Ocean Vuong Is Still Learning | Interview at The New Yorker
The author of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and the new poetry collection “Time Is a Mother” has won a MacArthur “genius” grant, yet keeps his white-belt approach to writing.
Ocean Vuong was two when he immigrated with his family to the United States from Vietnam. They settled in Hartford, Connecticut, with seven relatives sharing a one-bedroom apartment. At the time, their lives were defined by survival. His father left one day and never came back. His mother worked long hours at a nail salon. Vuong was the first member of the family to learn to read and write proficiently. He was eleven.
As a teen-ager, witness to the opioid abuse and casual hopelessness common in post-industrial New England, Vuong realized that he needed to leave Connecticut. He attended Pace University, in Manhattan, where he planned to study business. But he quickly discovered that this was not for him. He enrolled at Brooklyn College. “I just thought if I could get a degree, I could tell my mother it was bioscience or whatever,” he says. “I just wanted to get the cap and gown.” At Brooklyn College, he studied literature and began taking writing courses. “Once in a while, you get a student who’s not testing to be a writer, but who is already one,” the novelist and poet Ben Lerner, who taught Vuong at Brooklyn College, has said.
Before receiving his M.F.A. at N.Y.U., Vuong published his first collection, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” a soaring, sober consideration of his family’s absorption into the American fold, in 2016. Three years later, he published a beautifully meditative novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” which borrowed from his own life growing up queer and surrounded by despair and addiction. That same year, he received a MacArthur “genius” grant. Two months after news of the MacArthur Fellowship was made official, his mother, who had inspired so much of his work, died from cancer.
Vuong has spent most of the past few years in Northampton, Massachusetts, and he taught nearby at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He lives with his partner and with his half-brother, whom he took in following their mother’s death. His latest collection of poetry is “Time Is a Mother,” which is full of concentrated, kaleidoscopic riffs on the feelings and sounds, the delirious highs and darkest lows, that make up contemporary life. He has also finished a screenplay for a film adaptation of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” The process required him to learn an entirely new genre of writing. “I’m most myself when I’m learning,” he said. “In martial arts, it’s called the white-belt mentality. So even if you have a black belt, the black belt starts to corrode and dissolve if you don’t approach the art as a white belt.”
Vuong spoke from his apartment in Manhattan, where he is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at N.Y.U. He will join the faculty of N.Y.U.’s Creative Writing M.F.A. Program.
I know that you’re enthusiastic about teaching. I’ve always wondered how you balance writing with teaching. Can you do both simultaneously?
I learned that I can’t write and teach. I can only go a hundred and ten per cent. That’s my only register. And so I give all to the students, and then I have nothing left for my work. It’s important to keep them separated.
Do you feel the need to give students written feedback that is as measured and thoughtful as your creative work?
I think my approach with my work and my teaching is just a disposition of mine, and it works really well in those avenues. It doesn’t work well, you know, at home. [Laughs.] My mode is thoroughness at all costs. Whether it’s my fiction or my poetry, I just go over it again and again, I make sure I did everything I could, I play devil’s advocate with myself. Same with my students. I tend to over-teach . . . not that I’m giving them more knowledge than they need, but I teach beyond the point of what’s relevant. It may have something to do with growing up bilingual and seeing your elders, who are so powerful to you, not being heard. I think I internalized a lot of that, where I just think, Am I being heard?
As a teacher, it’s really good because I just stop for like fifteen minutes and go on a huge digression, I give them all the sources they can read up on to help this one point. And they love it. It exhausts me, but I don’t know any other way. I just have to do it that way, but I’m starting to think it might be because I worry about not being understood, because I’ve seen my family have that verbal invisibility throughout their lives.
That’s really interesting. I find myself sometimes stressing out about writing student feedback in a way that I don’t feel stress when writing professionally. And I think maybe it does come out of some insecurity about my authority. And I’ve sometimes wondered if everyone carries that with them, or whether it does have to do with lineage or not having those models of “visibility” you’re describing.
I don’t think of it as correcting their work as they hand it in but as offering them tools to create the next version. It’s, like, what you’ve done is what you’ve done. It’s there, it’s “finished,” and you have it. We’re gonna build the blueprint for the next draft. And so I just go all in. It doesn’t really undo what they’ve done. You have what you have. Here’s the future—if you want it. Another way to go about it. I just dump everything onto that stage. And then you hand it to them, and you can only wish them well in what they wanna do with that.
