I can’t shake off for days. If I’m lucky, it turns into something more tangible. Like an image. Or a string of words. At that point, I’ll have to figure out if it should take the form of a poem, short story, or essay.
When I first moved my family to Los Angeles, and having to suddenly live among 10 million people, I developed anxiety. There was the drought in California. A mudslide that swallowed up one of our major freeways. An earthquake that sent me reeling to the ground. And then there were the constant brushfires—and sometimes, you could smell the ash in the air. It was also the first time my children’s teachers notified me that I had to provide survival kits for my children, which had never been a requirement when I lived in a smaller county. Every day, while driving through the worst traffic jams, I’d find myself thinking about my family’s survival. It may have been an irrational fear. But this poem was born out of it.
MDV: In reading this poem, it seems to me that themes of refugee vigilance or exile from humanity also underscore the speaker’s present situation. The poem looks at the aftermath of something, and the speaker’s sense of anxiety is heightened by the fear of what will happen next, much like the refugee who never knows when someone or a government will turn against him. The zombie survivor, then, is the refugee running through the jungles. These lines seem to gesture at that notion and they remind me of the Hmong narrative of war: “we learn to read / what moves along the horizon, / across the periphery of a gun scope— // the flicker of shadows, / the rustling of trash in the body / of cities long emptied.” Well, that’s my reading of it. I’m curious about yours. What was your thinking, and how did you attempt to negotiate all the various layers in this poem?
BV: I was born here in America, but I grew up listening to the horrors of the war my parents and their generation had to live through. And in some unexplainable way, those horrific experiences have become a part of my own childhood memory. I think the Hmong, as a displaced community, are suffering from a kind of collective PTSD. So it’s impossible to not express in our art this idea of having to constantly adapt, constantly survive. This was a theme I explored heavily in my chapbook The Dead I Know: Incantation for Rebirth. The very fact that I am Hmong makes me a survivor, one who is burdened with all the anxieties that come with such a label. And now, although I may be writing about some fictional apocalyptic world crawling with flesh-eating zombies, I am still that same character—just in a new context.
MDV: The other intriguing aspect of this poem is how its ideas transfer to our current reality, how it can be made applicable even without the zombie context, but that it’s placed in that context offers a refreshed meaning. I’m referring to these fierce, hard-hitting lines: “To live // in a world of flesh / & teeth, you must / learn to kill // what you love, / & love what can die.” How do see these particular lines applying to our world today?
BV: I don’t think these lines apply directly to our world today—but they can be read as a kind of warning, or perhaps a kind of foreshadowing of what could happen to our world if we let it fall apart. Just look at the racial tension, religious wars, economic problems, political polarization, climate changes, and onslaught of natural disasters. The clock’s ticking, and we’re going to have to learn how to survive all this.
MDV: As the founder of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, you’ve been an instrumental force behind spurring the development of Hmong literary voices through mentoring emerging writers and leading community-based workshops. In what ways do you think the Hmong American voice contributes or adds complexity to literature in this country?
BV: Like other minority groups, we face symbolic annihilation in media and art. Our stories not only need to be heard, but they also need to be told by us. America is a nation of great diversity, but I want to believe that it can be a more inclusive America. And because of this hope, I also believe that the literature in this country can be more inclusive of its minority and ethnic voices. I think the addition of the Hmong American voice will only speak to this inclusiveness. There can only be growth for both the Hmong community and the literary community if our experiences and perspectives are welcomed.
MDV: So what are you currently working on, or what’s next for you? Projects? Passions? Pursuits? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
BV: I’ve been obsessing over the apocalypse for a few years now, so I’m hoping to finish a book of poems exploring all sorts of end-of-the world scenarios. The poems are grim, but I really want the book to be about light, hope, and the goodness in us. I want to believe in our species. We can be that small, flickering torch, held against the overwhelming darkness. I’m also revising a collection of short stories. And as a filmmaker, I’m currently working on my second feature film.
by Mai Der Vang
I saw them when I was about ten years old. I had ventured into my uncle’s room to peruse the books on his shelf.
Among the textbooks from the community college where he was studying to be a mechanic was a very small collection of books about Hmong people that included a set of old National Geographic magazines dating back to the mid-1960s. These particular issues included stories on the Vietnam War, and there were articles, maps, and color photos documenting the war in Laos along with the subsequent exodus of Hmong refugees to the United States.
