By Cecile Pin
Ocean Vuong learned to read English at eleven. In a 2016 New Yorker essay, he remembers writing his first poem in fourth grade (Year 5), and the teacher spilling out the contents of his desk in disbelief, looking for the original poem Vuong must have plagiarised from. “Looking back, I can see my teacher’s problem,” he writes, “I was, after all, a poor student.” Later on, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, his debut full-length poetry collection, would make him the second poet to win the T.S. Eliot Prize for a first collection.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, was released last year to rapturous praise, and became an instant Sunday Times bestseller. Hailed by Max Porter as ‘The Great American Novel’ and dealing with themes of trauma, addiction, gender and sexuality, it takes the form of a letter from a Vietnamese-American son, Little Dog, to his mother who cannot read. “It was very interesting to me, the great futility of writing to someone who can't read. The idea might seem so exotic and strange to readers who are fluent in English, particularly white readers: why would you do that? But I think that for a lot of immigrants, it's understood that when you can't communicate to the person closest to you, the question then falls on language itself: is language important? Can it do anything, if the recipient is gone?”
When I ask him how his late adoption of the language has shaped his writing, he acknowledges his struggle with English is also what made it strong: “it forced me to slow down, to look at the words as objects. A sentence was something I had to learn, word for word, painstakingly slow.” He also credits the monosyllabic-nature of Vietnamese with informing his English: “The word ma, for example, has so many meanings. má, mà, mả, mã…A Vietnamese child growing up in a Vietnamese household has to listen: their ear has to be incredibly sharp. And that taught me how to listen to English better.”
This careful, concrete learning of English is reflected in his writing through the use of wordplay: “It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter,” Little Dog tells his mom. “We’ll have to cut it open, you and I, like a newborn lifted, red and trembling, from the just-shot doe.”
In the novel, language becomes a character in itself, embodied by the said and unsaid, the gap between utterer and receiver. Near the end of the novel, a grief-stricken Little Dog lays next to his mother: “It’s in these moments, next to you, that I envy words for doing what we can never do – how they can tell all of themselves simply by standing still, simply by being.” As Little Dog’s command of English increases, so does the breach between his mother and himself. For Ocean, hence, language becomes a tool to both connect and divide – the same way an ocean both connects and divides lands. But this breach also gives way to softness and kinship: it allows Little Dog to become his mother’s interpreter and protector, her gateway to The American Dream. He orders bras for her from the Victoria’s Secret Catalogue; negotiates her working hours with her superior. When they wake up to find the letters FAG4LIFE spray-painted red across their front door, Little Dog tells her, “It says ‘Merry Christmas’ Ma… See, that’s why it’s red. For luck."
“That was one of the most valuable things for me in the book,” Vuong says. “For readers to see that even though I had a good hold and a good use of English, I still struggled with its purpose in my life as a writer.”
Born in Saigon on a rice farm, Vuong and his family left Vietnam when he was two years old, first to a refugee camp in the Philippines, eventually landing in the United States and settling in Hartford, Connecticut. Right now, he’s spending lockdown in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he lives and teaches at the nearby University of Massachusetts. “My life is not that different in lockdown — other than wearing a mask and worrying about social distancing. Except now I don't have to explain myself when I just want to stay inside,” he adds with a laugh.
“I don't want folks to read my books and say, ‘I get it. I get Vietnamese people’.”
At 31, and in just a few years, he has become one of, if not the most prominent face of Asian American Literature – something he sees as a joy rather than a burden: “it's only a burden if you see yourself as a representative of all Asians, or all Vietnamese, and I never see myself as such. I'm here, and I get to write about the stories that are important to our community. But I don't sit down at the desk and say, now, I will speak for Vietnamese people.” He’s adamant on not being tokenised, and for the Literary establishment to continue to publish more Vietnamese and Southeast Asian writers: “Historically, for a writer of colour, making it is to be ‘the only one’. And I really hope that I’m not the only one. So, the only burden is to be vigilant, to make sure that I’m paving a way rather than closing a way. I don't want to be the last one. I don't want folks to read my books and say, ‘I get it. I get Vietnamese people’.”
Before becoming a poet, Vuong enrolled in an International Marketing course at New York’s Pace University. Realising it wasn’t for him, he quit after eight weeks. “Southeast Asia diaspora is so young - we came out of the 60s and 70s. And lot of us are still lost in the traditional immigrant refugee anxieties of upward mobility, which means we become doctors instead of writers. We become lawyers, businessmen, engineers to please and help our parents. And so, we defer our dreams, or sometimes cancel our writing dreams all together. That’s very common, and it means that as writers, we’re few and far between.”