You grew up in the Northeast and you’ve lived in western Massachusetts for the past few years. You went to college in Brooklyn, you lived in Queens, and this semester you’re in Manhattan. Do you find your writing is different based on where you find yourself?
You would think so, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. I thought about this a lot, because I’ve been so transient in my career so far—I haven’t been able to find a place and hunker down. Even while I was in New York, we kept moving neighborhoods. I can work literally anywhere. It’s actually my only skill. I have this ability to have an O.C.D. approach to reading and writing. I have this uncanny ability to just dive in, to go into la-la land. And maybe it’s because I grew up queer and poor in a very rough environment. It was the power to escape. The imagination was a portal. It was my time machine. It was my everything. By now I’m just so good at it that I could literally write anywhere other than maybe a techno club or something.
What is the weirdest place you’ve written something that you’ve ended up using?
There was a Popeyes around Fourteenth Street that I would always go to. They had a corner seat and it was always open. Because it’s a franchise, it was almost like you don’t have to think about your surroundings. I wrote a lot in a Popeyes in Manhattan.
I’m surprised more people don’t do that. Most people write in cafés, but I always find the preponderance of other people writing to be off-putting. You look over, someone’s working on a screenplay, someone else has track changes open. But if you’re at a McDonald’s or a Popeyes, it can be a pretty tranquil environment by comparison.
Yeah. Because no one cares. And also, if you’re reading, it’s almost like kryptonite in that space. It’s, like, no one wants to go to a Popeyes to have anything to do with work. They go there to get Popeyes and go on their way. It’s very transient. When you are static in that space, you realize that you almost become invisible. The location absorbs you, which is a wonderful way to work. I used to do that also in the food court in the New World Mall, in Flushing.
Your writing has always shown a lot of awareness to the world around it. I’m not a student of poetry, so maybe I’m drawn to these very obvious, basic things about your work. I don’t have the technical language for it. But I love how you borrow so much from the language of our time—in “Time Is a Mother,” there is a reference to the singer Ashanti, a poem that is essentially an Amazon shopping list, another that captures the rhythm of an AOL chat. What do you want us to recognize about everyday speech?
This is my proudest book. Usually, at this point in publication, I regret everything. If I could get another shot at it, delay the book for two years, I’d take it. Happened with the novel, happened with the poems. But this time I feel really happy in that, as an artist . . . I don’t know if it’s good or “successful,” but I feel like I didn’t compromise anything. And I got to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to embrace all linguistic registers that are contemporaneous to me.
I played with that a little more in the novel, but I certainly did not have the courage or the chutzpah to do it in “Night Sky.” “Night Sky” dealt with a lot of family inheritance of stories. It was material that I was inheriting, and I couldn’t make it too affecting. I didn’t want to use too much linguistic altering . . . it had to be austere. That was my decision. I didn’t want to laugh at it, at the risk of a white audience laughing with me, and thereby laughing at something I never experienced, the trauma of my elders. It was a fine line, and I couldn’t risk that. It was a very sombre book, but it didn’t feel like what I was capable of. It’s a very classic début book, in that I showed all the tools that I learned to get a seat at the table. The sharp imagery, the metaphor, the restraint. I showed the long poem, I showed the short lyric poem.
Were you conscious at that time that you were following this formula for a “début book?”
I think so. ’Cause I’m such a student, I love being a student of the form. I put the references in and I kind of just followed the models of my elders. But it was a very insecure book. It was kind of, like, Do I belong here? Do I really have this?
In the new book, one of the voices that you take in is that of your cousin Sara, in the poem “Dear Sara,” when she questions the point of writing at all. She asks, “What’s the point of writing if you’re just gonna force a bunch of ants to cross a white desert?”
She’s a genius. She’s gonna be, like, a senator one day. She’s twelve. And when she said that she was just seven, and I was trying to show her how to write. She was actually trying to get out of it. The rhetoric is that this doesn’t matter. At the time, I was stumped. [Laughs.] You know, I was just, like, “Oh, my god, O.K. All right. Well . . . let’s go get ice cream!”
