The June Selection: Afterland by Mai Der Vang

In a couple of weeks, we’ll be discussing Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Thus far, I’m finding it a tough read, but well worth delving into. Please refer to the discussion guide as well as the guides available under Resources. For those of you who read the initial posts, I changed the month for the selections. The month indicates when we’ll be discussing the book.

Please excuse the initial hiccups in setting up this online book club for writers. It’s new to me and it will take a bit to get things ironed out. Thank you – I’m looking forward to our book discussion!


Selection: Afterland by Mai Der Vang29939104

Discussion Forum: June 15-30, 2018

Discussion Guide: How to analyze poetry

Synopsis from Goodreads:

“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.

—from “Transmigration”

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.”

7 thoughts on “The June Selection: Afterland by Mai Der Vang

  1. I’m about halfway through this. It is a tough read, but mostly, I think, because the experience the poet is describing is so foreign to most of us, and requires some historical knowledge and also some knowledge of Hmong culture and language for full appreciation. That said, the sense of diaspora and displacement in the poems that describe their new home in America is readily accessible and her use of language throughout is stunning. It certainly conveys the horror of war and, in this instance, abandonment.


    1. I am about halfway through as well. Having read quite a bit of Vietnam war literature, I am familiar with the issues she writes about, but her work adds an entirely different dimension. It’s one thing to know facts – to read, at a distance, the experiences of someone else. Her poetry is more like walking in those proverbial shoes – perhaps that is the nature of all poetry. The visceral details of sight, smell, and sound put you right on the ground.

      It seems like it is a particular time in history, when a cacophony of diverse voices are rising. It means reading a lot of narratives about our flawed country that are difficult. The idea of inter-generational trauma makes me think about inter-generational guilt – how could we have one, without the other? And how do we process that in a way that is productive?


      1. I agree about her use of imagery and detail, some of which is pointedly but necessarily barbaric. Good questions about intergenerational trauma and guilt, which do, indeed seem to be hand-in-glove. I’ve most heard the concept applied to racial/ethnic groups, but it seems to me that any disproportionately, systematically abused group — including women — could be said to inherit the same. And of course it can happen in individual families. At a certain point I wonder if the term is even useful, or just the current vogue for describing the wounds we experience as part of the various groups to which we belong.


      2. I first heard the term inter-generational trauma in a lecture given by Jesmyn Ward and it made sense in the context of her book, which covered several generations of a family. But you’re right, perhaps its meaning is too broad to really be useful.


  2. And I confess I’m going to move on to other poetry books I have on hand, lacking your discipline to tough it out through challenging material. I’ve just gotten a couple of interlibrary loans by Franz Wright — James Wright’s son, and, like him, a Pulitzer winner for his poetry — and the clock on the loan period is ticking ….


    1. Since I’m always reading 4-5 books at any given moment, I’ve been taking a lot of breaks from Afterland. I picked up a reader on Vietnam prose and poetry to do some comparisons, but I’ll be reading things down to the wire. Fortunately Kevin Barry’s collection of short stories next month is an easier read. I’ve also just picked up “Prelude to a Bruise” by Saeed Jones – more unhappy poetry. Thank goodness for Mary Oliver and Billy Collins!


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