It was the first time I had ever seen anything like it. Their goldenrod edges stood out against the oak finish of the bookcase. I flipped through the pages and attempted to grasp a cultural history that was entirely new to me. In awe, I stared at pictures of people who looked like me, were dressed in traditional Hmong clothing, and stood against a backdrop of mountains in a country I have never seen or visited. There were images of refugees peering through what looked like cell bars, emaciated bodies lying on mats in a camp, Hmong women weeping good-bye. All of it belonged to a war I knew nothing about. And more strikingly, it was printed in a mainstream American publication. A few years later, when my uncle moved away, I inherited a few of his books, along with this tattered set of National Geographic magazines.
Eight years ago, he passed, and I never got the chance to ask him where he found these magazines, why he kept these slim volumes, their spines studded with words.
My discovery of the magazines helped lay the groundwork for my curiosity about books and writing. So much was also rooted in how little I saw of myself in books growing up that it was often startling when I did see an image or find an obscure mention of Hmong people, most of which was produced or authored by a non-Hmong. Whether or not it was an issue of my having access to the right books, it was as if my kind didn’t exist because I rarely ever saw anything about Hmong people in print, never mind coming across any Hmong poets.
Today, however, I am a poet who belongs to a generation of Hmong American writers challenging ourselves to write from this place of absence. For me, it means being able to harness what isn’t there, to transform that sense of literary deprivation into a new body of craft, to seek solace in knowing that the beauty of not having can usher forward an entire renaissance. It means taming the void into a voice of my own.
For underserved writing communities like the one I am from, carving out literary spaces and keeping those spaces sacred and consistent through years, sometimes decades, is a critical part of the emerging process. Every opportunity becomes a significant step toward much-needed visibility.
Few citizens in this country know about Hmong people and how we came to be here as refugees. During the Vietnam War, the United States Central Intelligence Agency led a covert operation in northern Laos where many Hmong lived. Tens of thousands of Hmong boys and men, like my grandfathers and uncles, were recruited to fight communism on the side of the Americans in what became known as the Secret War.
When the United States withdrew in 1975 and the communists took power, hundreds of thousands of refugees escaped on foot to Thailand in fear for their lives. Many drowned crossing the Mekong River, others were killed in landmine explosions, while many more were murdered along the way. Those who survived the journey ended up in crowded refugee camps where they lingered for years before being resettled in third-world countries.
Narratives of statelessness, war, and exile run deep in Hmong historical memory, along with a past as an unlettered people. For as long as Hmong people can remember, oral tradition has functioned as the primary medium used to pass our cultural practices, shamanic rituals, chants, and folktales from one generation to the next. To my best knowledge, there is no definitive history or formal documentation of where Hmong people originated. What little is known is that hundreds of years ago, my ancestors occupied the southwestern hills of China. Yet due to wars with the Chinese, along with ongoing pressure to assimilate into the dominant culture, they fled to Southeast Asia and sought refuge in the highlands of Laos. Some scholars have suggested that any traces of a Hmong writing system or books, if they existed, would have been destroyed during these ancient wars.
In the 1950s, missionaries arrived to Hmong villages in Laos. In order to preach, they developed a writing system for the Hmong language that was based on the Roman alphabet. Other systems were also developed through the years, but this Roman version survived long enough to become the primary system utilized by most Hmong today.
Whether I want to or not, this is the story I have to tell every time I tell the story of Hmong people. The historical lack of a written language only deepens the sense of absence I feel as a writer when I consider the context from which I write. Not only am I without a definitive literary tradition, but for a time, I also lacked the means to create that tradition. To have had our own known and formal writing system would have been instrumental in the production of books containing poetry, history, and other literature authored by a Hmong tongue.
