The 2016 winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, selected by Carolyn Forché
When I make the crossing, you must not be taken no matter what
the current gives. When we reach the camp,
there will be thousands like us.
If I make it onto the plane, you must follow me to the roads
and waiting pastures of America.
We will not ride the water today on the shoulders of buffalo
as we used to many years ago, nor will we forage
for the sweetest mangoes.
I am refugee. You are too. Cry, but do not weep.
Afterland is a powerful, essential collection of poetry that recounts with devastating detail the Hmong exodus from Laos and the fate of thousands of refugees seeking asylum. Mai Der Vang is telling the story of her own family, and by doing so, she also provides an essential history of the Hmong culture’s ongoing resilience in exile. Many of these poems are written in the voices of those fleeing unbearable violence after U.S. forces recruited Hmong fighters in Laos in the Secret War against communism, only to abandon them after that war went awry. That history is little known or understood, but the three hundred thousand Hmong now living in the United States are living proof of its aftermath. With poems of extraordinary force and grace, Afterland holds an original place in American poetry and lands with a sense of humanity saved, of outrage, of a deep tradition broken by war and ocean but still intact, remembered, and lived.
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."