Last week saw the continuation of the year-long academic showcase Writers at Newark Reading Series, hosted by Rutgers University-Newark's MFA Creative Writing program. On Tuesday, February 6, students, professors and Brick City residents welcomed Walt Whitman award-winning poet Mai Der Vang and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead to the Express Newark's lecture hall on Halsey Street.
The light refreshments offered at the start of the event were juxtaposed by the gravitas of poetry and book readings that followed. With a short introduction to acknowledge our hosts and friends of the guests, the affair began what would be a somber, yet convivial evening of wordsmiths sharing what they do best.
The list of accolades for Mai Der Vang are borderline dubious given her tender age of 36, but once you start listening to her read from her 2017 National Book Award nominee for poetry, Afterland, you recognize there's nothing dubious about her. I, like many Americans (and possibly most people around the globe), knew very little of the Hmong community and culture before Der Vang's reading. But after listening to the evocative subtlety of her first poem, Der Vang leaves her audience feeling as if they know without knowing.
It sounds contradictory, but it is indeed an experience that prompts you to wonder why the adage "hearing is believing" doesn't exist. Her glowing reviews and words of praise from poetry heavyweight Yusef Komunyakaa and National Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera no longer seem like lip service paid to a fellow plier of the trade. When Cathy Park Hong described Der Vang's poetry as veering "between seraphic and horrific," you realize that rhetoric is the perfect description for poems about the covert war against the Laos waged by the Hmong on behalf of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Who would think to write poetry about such a topic at all?
And with her bravery to talk about a violent, taboo subject, Der Vang has solidified her place among modern American creatives who masterfully blend art with activism. In between her readings from Afterland and her new poem "Declassified," Der Vang shared how "writing allowed her a sense of freedom." That reality, of course, carries with it a sense of irony as she informed us how the Hmong did not have a formal writing system until the 1950s, and their current system is very much the result of colonialism. To now use that system to speak out against the horrors of colonialism must have a bittersweet sting.
As someone who is more inclined to attend poetry slams than poetry readings, Der Vang's voice delivers not only a joyful experience, but a humbling one. Unlike many poets, she doesn't perform. She doesn't orchestrate to pull a response from her audience just so. Instead, she allows her soft, lilting tone to soften the blow of her unapologetic imagery and brutal retelling of a history erased from American and Asian narratives. Like her other new poem, "Vigil for the Missing," Afterland is not for the faint-hearted. And I can't wait to read more.
If there were ever a greater contrast of the reading styles of a poet and a novelist before this event, I don't know about it. Where Der Vang is warm, but demure, Colson Whitehead is brazen, but selfless. Rising almost a foot taller than Der Vang, Whitehead almost needed no introduction. But then again, that's what can happen when your novel is short-listed for the Man Booker Prize the same year it's recommended by both Barack Obama and Oprah's Book Club.
But if any of that "overnight" fame has inflated Whitehead's ego, no one would be the wiser. Before launching into a brief introduction of the characters in his novel, he reveals his esoteric sense of humor that doesn't quite come across in interviews for publications like the New York Times Book Review or even on GoodReads. Witty and self-deprecating, he shares how the idea for The Underground Railroad was born 18 years ago as a Gulliver's Travels-esque metaphor of postmodern America's relationship with its political and cultural struggle with race and freedom.
From there, we dive in. Whitehead's reading pulls from the earlier chapters of the novel before the characters begin their journey on the literal and figurative railroad up to Valentine Farm in Indiana, and in doing so, draws the audience into his vivid world where the savage realities of American slavery in the south can't be swept under the rug with euphemisms and delicacy. Right away, it's clear Whitehead knows what he's doing.
Before moving onto the next chapter, Whitehead shares a little about his research process. His most reliable sources for historical perspectives came from the WPA interviews of the last living former slaves during the 1930s. He tells us that the violence you read about in his book is communicated in a very matter-of-fact manner in the oral histories and slave narratives of his research. I'd say that's another great reason to support the creation of modern oral histories.
When asked later during the Q&A portion of the event what spurred him to write about this topic, Whitehead explains: "It's me being a child of Roots, African American education programs, feminism, etc. I thought to myself, 'How many African-American novelists were there back in the 1860s to tell their story?'" And although The Underground Railroad is speculative fiction, his novel does gift the reader insight into those histories still very much erased in an attempt to distance us from our darker, but still very relevant past.
Of course, the pairing of these two writers who raise their voices to speak of the colonial oppression their communities have endured is no coincidence. When prompted to share why she chose to tackle such a difficult subject in her poetry, Der Vang said, "I didn't even know Hmong poets existed. Part of my charge was 'What are the voices that are missing from American literature? What has not been done?' That was the underlying question that fed me."
The ability of both of the writers to distance the moments of violence and tragedy while making it come alive with vivid language was not lost of any of the audience members. But each are aware of the effects of violence in media and even have trouble navigating it themselves in the works of others. Whitehead admitted he has yet to finish watching 12 Years A Slave because of its traumatic subject matter and brutal realism, and Der Vang, in kind, says she hasn't watched Gran Torino for the same reason.
With that revelation, it seems many students and aspiring writers in attendance respected the writers' talents more. Der Vang and Whitehead both had to compartmentalize their feelings in order to share these stories, but in the long run, felt as if it was their duty -- if not their honor -- to make sure the stories were told.