“The Sky Never Left the Sky”: Tiffany Troy Interviews Mai Der Vang about her newest collection YELLOW RAIN

Mai Der Vang is the author of Yellow Rain (Graywolf Press, 2021), and Afterland (Graywolf Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award in Poetry, and a finalist for the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. The recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, she served as a Visiting Writer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her poetry has appeared in POETRY, Tin House, American Poetry Review, among other journals and anthologies. Her essays have been published in TheNew York Times, The Washington Post, espnW, and elsewhere. Mai Der also co-edited How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology with the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. A Kundiman fellow, Mai Der has completed residencies at Civitella Ranieri and Hedgebrook. Born and raised in Fresno, California, she earned degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia University. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.

Combining poetry and archival research, Yellow Rain re-opens the investigation of a chemical biological warfare substance inflicted on the Hmong people following the US wars in Vietnam and Laos.

Tiffany Troy: You begin your collection with an epigraph from Raul Zurita and he writes, “Because as long as these words live you will not die. And if the acid of time and warlike tempests pull them down, you will not die. And we will not die again.”

How does this epigraph open the door to your collection?

Mai Der Vang: Encountering Zurita’s work and finding that epigraph was profound in my thinking towards Yellow Rain. Zurita was writing toward the atrocities that were committed in Chile. Even though the circumstances were different, I felt a resonant pull and solidarity with those words as they relate to the yellow rain narrative.

I hope that in reopening the wound, Yellow Rain allows readers to be able to see what we can accomplish and create through poetry, which allows for these words to continue to echo in people’s minds and hearts.

TT: What is the story that you would like to tell with Yellow Rain? How does your work fit within the tradition of documentary poetry, and the poetry of witness?

MDV: With this particular body of work, I was intentional in pulling together archival research and documentation. Digging through all of this documentation was a chance to examine what happened with the yellow rain investigation, and to confront the continual fallout of that experience for the Hmong community.

As a poet, part of what I tried to do is to venture into those areas that aren’t always easy for the self to access. Approaching yellow rain is personal because it’s something that affected my elders, clan relatives, and fellow Hmong who fled Laos following the Secret War.

In some ways, the book itself reopens the investigation as to what happened with yellow rain through collages and assembling language on a page and offers my perspective, as a daughter of refugees, belonging to a community that was directly affected by yellow rain.

TT: How does the idea of translation shape your collection? I’m thinking of translation of experiences of your elders and family members, the translation of bureaucratic and scientific language, as well as translation across media.

How do you piece together an experience for your readers to learn more about the truth of the yellow rain and its impact on the Hmong community?

MDV: That’s a great question about translation. Although I didn’t do any sort of literal translation work, I did do a lot of translation of the language of government, documentation, and of declassified material.

In my research, I had to teach myself how to make sense of the routing codes in government cables that stood for different cities, embassies, and political positions. Many of the documents were cables that were transferred between the US Embassy in Bangkok to the Secretary of State, and a lot of that communication was cloaked in acronyms. On top of that, there were several agencies involved and I had to translate for myself what those agencies were doing and what role they played in the investigation.

I also had to navigate the redactions and erasures and make sense of what’s not there because that’s just as important as what’s there in these documents. There were documents that I came across with the entire page redacted. I had to contend with the idea that there’s always going to be a part of this larger story I’ll never know. These are pieces that will always be missing and that will have been erased from the archive that is supposed to tell its story.

TT: How do you use the fragmentation to make space for the story that you’re telling?

MDV: I took many things into consideration when it came to the organization, structure, and space. There were certainly things that I didn’t put in there because it would inundate my reader.

Many of the poems in Yellow Rain were written in such a way to depict a feeling of not knowing the answer and perhaps never knowing it. I can’t say definitively here’s what happened. One thing I realized based on the materials that I reviewed was that we won’t know the full evidence-based truth of what happened. That was because many of the test samples that were shipped around the world had already degraded by the time they arrived to laboratories. So one can’t just simply say it didn’t happen, or that it was just bee feces, as per Dr. Matthew Meselson, because it certainly could have happened. Many Hmong elders have testified to that effect. The one thing that comes through for me is that I have more questions now than I did before.

Some of the language in the poems is me sifting through the questions that still remain. The compositional collages allow me to offer my reader the nuances within the evidence I encountered during my research. The collages allow me to say look, here’s a different version, a counternarrative, another way to think about the yellow rain story that is being offered from someone who belongs to the impacted community.

Fragmentation of language on the page through the poems and collages was a chance for me to give my own version of an answer. The Hmong perspective was completely lost in all of the Cold War political bickering that happened between those who favored arms development and those who sought greater arms control. In the end, what’s upsetting and heartbreaking is that it never really was about finding out what happened to Hmong people with regard to yellow rain.

