By the measure of a year, Mai Der Vang was not born in a refugee camp, as her sister was. But she’s always felt pulled between different worlds. In 1981, when Vang was born in Fresno, California, her parents had only recently arrived in the U.S. from Laos, by way of Thailand, where they had lived in Hmong refugee camps for half a decade. In the states, they did not often talk to their daughter about what life was like before America.
But Vang was curious about the history of her family and of the Hmong people, an ethnic group that has existed for centuries without a formal homeland, though they have lived most often in southeast Asia. Scholars believe the Hmong fled persecution in China thousands of years ago, and migrated to Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. More recently, after the U.S. recruited Hmong fighters from Laos in the 1960s and 70s to assist in a so-called Secret War against communism, thousands of Hmong were forced to flee persecution in Laos as well. Today, some 250,000 Hmong refugees live in the U.S.
“The Hmong people will sort of be perpetually lost without that sense of a homeland, because we don’t have a way to go back,” Vang said. And so, through her just-released books of poems, “Afterland,” she sought to explore the identity of a people who are always in exile. Many of the elders she knows still talk of returning to Laos, she said, though they know it is not possible.
In some of the poems in “Afterland,” Vang investigates what happened before the Hmong migrated from Laos: the Secret War, reports of yellow rain, the many people that died in combat. But her poetry is just as interested in what came after.
“I started meditation and writing on how often, when we go through something, we end up somewhere different after, a kind of ‘afterland’” she said. “The reality is that oftentimes it’s a place that can be scary… whether it’s the afterland of the refugee, or the afterland of the spirit.”
In the poem “Calling the Lost,” Vang explores the Hmong belief that a person’s spirit disappears when they lose their grounding, and how a Hmong shaman works to heal that. But the poem also unpacks larger questions about the story of the Hmong in exile.
It asks: “Which shaman in this world is going to bring us back to our old world?” Vang said. It is, perhaps, a question without an easy answer.
Below, read “Calling the Lost” or listen to Vang read it aloud.
Calling the Lost
By Mai Der Vang
Hmong people say one’s spirit can run off,
Go into hiding underground.
Only the physical stays behind.
To heal, a shaman checks on the spirit
By scraping the earth,
Examining the dirt.
If an ant emerges,
He takes it inside,
Careful not to crush the ant with his hold
Nor flutter its being into shock
With one exhale.
Sometimes we hide in ants, he says.
He will call for what left
to come back,
and for the found,
to never leave.
Mai Der Vang is an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle and coeditor of “How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology.” Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post.