Book Discussion Forum: Afterland by Mai Der Vang

This was my first foray, since high school, into looking analytically at poetry as a writer. 29939104And wow, did I pick a challenging work in Afterland. There were a few issues that became immediately apparent to me: 1) While I had some historical knowledge, I did not know a lot about Hmong culture; 2) I get frustrated with metaphors I don’t understand; and 3) Reading a collection of poetry is similar to listening to a full album. You may like how all the pieces hang together, comprise a story or theme, but you’ll likely end up having some songs/poems you’ll prefer more than others.

I took a couple of different approaches in reading this work. I read through the poems for a general impression. I read some of the poems out loud to hear rhythm and pacing. Then I went methodically through each poem trying to divine meaning. This meant doing some online research to rustle up interviews with Mai Der Vang, general reviews of Afterland, cultural background, and even a few language lessons. I’ve listed the resources at the end of the post.

The question I have about poetry is this: Is it important to be able to completely understand what the poet is referencing, in order to appreciate a poem? I felt like the need to understand meaning interfered with my ability to take the poem in whole. Can one appreciate opera without understanding Italian? Or interpretive dance without knowing the story? I think the answer is unequivocally yes, but it also depends on the person. I kept getting caught up in the research – my need to know became the driving force over my appreciation of word usage.

In an age where we talk a good game about reading diverse writers, there is an unspoken challenge to people like me – that is to say, white people brought up on a standard fare of Western writing. Reading outside the context of one’s own culture likely means our approach to literature is going to be more studied  – we’re less able to breeze in and out of work, and in my case, less able to qualify what I think of a work.

…I wanted to write poems that I felt were missing in American literature, poems that I wish existed when I was in high school, and poems that embodied something about who I was as a Hmong American woman and a child of refugees.

Mai Der Vang with Alex Dueben, The Brooklyn Rail, 06/01/17

For those of you who write and/or have read a lot of poetry, I am curious about the structure of these poems – the rhythm and the literal spacing on the page. Sometimes it felt discomfiting and that, perhaps, was the point. In general, there were a few poems I really liked (mostly because I understood the references) and others that I’d like to return to, after reading more about Hmong culture.

In my pursuit of reading more widely to improve writing, I always ask myself the question: What can I take away from this reading experience, that will help my own writing? This post is to get the discussion going. I will post a follow up forum next week covering specific poems.

Possible Discussion Questions:

Which poems appealed to you and why?

Is there particular imagery that stuck with you?

What are the stylistic or structural techniques used?

How did you feel during and after reading this collection?

What can you take away from this, as a writer?

Online Resources:

Heirs of the Secret Wars in Laos by Mai Der Vang, New York Times, 05/27/15

Petoskey Restaurant Owner Remembers Escape from Laos, Interlochen Public Radio, 12/10/15

Mai Der Vang with Alex Dueben, The Brooklyn Rail, 06/01/17

Mai Der Vang reads “Mother of People without Script”, Poetry Foundation Weekly Podcast, 01/02/17

A Hmong Generation Finds Its Voice in Writing, New York Times, 12/31/11

Beauty Undercut by the Possibility of Terror: Afterland by Mai Der Vang, The Rumpus, 07/07/17

Related Reading:

Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees, Edited by Laren McClung

Reminder: The July selection is There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry (Short Stories).

Come on in. Have a seat. The words are free.

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