TT: The Hmong perspective definitely came through. I was interested in how you piece together the evidence through juxtaposition in a way that implicates the way in which Americans didn’t do what they should have done in order to investigate the truth behind yellow rain. Do you feel if you in some ways play the role of not a neutral participant but rather an advocate for the Hmong perspective?

MDV: Your question about positionality is a fantastic one because it calls into question my own conflict of interest. I’ve wondered if a position of neutrality matters to my readers who will read this and want to have an objective perspective. Or whether it matters more that I am Hmong and offering the perspective of someone from a community that was affected by yellow rain.

For me, it’s always going to be a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, people can think that because I’m Hmong, I won’t be objective or neutral. I might even be discredited because I am Hmong. But on the other hand, the reason I have chosen to engage and reckon with yellow rain is because I am Hmong. What predisposes me to want to re-interrogate what has already been deemed as truth is my proximity to Hmongness. It’s because I am Hmong, because I grew up Hmong, because my parents are Hmong, and because my life as a Hmong person calls to mind these shadows of the past that continue to impact who we are as a diasporic people.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that my readers will take whatever they will from it, they may see me as biased. They can also see me as someone offering a perspective from within the impacted community. And that’s more important to me.

TT: Why are you, as the inheritor of the yellow rain and its loss, well-positioned to tell this story in English to an English-speaking readership?

MDV: As a daughter of Hmong refugees and a poet who is from a community that has been negatively impacted by yellow rain, I would hope I’m well-positioned.

I not only inherited the residual trauma of what my parents endured but I also inherited the questions and the labor of unpacking it all. This massive, daunting topic of chemical and biological warfare is definitely something I never expected to take on in my life. I think this happens to a lot of children of immigrants and refugees: so much of what we might choose to do isn’t what we will have initially expected of ourselves.

I grew up in a Hmong refugee family of the 1980s with very little access to writing and publishing. It has taken all these decades for me to be able to grow up in order to look back. It couldn’t have happened in the 80s, because it was just too soon.

This book was nearly a decade in the making, and I actually started this book when I was in my first year at Columbia in the MFA program. I had come across yellow rain when I was researching the Secret War during my undergraduate years. But then I heard the RadioLab episode on yellow rain and that was infuriating to me. I made a decision then to contend with yellow rain.

TT: Your collection uses a wide variety of forms to tell different facets of the story. How do the visual collages and watermarks interact with your poetry?

MDV: The watermarks are my attempt to offer my reader an experience that extends beyond language. In some ways, they serve as their own form of communication and as shadows in the background emerging every so often.

For visuals, I thought about the relationship between what the language was offering and what the visual was offering. The visual can serve as its own kind of text, too. In “Signal for the Way Out,” for example, I thought about the funeral drums in the epigraph and how similar the image of the vials looked to the funeral drums. I was interested in how the image could take that language further.

Collages share and assemble the language of my research in a way that can stand on their own. They also serve as section breaks throughout the collection. Some readers may find the collages, visuals, and watermarks to be intrusive to the reading experience, but it was important for me to create moments in the book where I could fully immerse my reader.

TT: How do you mirror the process of discovery through the unfolding of your collection?

MDV: In some ways, the book does unfold in a semi-chronological manner, but it doesn’t either. One of the opening poems is about the Radiolab episode, and that’s more recent. There was so much order to make sense of with yellow rain that I had to construct large timelines on my wall so I could track the history from the Cold War, leading up to the US wars in Vietnam and Laos, and then yellow rain.

I had to think about how I was going to present all of this to my reader in a somewhat practical manner without compromising the book’s creative integrity. That’s why I thought to open the collection with a poem to prepare my reader. I also included prose pieces between the sections to provide additional contextual and historical information. The poems within the sections themselves do their own work.

I had to consider the fact that few people will know nothing of yellow rain and therefore will likely know nothing of Hmong people either. Having to explain myself and explain my existence to others is a never-ending struggle and burden to carry, this act of.

TT: What do you hope your readers get out of the collection?

MDV: At the most basic level, I hope my readers learn about yellow rain. I also hope that it encourages anyone, writer or not, to choose to dig and confront. If they know of something within their own cultural history that needs to be reckoned with and that demands public discourse, that they feel encouraged to pursue that reckoning. I also hope more writers will immerse themselves within the archival and research process to strengthen a work of creative writing, which can lead to new and necessary possibilities in docupoetics, counternarratives, and exposing the crimes of empire.

TT: I really love that and believe that Yellow Rain would encourage readers who   are not so sure about whether or not to contend with new versions of an untold story to take up the courage to do so.

Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?

MDV: Thanks for reading! And thanks for this interview, Tiffany. Choosing to reckon with these difficult, complicated histories, hard as it may, is the kind of the work that needs to happen to make our world a better place. I think our ancestors would appreciate that.  

Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.

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