James Baldwin described hist first, also semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell it on the Mountain, as ‘the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else,’ a sentiment Vuong concurred with for his own debut. “What Baldwin said I found even truer now, after finishing the book. Baldwin was trying to articulate and correct the image that a lot of America had about the black family in Harlem, and what he did was incredibly subversive: he didn’t allow the book to have a plot. A white reader would pick up that book and think ‘I'm going to get a tour guide, a safari about Black Harlem’. And instead, Baldwin very strategically offered a history lesson about the making of Black Harlem, going all the way back to slavery and the great migration.” Similarly, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous often explores the past by going back to the Vietnam War and revealing the story of Little Dog’s mother and grandmother. Instead of a clear, linear structure, Vuong makes use of the kishōtenketsu structure often found in East Asian literature, which doesn’t rely on conflict nor resolution to advance and conclude a story. “I wanted to say to readers: ‘Here's Vietnamese American life; here's queer life in rural Connecticut. And I'm not going to take you on a journey: this is not a plot driven book. We're not going anywhere’. That's what Baldwin did and that's what I hoped to have done. And now that it’s done, I hope that I can write a novel with a plot.”
Coming from a Vietnamese family myself, I tell him that I feel the same way. “I think we feel that we owe it to ourselves, because white writers have always written about us,” he says. “And, strangely enough, when we read their texts about us, we don't see us, because they've seen us so poorly. And so, I think that desire that all three of us share, is that we can't really write what we want, until we get our lives right. And in order to do that, we have to do it ourselves.”
When I ask him about transitioning from poetry to prose, Vuong acknowledges they’re different beasts: “For me, poems are much more enjoyable: they give you a lot of break. You can write a poem, play with language, and then put it in a drawer and go back to your life.” He found the novel trickier to manage: “a novel haunts you: you can’t really live fully. During the three years that I was writing On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I was living in a sort of daze. And that's what I didn't know: I wasn't prepared for that.” However, his writing process, grounded in discipline, remained the same: “I think that I've just made really good use of my OCD: I'm obsessed with what I write about and I think about it all the time - even when I'm not writing. So, a lot of my process is actually in my head, and the writing is the last part of it. And once that starts, I will pretty much write every day until the book is done.”
Last month, Vuong became the seventh writer to join the Future Library Project, joining the likes of Margaret Atwood, Han Kang and Karl Ove Knausgård. For the art project, each author has to contribute a text that will remain unread and sealed until 2114, at which time the works will be released and printed on trees currently growing in a forest just outside Oslo. “I liked the idea of collaborating with death in order to go forward. As a Buddhist, I practice death meditation, which is a meditation on imagining death, and normalising it.” Although morbid-sounding, Vuong says the meditation helps you live better. “When you think about the inevitability of death, all the small arguments and pettiness falls away. And I thought the project was an incredible death meditation: in order for us to arrive at this hopeful unveiling of this literature, we have to die forward.”
When I ask him whether he’s feeling hopeful about the future of literature, he expresses cautious optimism: “I think we've made a lot of headway. I don't know if a book like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, from a Vietnamese American author, would have been published in 1970. My book and my career would not be possible without writers of colour paving the way, and editors of colour too: Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House.”
“Do not let people say you should be reading or writing a certain way because you're a writer of colour.”
He cites Eduardo Corral, Natalie Diaz, Bryan Washington, Jia Tolentino and Mahogany Brown as rising authors he’s particularly excited about. “I think that having a more robust and lush plurality is on the table for us, if we as a society choose to embrace it. We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of it is to have more editors of colour, and more people of colour in the infrastructure itself rather than just the front, public facing authors. And that's harder because you have to pay someone a salary, people have to leave jobs and things have to move around, whereas with authors it's easy to sign the contract, publish them and then move on to the next thing. This is the harder work, but I think it's important to keep encouraging it, and to watch it happen.”
I finish off the interview by asking if he has any advice for aspiring Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers, and he cites Muriel Rukeyser, one of his poetry hero: “if you are truly free, then you should be free to choose your traditions.” For Vuong, the fact that writers of colour have been excluded from the literary canon, particularly in the English tradition, means that we have the freedom to be influenced by anything we wish, and shouldn’t be forced into categories: “Do not let people say you should be reading or writing a certain way because you're a writer of colour. Give yourself the freedom to read and to be influenced from every tradition that appeals to you. Because we were never part of the conversation, it gives us permission to move freely across time to use whatever innovations the English language came about and to recycle it for our own work.”
Whether linguistic or societal, Vuong is a writer who managed to exceed all the expectations and barriers that were set in his way. Determined to to use his influence to advocate for a more luscious literary world, he has one last message he wishes to pass on: “I just want readers and young BIPOC writers to know that, it's very hard to be a writer of colour in the English tradition, because you're not going to be legible. Even as you're writing in English, your words will be legible but your ideas will not be legible. So, you more than any other group have to be resilient. And it's important to not give up, and to give yourself great breath of room for errors and mistakes, and to give yourself the courage to keep trying and find your way, which is very hard. But I think we're at a point where there's a great wealth of possibility. So, all I want to say is, just don't give up.”
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (VINTAGE) is now available paperback.