Fresno State’s Mai Der Vang basks in national recognition for ‘Yellow Rain,’ her powerful excavation of Hmong history
Mai Der Vang learned a few weeks ago that “Yellow Rain: Poems,” her newest book of poetry, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. This is a very big deal in the world of poetry – and yet another acknowledgment of the Fresno State professor’s increasingly robust career. It’s also a continued sign of the continued excellence of Fresno’s poetry scene. For decades, California’s ag capital has been a fertile ground for poetry – boasting two national poets laureate – and it’s clear that a younger generation of Fresno poets is building on that reputation.
On the latest episode of “The Munro Review on CMAC,” I talk to Vang about “Yellow Rain” and the contentious issue on which it focuses: the nature of a mysterious substance that Hmong people were subjected to as they fled after the fall of Vietnam in 1975. Vang, whose parents were refugees, was born in Fresno. She first learned about the phenomenon of yellow rain – whose very existence is contested by some – in college. Years later, she tackled the topic.
I invite you to watch the 15-minute interview with Vang. Or you can read the transcript, which I’ve lightly edited (see below). One of the great things about being a Pulitzer finalist is getting your work out in front of more people. I, for one, am glad I got an excuse to do a deep dive with this noted poet.
Donald: Often we see images of journalists in newsrooms who are waiting for the Pulitzer announcements and they all have champagne. So obviously they’ve been tipped off, but that was not the case with you. Is that correct?
Mai Der: Yes … the way that it works is that you suddenly get a bunch of text messages, and then you find out that you either won or you were a finalist. And so yeah, that’s sort of what happened with me. I had no idea that the book was even in consideration.
Donald: Where were you when you found out?
Mai Der: I was actually finishing up a class. I was just kind of tidying things up, checking messages and such, and then my partner shared the message information with me, and I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe it.
Donald: That’s a great way to learn about it.
Mai Der: The class I was finishing was a poetry class, too, which is just, you know, serendipitous because I was sharing my love of poetry with my students and then to be able to be recognized for that was just even better.
Donald: Let’s talk about “Yellow Rain.” This is a fascinating subject. It’s one that I didn’t know anything about until I started reading your book. People have described the book as collaging, a form of poetry where you bring words and texts together. There’s another term for it, documentary poetics. Can you explain, first of all, the format of your book?
Mai Der: The book is a collection of poems. You have your “normal poems” in there. But then what I’ve done is that between the poems, I’ve also interspersed these compositional pieces that are very visual, very collage-based and draw from various source documents that I was using when I was writing the books. A lot of declassified documents, archival material. And so I took them and I examined the possibilities of what would happen if I laid them out spatially in relationship to each other on a page. And so that’s what became that’s what sort of created and became those compositional pieces.
Donald: Before we move on, I just want to cover some basic info here because, like I say, some of this stuff is unknown to people. You are Hmong, and you write about the Hmong American experience. Can you give us a refresher: What time period are we talking about with “Yellow Rain”? What were the events of the war that led to all this?
Mai Der: I’ll start with myself. As a daughter of Hmong refugees, I was born in the very early 80s here in the United States, just after my parents resettled. But to backtrack a little bit on how they became refugees and then how the events of the war that prompted then what became yellow rain: The U.S. war in Vietnam and Laos had come to a decisive end in 1975. The United States had recruited a lot of Hmong men and soldiers to fight communism on behalf of the United States in what I would consider was a proxy war. It was a way for the United States to be able to use the bodies and the labor of Hmong men to do the bidding of the war for them. When that came to an end in 1975, and the U.S. left the country and abandoned all of the refugees to kind fend for themselves, that’s when everyone fled for their lives. That’s when everyone was uprooted and said, We cannot live here. It’s not safe anymore. We will be attacked. Our lives are at stake. We have to leave everything behind.
And that’s the story of a lot of Hmong refugees who found their way to the United States — this need to find safety. And so the process of that then leads to what becomes yellow rain because as they’re fleeing in the jungles, a lot of them report this mysterious substance that falls from the sky and lands on their body. And it’s falling from these airplanes that are dropping them. And it falls on the plants, on the the water, on their clothing, and it’s making people sick. And so my book explores what this thing is, but it also explores the political fallout of it.
Donald: There was an incident involving Alexander Haig, then Secretary of State of the United States, that really made the topic of yellow rain explode. Can you tell us about that?
Mai Der: The U.S. had been investigating what this substance was. They had no idea. And so it was like, let’s find out what it is because we need to know if we are being threatened by something else in the world. And so the US conducted this massive eight-year investigation, and what they did was they took blood samples, they took urine samples, they took leaf samples, to try to figure out what this was. And they there was one leaf sample that that a scientist from the University of Minnesota, Dr. Chester Mirocha, had discovered some traces of toxins on there. And so using that one leaf, the United States began to build its case and say, Yes, this is a chemical biological weapon.
And so, the then Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, we’re coming up now to October 1981, he’s at a press conference in Berlin. He announces that the United States has evidence that the Soviet Union is using chemical biological weapons in Southeast Asia. And that is what then launches and balloons into this fiasco that would become yellow rain.
