Ocean Vuong, Reluctant Optimist
Catching Up with the Night Sky with Exit Wounds Author in Milan
In England, where I currently live, there are many ornamental gardens and very few Vietnamese people, which is one reason I was glad to meet the poet Ocean Vuong in Milan. It was July 3rd, and Vuong was in town giving a series of readings as part of La Milanesiana festival on the occasion of the translation of last year’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds into Cielo notturno con fori d’uscita.
At the first of his readings at Palazzo Reale, copies of the Italian edition of Vuong’s book were stacked on a table by the entrance. The original cover—a photograph of a young Vuong between his aunt and mother—had been redesigned in the comparatively modest style of Continental publishing. Here, they appeared as if in a Victorian locket, inset in miniature on a backdrop of bluish-gray. In real life, Vuong materialized for our conversation full-size in a floral shirt. He speaks softly and steadily in an unmistakable voice, American-accented English and southern dialect Vietnamese.
“These things are still bizarre to me,” he comments of his ascendant star, manifest in the praise and awards for Night Sky, the translation of his work into multiple languages, the teaching post he is about to take up at UMass Amherst, and invitations to read in palaces in Milan. “It’s the biggest reward that I didn’t know one could get as a writer, to be translated. To struggle so much in your life crossing borders, whether they’re national borders or class borders or even community, spatial borders—that all of a sudden, here are your words in Italian, and in Spanish, or what have you—that’s the most surreal gift.”
But Vuong approaches it all with even keel. “Competition, prizes and awards are part of a patriarchal construct that destroys love and creativity,” he recently told The Creative Independent. “If you must use that construct, you use it the way one uses public transport. Get on, then get off at your stop and find your people. Don’t live on the bus, and most importantly, don’t get trapped on it.”
In some ways, it’s very easy to write about Ocean. If you have read about him before, you may know that his family left Vietnam in 1990 when he was two, that the seven of them shared a one-bedroom apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. That he was born under the sign of one of life’s typical ambivalent calculuses, as he documented memorably in the poem “Notebook Fragments”: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me,” followed aphoristically after the line break by— “Yikes.” That he otherwise descends from a line of illiterate rice farmers, and that he was the first in his family to learn to read proficiently, at age 11 and with great difficulty that was exacerbated by what he later discovered was a family history of dyslexia.
Then there is the story of his name, which is so perfect as to seem to have ordained his future as a poet. Born Vinh Quoc, his mother renamed him Ocean after learning that it was a word whose referent joined the United States to Vietnam. “She actually thought it was just the Pacific,” Vuong adds, that “the Atlantic would be called something else.” By age three, he had been rechristened, and his mother was calling him Sóng, the Vietnamese word for “wave,” and a near-perfect homonym for sống, which means “to live.” “I love that so much,” Vuong says. “Her translation, it’s a little off, right? It was just perfect.” Later, she offered to let him give up his name—unsurprisingly, it was made fun of by his schoolmates—but Vuong decided to keep it. “What happened there was that she found pleasure in discovery and relating language to meaning. I just thought, well, she’s proud of herself. And it’s a rare moment for someone like my mother to be proud.”
Throughout his life Vuong has watched people regard his mother as unintelligent because of her illiteracy. This has made the interaction between the written word and its absence “vital” to his work. It informs his fondness for the ampersand, because it functions as a pictorial. It even overpowered his leeriness about the idea of including an author photograph in the back of
“Displacement, immigration and war are some of the most common factors of human history, so I always insist with a little mischievousness that I’m writing something very normal.”
When Vuong entered the literary world, his life suddenly acquired a “rarefied” aspect, “this social capital of scarcity.” But he regards that as “part of the unchecked elitism of the literary world,” where those who can enter are often middle class and so middle class narratives proliferate. “The fact of the matter is that displacement, immigration and war are some of the most common factors of human history, so I always insist with a little mischievousness that I’m writing something very normal, very common. In fact, perhaps the middle class story is the exotic, is the rare, privileged gem that very few people get to experience.”
Vuong’s poetry is energetically recombinant of all the forms, questions, and events—public and private, past and present—that have forged him. Night Sky is a writing into being, the production of a personal mythology from the brink of disappearance. It is mythological and consequently ritualistic, beginning by the crossing of a “Threshold” and ending with a “Devotion.” To arrive at the present it reaches first into the past. A man and a woman make love during the fall of Saigon, as the city resounds with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” “Immigrant Haibun,” Vuong tells me, depicts his parents immigrating in a wine bottle.
But if the collection exhibits a rough chronology, from origins that precede existence to young adulthood and tentative, then assured explorations of queer sexuality, it is not to suggest that time is either tight or linear. Vuong’s point is precisely that war does not end simply because forces withdraw and the dead are buried. It persists in memory, in PTSD, even in inheritance, symbolized by the monarch butterflies of “My Father Writes from Prison” and Vuong’s
I ask him about “My Father Writes from Prison,” an imagined letter from his father to his mother that begins in Vietnamese and melts into English. Halfway through, Vuong seems to express ambivalence about taking on this guise: “again dear Lan or / Lan oi what does it matter.” Vuong tells me that in taking up other voices he is occupied by a “sense of loss,” because “those voices never speak in this way or have ever spoken.” His father really was in prison, but it was a Communist prison, and letters, if they came at all, were censored. In writing poems like this, Vuong seeks “not necessarily to speak for anyone, but to offer a rendition—in a way a phantom—of what could have been . . . Every attempt to speak is also a grieving of the voice that never arrived.” Speaking for someone who never spoke is also a way of paying homage to the absurdism and surrealism of the myriad mythologies that inspire him, tales which “ignore all rational sense” because they come out of a “nonsensical” world. “I think I stand firmly as an inventor and a mythmaker.”
