Literary wanderings: Ocean Vuong on grief and the violence of the English language

ocean vuong graphic
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

Taking the stage for a reading at Sixth & I in Washington, D.C., Ocean Vuong is met with a roar of applause. He cuts a thin, slender figure on the otherwise empty stage, waving at the still-cheering crowd. 

After a quick bow, he walks to the podium and leans into the mic. “Can you hear me OK? No? OK, now, now?” His soft voice blankets the room. “I get louder as I get braver,” he says, smiling shyly and laughing with the audience. 

It’s a sold-out event, and, despite the rain, the room is full. Without much preamble, he cracks open a jacket-less copy of his recently released poetry collection, “Time is a Mother,” and begins to read. His beautifully gentle, lilting voice is given fresh energy and resonance as he begins reading “Beautiful Short Loser,” one of the longer poems in the book. 

“Where I’m from it’s only midnight for a second / & the trees are like grandfathers laughing in the rain.” As the remainder of the poem spills out across the rows of full benches, the packed room, minutes ago filled with the chorus of hundreds of cheers, is hushed into a reverent silence. 

To say Ocean Vuong has had a meteoric rise in the last several years would be something of an understatement. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he moved to the United States as a young boy with his mother, Rose. The two settled in the small town of Hartford, Connecticut, where his mother worked at a nail salon for twenty-five years, supporting them both. Reflecting on that season of his life, Vuong recalled in an interview that he wasn’t able to fluidly read books in English until he was eleven — but that hasn’t stopped him since. 

Beginning with his breakout poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” which won a slew of literary awards in 2016, Vuong has established himself as one of the brightest and most startling new voices in American literature. 

Three years later, his highly anticipated autobiographical novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” once again revealed the stunning imagery and searing depth of emotion that he is capable of on the page. The book is written in the form of a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. It slowly unfolds his coming-of-age story, woven tightly within their deeply complex but equally loving relationship. In the novel, as well as in his poetry and essays, the character of Vuong’s mother is woven throughout: as a scarred survivor of war, a fiercely protective parent and a deeply loving mother. 

It is nothing short of one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. 

Like many of the stories undergirding Vuong’s blossoming literary career, his first novel was written in what is best described as unusual circumstances. In an interview shortly after the book’s release, he describes living in an apartment in New York City with noisy roommates and seeking refuge and silence in his closet in order to write. 

“I know, for a gay writer, the irony is not lost on me,” he laughs. “But I thought, ‘I’m gonna go in there, and reclaim that place’ and you know, it was beautiful. You go in there and what once was a prison for me, I turned into a portal to write this book. I went in there with a little lamp and my laptop, it was perfect.”

That same year, at only thirty years old, he received a MacArthur “genius” grant for his distinctive contribution as “a vital new literary voice demonstrating mastery of multiple poetic registers while addressing the effects of intergenerational trauma, the refugee experience and the complexities of identity and desire.”

He writes with such breadth — spanning poetry, fiction, and essays — yet brings the same quietly beautiful and heartbreaking atmosphere to each. He also possesses a keen, perceptive gaze, mining his adopted language, uncovering the subtle things it says about those who speak it. 

Perhaps his most stark observation is the violence that reigns so pervasively in English. In a poem titled “Old Glory,” Vuong pours over the reader in a relentless, wincing flood.

“Knock ‘em dead, big guy. Go in there / guns blazing, buddy. You crushed / at the show. No, it was a blowout. No, / a massacre…” 

It goes on. Each line is a slap in the face, a stinging reminder of the violence that hovers and infects even the common space of our everyday conversations. 

It is this careful observation, combined with an equally stunning mastery of language, that gives Vuong’s writing its physical and emotional power. At only one hundred and twenty-eight pages, he is able to explore a truly mind-bending range of concepts. 

However, as with nearly all his work, one subject presides over them all. 

While the novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” focuses on the intimate relationship between mother and son, Vuong’s most recent poetry collection grapples with grief in the wake of her passing.

Rose Vuong passed away in 2019 after being diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer at the age of fifty-one. “Time is a Mother” is, in many ways, a tribute to her. While she was never able to read one of his poems, she did attend a reading of his in Hartford before her tragic death, seeing how his words affected people. 

One of the collection’s final poems, titled “Dear Rose,” is another sprawling letter from son to mother: the deeply touching farewell of a child-become-adult saying, ‘goodbye, I love you, we made it.’

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. For those interested in exploring Ocean Vuong’s work, his 2014 essay “The Weight of Our Living” in The Rumpus is moving, graceful and damn near perfect.

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