A Public Reckoning With the Truth About Yellow Rain and the Secret War
Mai Der Vang, author of the poetry collection "Yellow Rain," refuses to let Hmong history be erased
Thirteen years ago, I visited California for the first time as a published author. My first book The Latehomecomer had just come out. After a community reading in a Chinese restaurant in Fresno, a group of women came up to me, excited and proud. One of them said, “We can’t wait for you to meet Mai Der Vang. If Minnesota has produced you. California has created Mai Der.”
Our journeys were linked long before we met. We are both children of the Hmong diaspora, marked by the unnamed war in Laos between the Americans, their ethnic allies, the Pathet Laos soldiers, and the North Vietnamese Army. Our families’ lives were uprooted and ours here in America began because of the same forces: war, colonial greed, the disregard for human life.
When we finally did meet: we knew we were different but we saw the ways in which the bigger world would read us as the same. I was a prose writer building a home in creative nonfiction. Mai Der was a poet finding her place in the world of poetry. We were both Native Hmong speakers writing in English, Hmong American women forging our way into a literary America that did not know it was missing our voices (and that of countless others). More importantly, we knew upon our meeting that our paths would cross many times over in the work we were both committed to doing, the explorations of the histories and realities that have shaped us and guided us.
It is a gift to be in conversation with Mai Der on a travesty where Hmong voices have never garnered place, to speak on Yellow Rain, Mai Der’s new book, and the ramifications of American warfare in countries around the world—little known places full of living people who loved and love each other, still.
Kao Kalia Yang: Why did you decide to write your dedication in the Hmong language?
Mai Der Vang: The dedication roughly translates as “to the Hmong people” or “to the collective who are Hmong.” To say, read, and write that phrase in Hmong feels so much more evocative for me as there’s a kind of presence and spirit of vitality that gets lost in the English. It’s also not often that we do or create things that we can then dedicate to ourselves and each other. I felt this collection of poems served as a tangible moment in which I could hope to offer that acknowledgement while calling the Hmong diaspora to the page.
KKY: Is there a more conscious international reach with this book that is perhaps different from Afterland?
MDV: One might see it that way. Though most of the time when I was writing these books, I have to admit I wasn’t entirely focused on an international audience. I was trying to do what I felt the poems might need, versus what the audience or the “reach” might demand or expect of it. For any writer, that’s always a precarious balance to negotiate. In my case, doing what is in the best interest of the poem will always win out in the end.
But because the matter of yellow rain happened within an international context, there is an absolute sense of a global reach taking place that naturally becomes entwined with the book’s intention. As a Hmong writer, it is sometimes hard not to talk about the war and its geopolitical implications imprinted into who I am. There will always be an innate sense of a place that is here now, and a place that was once there but is no longer there in the same way. Maybe that’s what imbues a kind of reaching in these works that transcend national boundaries. With Afterland, I was certainly interested in examining the larger spatiality of Hmong movement, but it felt more rooted in the geographic spaces of the spiritual world, which, interestingly, can even be thought to serve as a kind of borderland itself.
KKY: The opening statement to the collection: “I am a daughter of Hmong refugees…daughter who keeps looking back at the sky.” What does it mean to be a Hmong daughter, “among the fled” in these times?
MDV: I was born around the time when my parents were resettled in the States. If they had remained in the camps for at least another year, I would have certainly been born there. The words you cite here are a nod to that history.
I still wonder what it means to be a Hmong daughter, and as I grow older, it becomes less literal and more embodied in the way I view and move through the world. Literal meaning that when I was growing up, there was the literal living as a Hmong daughter who was beholden to certain cultural expectations and duties within a Hmong family, whether it was carrying out household responsibilities or upholding the social decorum specific to my gender. A common experience for many Hmong daughters raised in a traditional family of the 1980s.
But as I grew older and where I find myself now, it’s no longer entirely about the quotidian expectations of living and behaving as a Hmong daughter (though that feeling is still very much there) as much as it’s more about how Hmong daughterhood has given me a complicated lens and perspective from which to see the world through, from which to make my own conclusions about what is just or unjust to me, about what hasn’t been heard and needs to be heard, and so on.
KKY: The Radiolab interview you referenced in “The Fact of the Matter Is the Consequence of Ugly Deaths” is one in which I appeared as “niece” to the Hmong man being interviewed. It was a violence I cried to stop—to little significance. When I learned of this book project, I felt a relief in my heart I’ve been harboring since that dreadful day: September 23, 2012. How did the interview impact you and what role did it play in the writing of this book?
MDV: That interview happened during my first semester in the MFA program at Columbia, and I remember feeling angered and saddened after hearing it, but also feeling very emboldened and inspired by you, your bravery to express your truth, your uncle’s earnest telling, and how you stood in defiance of their attempts to invalidate the Hmong. We, as in all the listeners who felt enraged by what happened, were with you in that moment.