But it haunted me. I was, like, Oh, my god, here I am doing this thing, and . . . I’m a tyrant! She gave me this perspective . . . I’m a tyrant of insects. And [the poem] was this long rebuttal and it was an embrace at the same time. The rhetoric of the poem is that “you’re right, what are we doing?” And I think there was ultimate sympathy with the desire of a child that wants to live and stay in childhood. Who cares, at the end, about language? Just go out there and play. As we grow older, we just cherish that. I don’t remember moments of reading as much as I remember moments of embodying the world and space. In a way, she really helped me think of that. And the poem negotiates, and earns, her position. I wanted to earn a shared experience with her, earn my agreement with her rather than just say, you know, you’re right or wrong.
In this case, you were clearly mulling over Sara’s provocation. In other cases, where do you begin writing a poem? Is it a word, an image, an idea?
Every poet could probably tell you something different, but for me there’s two general modes. One is the poem of the premise, and the other is the poem of the line. The line is similar to a jazz riff. You have a good line and then you try to build on that. It’s much more playful, it’s much more exploratory. The poem “Almost Human” is like that. I started with this line: “I come from a people of sculptors whose masterpiece was rubble.” And I was, like, “Wow, how do I use that line?”
A premise poem is like the “Sara” poem. I’m gonna retort and explore this statement. And I knew that I wanted to find common ground with her. That was my goal, similar to an essay or even a chapter in a novel. It’s, like, where are we gonna end up at the end of this chapter? Is there gonna be a divorce? How do we engineer that? There’s “American Legend,” which is another premise poem. Two Asian Americans are gonna do this quintessentially American thing. A father and son driving a Ford to put down their dog. It’s so suburban. I was very interested in putting Asian American bodies in mundane American acts, almost to the point of boredom.
There’s another poem, “Old Glory,” where you recount all these everyday phrases (“Knock ’em dead,” “I’d smash it/ good,” “You truly/ murdered”) that remind us how much of our speech is casually inflected with violence.
That poem was very uncomfortable to write and even to read. It’s a found poem: you take these pieces and put them together. I wanted to do something that only the poem could do. Only the poem could show us that. We hear these phrases all the time, we might even say some of these phrases, but they’re diluted in the larger context, and they come at us sporadically through the day, through the media, different voices say them. We don’t notice them. But then, when we take out all the other context and just stack them together, it becomes brutal in its truths.
I was trying to explain this to my aunt, this lexicon of American violence, and she was utterly horrified. She’s, like, “Why would they use those words?” ’Cause in the Vietnamese context—and it might be similar to Chinese—words are like spells. If you talk about death, death visits you, so you don’t talk about death at the dinner table. There’s a lot of taboo around speech and how it brings forth the darkness. And so, for my aunt, it was totally foreign to her, you know? That’s what I wanted to create. I wanted to create a foreign experience of something very familiar.
Right. In Chinese, there are homophonic puns, so that in Mandarin the word for “four” sounds like the word for “death,” and the number is tainted by association. So even the word for a number conjures something taboo.
Chinese and Vietnamese culture is so much older than America. And I think, in this sense, America is still immature. I would argue that the way it renders and handles language is still quite primitive for a nation and a culture that has so much technological prowess. It’s actually quite archaic in how it imagines the capacity of language, and, and in this sense, Chinese and Vietnamese culture are way ahead, both in the time line, but also culturally, in their wisdom. On good days, I believe that America might end up with that wisdom eventually. We often see these foreign countries as “behind,” but we only measure that in G.D.P. and technology. But when it comes to the spiritual wisdom of how to handle something like language, Vietnam is way ahead, and I hope America catches up one day.
You mentioned that, in your first book, “Night Sky,” you weren’t yet ready to bring in these different registers. Were you already thinking about how to do this, and you just weren’t publishing those works, or were you not yet at a level of artistic maturity where you felt like you could do it?
I just didn’t have the courage. Writing a book of poems is a wonderful education for a young writer because it forces you to keep finding new registers. It also forces you to find more premises. A book of poems . . . thirty, thirty-five poems, right? That’s thirty, thirty-five ideas. A novel, maybe one or two ideas expanded through plot and time and character. But when it comes to poems, you can’t really repeat [the premise] over and over. You gotta find completely different angles. And then you gotta find different registers, tones, styles, modes, forms. I was happy enough, but it was only about sixty per cent of what I really wanted to do at the time.
