Ocean Vuong: As a child I would ask: Whats napalm?
How did a Vietnamese refugee come to write what many are hailing as the great American novel?
While he was an undergraduate, Ocean Vuong formed the habit of writing at night. During the day, he studied literature at Brooklyn College and worked in a cafe. At night, he stayed up writing poems. It wasnt just the sense of isolation that comes from being the only one awake, when you look out of the window and its completely dark and youre at sea in this little ship. It was more that writing in the off-hours relaxed his knack for self-criticism. You get the last word of the day, he says. The editor in your head the nagging, insecure, worrisome social editor starts to retire. When that editor falls asleep, I get to do what I want. The cats out to play.
The poems that came out of those night-time efforts were published in 2016 as Night Sky With Exit Wounds, the success of which still amazes the author the book won a Whiting award that year, and in 2017 scooped both the Forward prize and the TS Eliot prize. Vuong, who is 30, was not from a background from which writers traditionally emerge. As a two-year-old, he had been brought to the US from Vietnam as a refugee and settled with his family in the working-class town of Hartford, Connecticut. No one in his family spoke English. When his father left, his mother got work in a nail salon, menial work for little reward and a quality of life that Vuong had no particular expectation of exceeding. If Night Sky tackled the absent father as myth, then his debut novel, On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous, reckons with the mother and grandmother who raised him and it is the influence of these women courageous, difficult, devastated by the ripple effect of the Vietnam war that forms the spine of the novel and asks the central question: after trauma, how do we love?
We are in Vuongs open-plan living room in Northampton, Massachusetts, a leafy college town where he teaches creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Peter, his partner of 10 years, has taken the dog out. Vuong is slight, with a silver earring in one ear and the habit of pushing his tortoiseshell glasses up his nose. He speaks, as he writes, in poetic imagery, what he calls the metaphor as autobiography of the gaze. In the novel, the world seen through a speeding car window surges by like sidewise gravity. A bird on a windowsill appears not as a bucolic symbol but a charred pear. To Little Dog, the protagonist so named by his family to protect him beneath a cloak of worthlessness the world is an ugly place, in which beauty is made more so for the improbability of existing at all. Freedom, he says, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.
That On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous is one of the most anticipated novels of the year the novelist Max Porter has called it staggeringly beautiful, observing that it seems obvious now that a gay young poet born in Saigon would write the great American novel is, in large part, down to its perfect engineering, a piece of autobiographical fiction that avoids all the traps of that genre. It is fluid, moving the way thought moves, in circles not lines, and written in the form of a letter to Little Dogs mother that he knows shell never read. It is easy to imagine a bad version of this novel in which any one of its preoccupations might have overgrown to capsize it. It might have been the Opioid Novel, or the Vietnam Novel, or the Exploitative World of the Nail Salon novel. It might have been the Gay Adolescent Love novel or the Violent Childhood novel, all themes that are touched upon lightly while still assuming a fully weighted presence in the narrative. How Vuong does this is a mystery, as is the seamlessness with which he moves between scenes of violence in the Vietnam war to scenes of violence in the home in Connecticut, to love scenes with a doomed boy called Trevor. The book has a poetic density that is at once elliptical and unflinching in its gaze, a testimony to the endlessly complicated dynamics of damage. Sometimes being offered tenderness, writes Vuong, feels like the very proof that youve been ruined.
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/09/ocean-vuong-on-earth-we-are-briefly-gorgeous-interview
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