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Donald: Tell us about some of the effects of this substance. I know some of them are pretty horrific.
Mai Der: It ranged from moderate symptoms to some more severe and fatal symptoms. At the more moderate level, people reported things like being very dizzy, blurry eyes, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, to something more fatal, like hemorrhaging, and lesions on their skin. People didn’t want to go near those bodies. They didn’t know what was going on. And so there was so much mystery around those deaths. But there were many, many people who reported, you know, even just something as basic as like, having bloody diarrhea or, you know, or losing their vision.
Donald: Did your parents talk about this at all? When did you first learn about yellow rain?
Mai Der: They certainly did not talk about it. It was something that I imagined that most elders really weren’t ready to talk about yet. I discovered yellow rain when I was doing research on the secret war during my undergraduate years in college. I discovered this thing called yellow rain and I said, “This doesn’t make any sense. Bee feces?” I mean, we’ll get to that. It stayed with me. I said, “I gotta follow up on this. Later on in my life, when I have time and resources, maybe I should look into this more”.
Donald: There is a twist here. You mentioned bee feces.
Mai Der: As the investigation on yellow rain continued and the U.S. was wanting to make its case that this was a biological weapon, there were other people in the scientific community and in the political community who were also very adamant about pushing back against that theory and wanting to offer another theory with the intention of challenging the political landscape of that time. And so that contingency of people offered the theory that this was not a biological weapon — that, in fact, it was just the feces of honeybees, just defecating on the Hmong people as they ran through the jungles. That was the theory. And as it stands today, that is the theory that is still used and given when people talk about yellow rain.
Donald: I was reading that supposedly scientists have discovered it happens at certain times when the temperature is warmer and the bees have to excrete a certain amount of their their body weight. I guess my reaction to that was, wouldn’t this have been something that had been happening for centuries. Wouldn’t it be part of the Hmong culture and the lore? We’ve got the yellow rain; it’s the bees.
Mai Der: Absolutely. I I agree that that it would have been part of the collective knowledge but it wasn’t.
Donald: Mai Der, this book is fascinating, and touching, and it is just really complex. I want to ask about what you saw as your role here. It seems like you’re sort of a historian, and you’re sort of an investigative journalist, but you’re also a poet. You come out with a point of view. And you say, “That is my right, as a poet.” Can you speak to that?
Mai Der: That’s a great observation. When I was writing this book, I was struggling and contending with all these different sorts of roles. It was part of why I wanted to do collage pieces. It was to offer my reader a glimpse into the documents and to immerse them in these documents with me: Here’s what I would have found from a journalistic point of view. But then the poetry comes in because I’m a poet, and I write poetry, and I studied poetry. With poetry, I find that there is such dexterity and fluidity with what I can do with language that will allow me to get closer to the truth of what I want to say.
Donald: These are literal government documents. You have toxicology reports. You have blood tests. You have one poem called “Blood Cooperation.” It’s very important how you laid out your words on the page.
Mai Der: I think back to doing that poem. When I was writing it, I was just feeling so frustrated at all of the reports I was reading about these refugees who had given up their blood samples, hundreds of them — I came across hundreds, but I knew there were thousands of them. And yet none of them had heard back anything about their results. The government wasn’t getting any closer to finding out what this harmful substance was. And yet people were just giving up their bodily fluids. That was very distressing for a lot of Hmong refugees. That poem is rooted in that feeling of distress, of giving yourself up over to the government to serve their political cause without even knowing the outcome. You’ll see that in the background of that poem is a watermark. I found this image of blood sample labels. As an echoed image in the background or a kind of a ghost image in the background, to complement the poem.
Donald: You told an interviewer: “While the documents serve as a form of authority, they weren’t the ones writing the poems. I was.” I was very struck by that quotation. In other words, again, we get back to this idea that you as the poet, as the artist, you as someone who is coming from this as a subjective experience, you have to make that final call.
Mai Der: Right. While the documents are their own kind of authority, they are not the ones writing the poems. I am. And so I am able to sort of serve as the authority of how to do these poems. And that then gives me some agency to figure out how to position them, how to take words and pair them together with other words, to offer a different lens, a different narrative, into the issue of yellow rain.
Donald: Your collection of poems seems to progress from documentary style to move into the idea of grief.
Mai Der: I’m glad you picked up on that. I was worried about how intense the history would be for a collection of poetry and how that would be received by my reader. I thought, OK, well, I’ve made this sort of history-heavy on the front end. And now I’m taking it to a place of reflection, but also reckoning, too. I hope that comes out through the poems, too. But yeah, the grief absolutely does come through by the end. I hope it does.
Donald: Well, Mai Der, we’re running out of time, but I could sit here and talk all afternoon about this. I just wanted to shift over to one other question about being a Fresno State professor. How did your students respond to learning that you had been nominated? And what is your take on teaching? I know that you’ve made that a priority.
Mai Der: I love teaching and I’m so grateful to be teaching at Fresno State and in the community that I grew up in because I’m born and raised here in Fresno. For me, it’s just an absolute honor to be able to share this work with my students. Not only that, but to guide them in their own process of learning how to write poetry, and to help them see the potential of their work. It has been really inspiring to me, for sure.