On the other hand, however daunting it might be to write from this geography of absence, I also don’t ever for a minute regret or dare forget the vibrant oral tradition that has kept my culture alive all this time and allowed it to endure in the face of such odds. Some of these traditions, such as kwv txhiaj, a type of vocalized poetry sung in ballad style, often blur the boundaries between literature and the other arts. Another craft form, paj ntaub, consists of colorful cross-stitched embroidery and other similar tapestries that many believe contained symbolic ciphers or codes that Hmong women sewed onto clothing in order to covertly wear and record their history during the upheavals in China. In many ways, both of these cultural practices embody a written truth and function as their own kinds of literature even though they are not printed and bound. They are acts of resistance, the courageous innovations of ancestors and elders who were resourceful enough to adapt during a time when one was likely persecuted for intellectual or literary expression.
I find myself today at this historic junction between the oral and the written. I see my work attempting to retain what it means to be descended from a people whose way of life relied on the spoken word, while braiding that notion together with the need to pen one’s voice onto paper in order to survive this era and the next. I recognize that periods of war and exile have interfered with the Hmong potential to solidify a literary culture—war always got in the way. But in the current time of ongoing post-resettlement, it’s never been more urgent than now to set down my literary roots in order to help ensure a future that will include poetry. This series is one step in that direction.
The hope is that this series will offer readers the opportunity to discover and rediscover the work of Hmong American poets, while learning more about what drives them to write. These are the kinds of unknown voices that lend greater depth and diversity to the literary fabric of this country. Hopefully, long term, this series will help shed further light on how everyone can better advocate for underserved poets in all communities. Beyond this, I also hope the series serves as a keepsake of resistance. In my experience, to write is to resist against erasure, especially when you are Hmong and you come from a hilltribe culture that has long been without a formal writing system until only recently, and your people were caught in a disposable war that the world was never supposed to know about. Writing, then, is about survival from becoming extinct, from being erased, from being forgotten. Poetry is no longer just an interest or activity but a required act that constantly reaffirms its necessity whenever I contemplate my cultural history or identity as a Hmong American woman. In my case, to write is to ensure that my history will be remembered.
To write is to also have access to shaping the attitudes toward and national narrative of one’s community. Learning how to write poetry has allowed me to engage in the craft of the establishment in order to write back against it. It has allowed me to use the tongue of the West against itself in order to weave my own narrative, my own literary being. No longer do I need to rely solely on non-Hmong sources to cite my own existence.
Recently, my nine-year-old niece started writing poetry. In this movement toward remembrance, I saw in her what I saw in myself when I first came across the National Geographic magazines. It first started out as a few lines in a journal she kept, which then turned into stanzas, and eventually became short meditative pieces about nature and the world around her. I jumped at the prospect of another poet in a family teeming with nurses and spent time with my niece talking about poetry, encouraging her to keep at it even if it was just a couple of lines now and then. Regardless of whether or not she chooses a life of writing, she is still part of the next generation that I hope will sustain whatever literary traditions I and other Hmong American poets put into place today.
Even so, our numbers are devastatingly few, so few that I am unable to name to the best of my knowledge more than ten Hmong American poets who have taken steps to pursue a life of writing. But we are much further along than where we were ten or twenty years ago, and I’m thrilled that the poets to be featured in this series will have a chance to share their perspectives on craft and how they are contributing to building a more vibrant literary culture.
Today, there are Hmong American playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters, and other writers, of course including poets, from California to the Midwest, who are gaining a tremendous foothold in the establishment. Grassroots literary organizations, such as the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, a group that I have had the privilege of working with, are instrumental in developing the capacity of writers who come from communities with fewer resources and little to no access.
Such efforts are even more vital when taken within the context of a stateless, exiled people who have no way to return to a homeland. As a result of Hmong migrations spilling over time and borders, the vast wanderings from one river in a country to a highland in another, I’ve even asked myself: where exactly am I being exiled from? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that for me, poetry is the country I never had. It is in the terrain of words—their formation on the panorama of a page, their utterances of another world, real and imagined, their silences, as well as their openness to shelter the history and offer asylum to the stories of a landless people—that poetry then becomes my homeland. It is the place I return to no matter how far I roam.
As much as it disturbs me to see the detached, outsider portrayal of my culture on the pages of the National Geographic magazines, it saddens me also to acknowledge that these magazines are part of the little I do have of a documented history. They are a reminder of how far Hmong people have come in the quest to assemble a voice. They affirm that I do not need to rely on writing by others in order to have documentation of my historical self. The magazines remain, but they exist now as relics, afterthoughts of what truly defines a people—the people themselves.