I’m drawn to this idea of courage on the page. For example, you quote the late rapper Lil Peep in “Not Even.” You bring in other voices, like your cousin Sara’s, and braid them through your work. Is part of this courage you’re describing about giving part of the page away to others?
The more I write, the more I realize that writing is predominantly a curatorial work and it’s about listening rather than making. “Poet” in Greek is a maker, but I think a maker at their best is a maker of space rather than a maker of objects. And so I think, for me, it’s about: How do I create space? That’s the harder work. And I think any architect will tell you that you’re sculpting space, you’re sculpting light. That’s much harder ’cause anyone can fill a page with themselves or their expressions, but how do you collaborate with the material world, with the cultural world? That, to me, was always something I wanted to do, but didn’t have enough confidence.
I realized that you could quote Lil Peep and the allusions of his life, what he writes about, his life and death, everything around why he was so popular as a cult figure . . . that already exists in that little line, right? ’Cause that poem is about grieving and collective and personal death. The beauty of collaborating is that you don’t have to change or alter the material. In this case: Lil Peep in the line. You can bring it in. And the presence itself, through proximity, starts to alter the tone. And this is how words work. This is how parataxis works. You put two things side by side and how they associate creates a new meaning.
Was there a point at which you realized that you now possess the courage or curatorial vision to do this?
I was building it for a long time. A lot of it’s not so much a public confidence. I think, on one hand, you could say, “You published two books that did well . . . ” and maybe that’s there. But, with this book, I didn’t feel that kind of confidence. It was more like . . . a guitarist who just knows the chords by now. And they’re just kind of bored, right? They’re bored of what they know. This book came together during the pandemic and right after my mother’s death. And I think that plays a crucial role in this sort of confidence, in that I just thought . . . My mother’s gone. It sounds crazy, but I don’t care after that, ’cause everything was for her. A single mom. She raised me and my half-brother, he’s ten years younger than me. He’s moved in with me now. So I’m kinda like a weird father.
I just thought, Who knows when it will be my turn on the deathbed? I can’t leave this without doing everything. And you know, my mother, she was never able to read. She got to see the impact of my work. She would go to my readings and turn her seat to the audience. She didn’t understand the words. She said, “I noticed that, as you talk, their faces change, their postures change, and I could see your words landing on them.” So it was almost like an anthropological moment for her, she just studied the mostly older white folks who go to these readings. This is the power of words.
On her deathbed, she said, “In my next life, I want to be a professor, like you.” It was the hardest thing to hear. She was literally hours away from dying. I think when you go through that and you realize so many of your folks wanted to do this, so many immigrants, the refugees that are displaced now in Ukraine, so many of them want to be writers and artists, but they’re gonna have to forego that. They’re gonna have to surrender that. And their children, if they’re lucky, might be able to do it. This very cyclical ecology of the writer’s life comes with so much sacrifice. And I just thought, I don’t care. I have to do everything here, ’cause who cares if it matters to anybody else, it has to mean something to me.
Your mother passed in 2019. How soon afterward did you feel capable of writing about her?
It’s interesting that there aren’t that many explicit poems about her. I don’t possess her death. She does. I experienced her dying, but I don’t possess it. And so there’s no poems depicting that moment. To me, it’s abstracted toward grief. That’s why poems are so great, because they’re seeded in the mode of mythology. And so you can argue that these are myths of the experience of losing one’s mother. I realize, looking at these poems, I’ve always been grieving and—and maybe it’s specific to me, maybe it’s something this generation is very accustomed to. You go from 9/11 to the recession to the drug epidemic.
I don’t know what it was like for folks in the forties and fifties or the sixties, but every young person I speak to has a friend that was lost too young. I think grief is actually something so foundational to this generation. I was, like, Why am I a veteran at this at thirty? I started looking at this body of work, and there’s already social, collective, personal, and communal grief embedded into it. And so, instead of just writing a book about grief, I realize that I’ve always been writing about this. And now I’m just embracing my mother’s loss into this thing that I’ve always been working with.
Do you write things that are too intimate, or personal in a way that you would prefer to keep to yourself?