So much contextual history had been left out of that interview, especially a proper framing of the Secret War, its genesis and residual consequences shaping the unstable climate in which the yellow rain issue was born into. Put simply, if the Americans had not started a war in Laos, there would be no need to debate yellow rain today nor would there be a need to put us through the grief of being accused and gaslit as “liars.”
During my undergraduate years, when I was researching Hmong history and the Secret War, I had come across yellow rain briefly and felt so unsettled by it all. Years later, the Radiolab episode would happen, and it was then that yellow rain blew everything open in my life. I spent the bulk of that first semester in the MFA, and the following semesters, and part of the summers, scouring online library databases for and copiously reading through journal articles, government reports, books, media pieces, and other writing on yellow rain. It really consumed me because something about it just didn’t feel right. So much was missing, and we were only getting one version of the events. The book came out of a need to offer an extended rebuttal but also to provide another version amongst the many versions that I imagine are out there.
KKY: There is a defiance in these poems, across them, a refusal to submit to death, to the forces that have killed us in the past and present. Can you share with us the emotional/intellectual/spiritual journey you’re on in this book?
MDV: I would agree with that. I did try for poems that were driven by kind of a generational fire in spite of the generational heartbreak that has been endured by our parents, elders, and ancestors over centuries of war, exile, and displacement. I won’t forget something you said in the Radiolab interview about the Hmong heart being broken, and I think it’s so true. When the war ended, the Americans evacuated and abandoned the Hmong to fend alone. It seems to me that war and collective heartbreak always got in the way of our autonomous right to live out, fulfill, and self-determine our futures as a diasporic people. From China to Southeast Asia, it feels like we’ve been continually subject to great upheaval, and never fully allowed to live in peace and flourish. I hope that in this idea of the refusal to die, my poems put up a resistance or an opposition to that heartbreak.
Doing the research and writing the poems was a transformative experience. Years combing through documents, days sorting and categorizing data and other findings, nights drafting poems and visuals. Surrendering to confusion as well, trying to piece it together. I think I set out attempting to find some semblance of an answer to yellow rain not knowing what shape or form it might show itself as. I came out of it realizing that for me, personally, the book itself is my answer. It is my own explanation toward the reality that we may never have the “known” public answers about what happened.
The book is my attempt to collate into one place everything I had been thinking about that I felt was part of the answer. It’s also the stark realization that the privilege of a definitive answer and of knowing, or the privilege to inflict uncertainty on someone or a community, is a privilege that continues to elude the Hmong people. To control, withhold, and obscure truths and answers—this is the work of empire.
KKY: Can you share with us the emotional/intellectual/spiritual journey you hope to take readers in this book?
MDV: I hope that readers walk away learning about yellow rain. There are some Hmong people who don’t even know about the issue, or perhaps they know very little, and I hope that this matter of an unreckoned history comes to the attention of both Hmong and non-Hmong readers. I refuse to let these unreckoned histories dissolve into oblivion only to be forgotten or erased.
I also hope the book sheds greater light on the disparities that exist as it pertains to a community’s right to know something about itself or its history, versus what an outside group will choose to withhold from it. Who in our society has the power to perpetrate uncertainty on another group of people? It frequently is the case that those who are left in these states of not knowing, forced into spaces of constant worry and stagnation, forbidden the right to have an answer or denied the closure to properly mourn their losses are very often people of color, immigrants, refugees, Indigenous communities, and others whose basic human rights have been violated or put at risk. My book tries to reckon with this in its examination of yellow rain, and I hope that comes through somehow.
I further hope that the book offers to readers a way to think about the doing of poetry in all of its wild forms and varied expressions to bring something to the page that can’t necessarily be answered, explained, nor discerned. For me, poetry is the act of pulling something in from the void and then witnessing that awareness make itself manifest on the page.
KKY: The amount of research you’ve done in this book is staggering. How did the research inform the poetic form of individual poems and the communal whole?
MDV: The research was an instrumental part of the process, and I had to allow myself to completely dive in, which meant having to compartmentalize my process for sanity’s sake. The research came first, and over the years leading up to this, I had already been reading through a lot of the documents. When I finally dove in, I committed myself to a whole summer of just more reading through and categorizing of the declassified documents and other reports. During this period, I didn’t force myself to write any poems, nor did I read any poetry, really. I wanted to create a space for myself to be immersed within the language, the details, the visuals, and the findings from the documents free from other creative entanglements. This process amounted to an accumulation of printed paper filling up multiple three-inch ring binders (I printed a lot of these documents in order to experience them in their most crude and obvious form; commiserations, however, to the environment, all the paper went to a good cause).
