In this conversation that took place shortly before the pandemic and shelter-in-place order, award-winning writer Mai Der Vang and I discuss why failure is always a way to build resilience; the burden of excellence that many immigrants experience plus the challenges of being a female, P.O.C. writer and academic in the American literary landscape; and the devastation of the Secret War that wreaked havoc on the Hmong people and how this trauma influences her writing, as the child of Hmong immigrants.
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1:55 – Mai Der’s growing up in the U.S, as the child of Hmong refugees. How Mai Der began writing poetry as a kid.
3:12 – How early encouragement and her 5th grade teacher spurred Mai Der’s writing habit and her interest in creative writing and poetry.
4:45 – How Mai Der’s writing is influenced by both the Hmong and English languages.
5:47 – Mai Der talks about her book, Afterland, and retelling of the devastation of the Secret War that wreaked havoc on the Hmong people. How Mai Der learned about the Secret War. How the trauma of crisis and war moves us to seek out spirituality and how the Hmong people’s shamanism is linked to displacement and the refugee experience of post-geography and exile.
9:20 – Mai Der and I talk about the ways immigrant or refugee parents withhold traumatic information from their children and the ways displacement affects one’s sense of belonging. “Even if we try to go back, these places are never the same.”
10:54 – The ways displacement is profoundly influential for the Hmong people, for whom there is no “bound” land the they can claim as their own. How this “boundlessness” and displacement influences Mai Der’s work.
12:42 – Mai Der’s thoughts on the connections between the migratory instincts that Hmong people have inhabited and their shamanism and spirituality.
15:12 – Mai Der talks about the horrific Secret War in which Hmong people were used by the U.S. in a proxy war agains the communists in Southeast Asia. Her own despair upon discovering the horror her parents and ancestors endured and escaped. “The U.S was able to fight this war without having to pull their own trigger. They had the Hmong bodies, the Hmong men, to fight the war for them. The aftermath of that was just devastating….Everyone got left behind, to fend for themselves…to face genocide and violence perpetrated by the communists against the Hmongs.” How this led to mass exodus for the Hmong people.
20:39 – Upon the 2019 U.S. census, 300,000 Hmongs live in the U.S., mostly in California and Minnesota.
21:36 – What is it like for Mai Der – as a U.S. born child of Hmong refugees living in the U.S. – to live in and amongst the same country and people who perpetrated unspeakable violence against the Hmong people?
23:54 – The burden of excellence and accomplishment that Mai Der has felt as an immigrant. “I have to be twice as good to be given access, to be heard.” How this experience is echoed in many immigrant stories.
26:16 – The challenges of being a female, P.O.C. writer and academic in the American literary landscape. The struggles with structures of patriarchy.
27:59 – The overwhelming swell of Hmong women pursuing leadership roles and how Mai Der’s parents support and encourage her accomplishments.
29:39 – “You are a unicorn, Mai Der.” How Mai Der is part of the growing community of Hmong writers.
31:23 – The Hmong American Writers’ Circle, a grass-roots collective of Hmong writers. “It’s lonely to be a writer and it’s even lonelier to be a Hmong writer.”
33:32 – “You cannot wait for spaces to be created for you. You have to go and make them yourself.”
34:20 – How Mai Der cultivates her creative courage. Why taking long breaks and going very slowly works for Mai Der. How teaching helps her engage with craft.
36:49 – “It’s not about me. It’s about invoking something, a higher purpose.”
38:52 – Managing success and failure and how they go hand in hand. “Every failure is an opportunity to reground ourselves.” “Failure cannot be the reason you stop doing anything.”
41:12 – “I just let go of my need to control the outcome.”
42:12 – How rejection builds resilience.
42:58 – How rejection has changed Mai Der’s experience of success and how she now qualifies success. “We have to reframe our thinking of what success is.”
44:49 – Mai Der talks about her next book.
45:57 – Mai Der’s advice to her younger self: trust your intuition. “Don’t be afraid to let go of control and allow yourself to be open to what you don’t know. Be okay with not knowing, uncertainty, and doing things that unsettle people. Trust you will fulfill your higher purpose.”