No. I write very seldom. I don’t write every day. I’m not someone who just sits down and figures it out. I write about five poems a year. That’s a very good year. And out of those five, four I would be happy with. That doesn’t mean I don’t fail, but I do a lot of failing in here. [Points to head.] There’s already a lot of drafting in here. I’m just very selective when I actually commit to composition. Once I sit down to write, chances are it’s gonna be something I’m gonna publish. I’m not a diary keeper, I don’t really write for myself. This is my job. I treat it seriously. How can I turn this into something meaningful for others? And you don’t know that answer, but you gotta just raise the standard for yourself all the time, and hope that it translates. How can this be useful in the translation to the public? ’Cause that’s what writing is: communication. If I’m communicating to myself, I would just talk to myself. I do that a lot, too. I just iron out my ideas by talking them out. And so my diary is in the air, if you will.
Dyslexia runs in my family. Maybe it’s not so much an illness. But because we come from thousands of years of rice farmers who have never read, reading is just not in the genetic evolution of my specific family. We never had to. But we spoke the spoken word, the oral tradition. When I’m stuck at a poem, usually it’s on a phrase. And I would stop writing and lift that phrase, almost treat it like a haiku and then solve it. I’ll take it on a walk, I’ll repeat it over and over and try to solve the logic in the image. A lot of my writing is just solving it verbally. It’s faster. Why write a sentence over and over when you can say it hundreds of times within a few minutes. It’s just much more efficient.
You mentioned that your brother moved in with you after your mother’s passing. Did you gain any new insights into your mother’s experience or the act of parenting in the course of taking him in?
My brother’s dyslexic. He’s much more severe than I am. That knocked his confidence growing up, you know, thinking that he was “stupid” when, in fact, he had a learning disability. So it’s been really wonderful to be close. We’re very different people. He’s a sneakerhead, a hypebeast, video games, a car head. I’m learning a lot about shoes. We don’t have any shared interests. But we know each other almost magnetically. We’re calmer when we’re in the room, we’re braver when we’re next to each other. I would never believe in that kind of juju stuff, but we’re so close without being close at all.
You have to kind of be a parent. Like, I have curfews, I have rules. But being refugees, the idea of a “family unit” was always amorphous, especially an Asian family. Our grandmother lived with us, it was a village. That was actually much more capacious than the American nuclear family. Of course my brother would come live with me. He’ll probably live with me forever. And if he has kids they’ll live in the same house, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Has he tried to get you into really cool shoes or anything?
He keeps trying to get me to get Yeezys. I actually like them—the 350s. I really like them aesthetically. But I have this immigrant mentality where I can’t buy a seven-hundred-dollar shoe and then step into the world with them. I can’t do it. I can afford it, but I just feel so guilty. I haven’t committed. But I think he’s gonna sway me one day.
After Thich Nhat Hanh’s death, you wrote this remarkable post for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation’s Web site reflecting on your Buddhist faith. In this mini-essay, you said that you did not yet “possess the merit to devote to a monastic life.” How does your spiritual practice interface with your writing process?
It influences everything first and foremost, because I think it teaches me how to be interested in people. And I think there’s a lot of talk about language as a writer, but I do believe that to be a good writer you have to be interested in people, and being interested in people means having compassion for the human condition. And I think that’s one of the things that losing my mother really taught me and solidified for me. I can be really upset or having a bad day with somebody, a co-worker or a peer or something. And I look at them and I say, “Oh, you’re gonna lose your mother.”
It’s the one universal thing that I believe in. I’m very skeptical of universality, especially when it comes to how we approach art. But I think the loss of a mother or the loss of someone who has mothered you, that is the closest common ground that we have together. To me, having interest in people and how that interest leads to compassion informs everything I write. The language becomes a tool to make that manifest.
It’s also hard because, being a writer, everything is amplified. The selfhood is amplified. It’s literally replicated on the book, right? There’s “Ocean Vuong” on every copy. And I have to be vigilant of how that affects the ego. If you believe in your hype too much, you actually start to lose sight of people. And when you lose sight of people you lose your capacity for compassion and understanding and clarity and thinking and capaciousness in thought. So I have to be vigilant. Two for two is unheard of for any writer, let alone a young one.
It’s important for me to wake up believing that everything I do is tied to my career as a writer but also it has to be removed from what I’ve achieved. I start every day with two empty hands. Writing something, even writing something well, teaches you really nothing about how to write the next thing. You’re always starting over.