Among the events chronicled in Night Sky that did occur in the poet’s own lifetime, 9/11 constitutes a boundary in the same way it did for Vuong’s adolescence. The poem “Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown)” unfolds on the day the planes hit the Twin Towers, but it is also about the queer friends Vuong lost growing up to suicide and drug addiction: “my greatest accolade was to walk / across the Brooklyn Bridge / & not think of flight.” It is titled for a work of the painter Mark Rothko, who likewise took his own life. “9/11 became for me, personally, this charged spectacle of public American collapse,” Vuong says. “And in some ways it signified what I felt on the private scale as a queer American, experiencing my own American collapse. For the first time I saw a public rupture that was as devastating as a private rupture where you get a phone call and your best friend is gone because he took his own life. The scale is very different, I don’t want to compare them, but the feeling . . . When 9/11 happened, people openly wept in public.” It was “at once terrifying, but also I felt relief, because I felt like what I felt privately was no longer something I had to be ashamed of. Grief was something that could happen and could be performed,” though, he notes, “it’s sad that we live in a culture where it took such heavy and total blows for grief to be allowable in a public space.”
Vuong never expected to make a living as a poet—he lasted three weeks in a marketing degree at Pace University—but he “just did it until I was so deep into it that I realized, wait, it is what I’m doing.” He is currently working on his first novel.
In a 2013 interview, he described being plagued when writing poetry by the question: “Could I be doing something better with these hands?” In the “macro sense,” he says, he no longer has this question, in that poetry has become “a career, a life . . . I teach, I have a salary,” a kind of solidification for which he is grateful. “You know, this is it. In a way this is all I got.” Before he became a professional poet, Vuong worked at Panera, and before that in a tobacco field. “So this has been the best option for me. It’s the only thing I’m really good at. And that’s on a good day . . . Some days it’s terrible. But I can’t complain.”
It is true, however, that the “act of writing is always haunted by what I know my family does to live. When I give a reading and I get a check . . . I look at that and sometimes it’s their week’s work, it’s their month’s work. And that never goes away, this awareness that the value of work is still so elusive and abstract to me.” It is, he says, “a haunting and grinding effect. But, again, I gave myself permission to go forward because now as opposed to before I’m committed to this. There’s no turning back.”
“I didn’t know I could be a writer and publish. It took optimism, optimism grounded in compassion, grounded in service.”
The idea of commitment recurs when Vuong speaks to me about optimism. “For myself, optimism is not the sort of blinding, delusional, hope for the best, pull yourself up from the bootstraps and go for it—that very manifest destiny, machismo American spirit.” For him, it “has to be grounded on actual possibilities. When I think about what it means to be an optimist, I think about the work that can happen and the bonds that can happen when I commit to this work.” For Vuong, it starts small. By way of demonstration, he explains that he started writing books because he wanted to repay his friends, “these great artists, these musicians and painters,” for their kindnesses. “I was just sort of a bratty little brother that made a mess of things.” So he determined that he would write poems on postcards to give as gifts: “Like, ‘Hey! I’m doing something too.’ And they encouraged me. That was how it began. I didn’t know I could be a writer and publish. It took optimism, optimism grounded in compassion, grounded in service.”
Perhaps, he says, he is speaking “out of naiveté of youth,” but for now, in everything that has failed, he has also found something to salvage. Vuong admits that some days he does “feel hopeless,” but that he is “smart enough now” to know he has to wait out, because acting on hopelessness only leads to self-destruction. “I think that no matter how difficult it is we have a choice of what we hold for ourselves,” he says, an approach that for Vuong lends itself to the day-to-day as well as it does to one’s approach to “the complicated, violent Western canon” or national holidays of independence.
July 4th, he tells me, always reminds him of Frederick Douglass’ famous 1841 speech about the value of that celebration to the enslaved. At different times, including this one, the trail of our conversation has looped back to the idea of monuments, and Vuong’s hesitation around cultural restoration that effaces histories of violence. “If we allow ourselves to look at July 4th as a monument, and if a monument invites redefinition, then for me it’s not necessarily a blind celebration, but an interrogation.” He points out that fireworks are known to trigger some veterans with PTSD, and that they, like fighter jet displays, are “extremely militaristic.” “What does it mean when we talk about peace, when we talk about the safety of black bodies, of POC bodies, of trans bodies? When we celebrate our country with the spectacle of destruction, what does it mean?” he asks.
The day after our conversation, Vuong reads, in his soft, steady voice, to a room full of Italians. They are particularly moved, it seems to me, by “Seventh Circle of Earth,” a poem referencing the sphere of Dante’s inferno where homosexuals are punished by fire, in the voice of one among a gay couple who were murdered and set ablaze in their Dallas home in 2011. It is written as footnotes to a non-existent text, the solitary notations wafting like smoke up to the sky. Imagining the couple and the house they built together, Vuong writes, “Look how happy we are / to be no one / & still / American.”
No matter how difficult it is, we have a choice of what we hold for ourselves. The luxury of this position, Vuong says, is that he can leave behind what is problematic about the American tradition and take what is useful, like “the very admirable spirit of cohesion and redefining through innovative forms an American poetics for myself.”
That, he says, “is what manic spirit I chose to carry.”