What was also really exciting, and distracting at times, was how I would read something in a document, and then it would take me elsewhere, and I would spend the rest of the day investigating that other thing. The structure of the manuscript was driven by the structure of the documents along with some thematic elements that emerged during my assessment of the materials. Once I had arrived at a point where I felt had gone far enough in the research, I took my documents, the ones I wanted to use for the book, and sorted them based on a variety of factors (subject matter, perspective, year, individuals involved, type of document, etc.) to begin shaping the skeleton of the collection. It was difficult to decide what to use and there was certainly stuff I wanted to use that got left out. But I feel that what’s there now in the book represents, to the best of my ability, another way of thinking about the topic of yellow rain. At this point, with everything sorted and coded in its tentative order, I was ready to write the actual poems. And I did that for many months.
KKY: Similarly to that opening statement at the front of the book, at its back, there are these words, “I circle. I pour into the rains. And I will chase them down until the seasons dry out and the clouds unfold before me the light of a new storm.” How do you visualize that new storm?
MDV: I hope it will mean something for present, emerging, and future writers who come from communities that have experienced something traumatic and that which demands a public reckoning, a clearing out and honoring of ancestral grief. For the descendants of immigrants and refugees, for the children growing up now who are witness to the atrocities inflicted by western-backed governments.
As I write this now, Afghanistan has collapsed to Taliban rule and there are chaotic masses of civilians spilling out onto the airport runways in Kabul. Both saddening and rage-inducing, the Afghan people are being left behind similar to how the U.S. left the Hmong behind in 1975. Out of what’s happened in Afghanistan, and anywhere else in the world, really, will come what I hope is a flood of new voices and writers who may choose to contend with the complicated and important histories that they or their elders have had to endure. Even as this work requires literary stamina and playing the long game against erasure, I hope it also creates the possibility for more things to come to light.
KKY: In the closing poem, “And Yet Still More,” there is a great deal of “waiting.” As a refugee child from the same war and history, when I get to the repeated lines, “That wait is the refugee”—I find my breath held, a pause inside of me. You state in the opening, “firstborn in a new land”—how does it feel to be the outcome of the wait in some sense? To inhabit that place of new birth?
MDV: Thanks for pointing that out. I stated earlier that had my parents remained a little longer in the camps, I would have been born there, and yes, I am their firstborn in this country. It feels to me that the act of “waiting” has always been synonymous in some ways with the refugee experience. Waiting to see if conditions in the country improve, waiting for the right time to flee, waiting to make the crossing, then more waiting in a refugee camp with years going by before the possibility of resettlement. The wait goes on, compounded by government bureaucracy, and this idea of the wait endured by refugees was actually inspired by a talk I heard from ethnic studies scholar and educator Yến Lê Espiritu at a conference on Critical Refugee Studies.
To be the outcome of a period of waiting, to make it through after all that happened and could have happened, feels like a lifting and yet not at all, feels like I’ve arrived but haven’t. It’s a continual process of trying to “get there” with no idea as to whether “getting there” has already happened or will ever happen. I don’t know, maybe this particular feeling of limbo is an indication that the waiting is actually happening right now, unbeknownst to the person doing the waiting.
Having been born right at the cusp of when my parents fled Laos to when they arrived in the U.S. feels like being both a refugee and not a refugee. For me, it’s an even more exacerbated version of statelessness that isn’t predicated by a desire to belong somewhere, but on the contrary, wants to resist the need to conform to the idea of belonging as a means to challenge the façade of western integration. Though my birth certificate shows I was born here, I’m tormented by another country I’ve never been to nor lived in, its history lingering in the periphery of my mind.
KKY: If this book—in accordance with this dedication—is for the entirety of the Hmong speaking-reading people of the world, what does it suggest about the nation-state and national boundaries?
MDV: The Hmong have largely been a migratory people throughout history, suffering displacement and fleeing from wars, so the relationship to the concept of “homeland” is a rather convoluted one. And because the orphan archetype is a common motif in Hmong folklore and folk singing, it also seems to me that we can draw connections between the sorrow from the loss of parental presence as possibly representative of the sorrow from the loss of a place, any place. In some ways, we are orphan citizens.
To answer your question, I think it suggests that the notion of nation-states and national boundaries is very much a western-centric invention of the settler-colonialist imagination. Borders are the product and manifestation of the imperialist propensity to conquer, victor, subjugate, massacre, displace, and separate people from their own land, for the gain of the empire. As much as I appreciate the field of cartography and its practical contribution to our lives, I sometimes can’t look at a map nowadays and not consider the implications of who was given the authority to draw the lines on it and how those lines might have been fabricated and/or stolen. I sometimes can’t hear the words “adventure” or “exploration” or “uncharted” or “discovery” or “pioneer” without hearing how the words are all pseudo-forms of colonialism in disguise. This is my attempt to listen deeper, and I can only hope that others do the same.