Friday, Jun. 7, 7 p.m., free
Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh
Ocean Vuong’s slow, measured vocal cadence disrupts quick, conversational pacing. The result is a great deal of waiting and unexpected stillness. The acclaimed poet’s much-anticipated debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, has a similar effect, undoing time by rethinking how we tell (and retell) personal stories. An autobiographical, epistolary novel addressed to Vuong’s mother, it explores the intertwined reverberations of generational trauma, war violence, queer masculinity, and the precariousness of immigrant experience in the United States.
Like Vuong’s debut collection of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016), which won the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Whiting Award, his novel reads like an effort to “un-map” the terrain of U.S.-American experience through the perspectives of the Vietnamese diaspora. In the novel as in the poems, stories take unexpected turns, from the nail salon where his mother worked to the quiet viciousness of his grandmother’s PTSD to scenes of queer intimacy exchanged between farmhands over a sports broadcast.
I had a lot of myself to bring to this conversation. My mother immigrated here from Vietnam in 1975, and so much of what Vuong describes in his novel felt like distinct but related memories. “My education as a writer began way before I ever set foot in a university,” he says. “It began in the kitchen with the women in my family. They were artists. I might be the first to read and write, but I am not the first poet in my family.” In his novel, Vuong distills the monstrous artistry of survival in the U.S.-American climate. This is precisely the moment for his kind of attention, for unexpected stillness, which invites urgent reflection on some of the most neglected contours of historical violence and its relentless repercussions.
INDY: In the familial relations you explore in your novel you touch on the complexities of the Vietnamese diaspora and its relationship to generational trauma. What is the relationship between language and regeneration?
OCEAN VUONG: Language itself is creation, and one of the reasons why I wrote this novel was to have language be another character in the book: its development, its uses, its growth throughout the novel and throughout our human species. It’s absolutely integral to our species, and even more so when we’re negotiating the language of war and diaspora. Our ancestors sat around a campfire, and we looked up at the stars, and one of us said, that looks like a little cup, and someone else said, that looks like a lion. We thought we were just pointing out observations, but what we were really doing was revealing ourselves through language. Every person is an archive and we often forget that. We think that language is something that’s standardized. Like we just learn it and carry on with the rest of our professional life. But in fact, it is like water, we’re moving through it with one another.
Where did you come from and how did you arrive? Or, in other words, who are you and whom do you love?
I was born right outside of Saigon. I arrived in America, in many ways, through war; the very factor of war fashioned my American identity. With this book, I wanted to question where American identity begins. And for the character Little Dog in the novel, his identity does not begin when he steps on American soil. It begins when the first American bomb fell on Vietnam. In other words, American identity begins with American foreign policy and American violence. And he is loved first and foremost in that book by women, as am I. I wanted to write a book that honors the women in my life and women in general, because it is often women that pick up the pieces that men create through war. I wanted to honor that without sugarcoating it, and I wanted to honor that by also portraying these characters as complex, difficult, challenging, and flawed—and therefore, more human—people.
In your terms, what is a mother? What is the relationship between survival and motherhood? In some sense, I think there’s something monstrous about motherhood, which you touch upon in the novel.
Yes, well, it depends on how you define “monster.” The root of the word “monster” is a person of multiple origins. What a wonderful way of looking at a mother! Particularly a mother who straddles multiple continents, cultures, roots and struggles with multiple languages.
The monster is also a liminal space and to me, a very queer space. It’s a roundabout with multiple forks. We often look at mixed race children—the “mulatto” figure—as doomed, as the product of a tragic situation. But survival for Little Dog’s mother is not tragedy. Survival for this mother is an incredibly creative act—one that is full of agency. Motherhood, to me, is innovation and a beautiful monstrosity.
Yes, that reminds me of my own mother. I consider her such a beautiful monstrosity [laughs], as a product of her specific experiences, or in that she’s mastered such an artistry of code-switching, of humor, of kleptomania in every sense of the word, in order to, in some senses, survive in a new country. Do you consider yourself a monster?
Absolutely [laughs]. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book the way I did. One of the reasons I was interested in the novel as a form was that it allows for uncompromising multitudes. In a lyric poem, we whittle down. We start somewhere and we’re sharpening little blades. In the novel, it’s all about expansion. I wanted to spin more and more webs, more and more monsters, and to follow them wherever they went. And a lot of times, in earlier drafts, it led to dead ends. That’s why I love the epistolary mode, because it’s not beholden to a plotline. The main plot is the dialogue. The main plot is the letter. You are allowed multiple detours. You are allowed meditation, introspection, and the queering of time.
One thing that I’ve inherited from my mother is the spectral: ghosts. I believe in them, I’m aware of them. They play a part of my life and writing. What is your relationship with your writing and ghosts? And also, who are you haunted by?
I’m haunted by the world. I think being a writer is a constant collaboration with the world. We look at motives, we do research for writing, and then all of a sudden it has an impact on our bodies, ourselves. No essences have a hard expiration date. There are ripples and ripple-effects. I mean, you and I are talking together because of a war that many people rightfully or wrongfully call “over.” And yet here we are, carrying its repercussions, for better or for worse.
And you mentioned your mother’s kleptomania. That is an example of one of the things that I wanted to reframe in this book: PTSD and epigenetic trauma. As much as much as it affects people’s lives negatively, I also want to think about it simultaneously as epigenetic strength. Oftentimes we think we are merely victims of catastrophe, but the victims are the one who did not make it out. We are, however, survivors, and there are aspects that shape that type of survival: the epigenetic traits and the information passed down from our parents and their parents allow us to access the strength to live. A lot of the pathology in PTSD is about displacement. Kleptomania, when you’re walking around a Target—not so great, during peacetime. Kleptomania in the middle of the minefield is your only way out. Kleptomania in a country bombarded by more bombs than all of World War II combined is actually ingenious. I wanted the book to honor those complexities, rather than just assigning shame to the victim.
This makes me think about a moment in your novel in which you mention a story as a type of “swallowing.” What did you have to swallow in order to write these stories?
I want to say everything, but I also want to be more specific. I think I had to swallow and almost destroy the myth of the hero in Western narratives. Even the antihero. I’m not interested in heroics at all. I knew from the get-go that I didn’t want to write a book that needed someone to be destroyed in order for the protagonist to prove their worth to the reader. Rather than focus on protagonists and antagonists, the tension in this novel is about proximity. Tension can be built upon proximity alone. People with complicated histories living side by side is enough drama. We know that’s true. We walk into a room with our mothers and we don’t need a plot line. The tension is there without asking for it.
And there seems to be a specific recognition of historical storytelling in Vietnamese culture, which often draws from mythologies, from half-truths. I feel like that’s related in some way to a complication of this myth of the hero, which can’t thrive or function correctly when the story isn’t linear or trustworthy.
Right. The story is like water. Like the Vietnamese word nước that means both “water” and “country.” So we identify home as water. Water is a slippery thing, but it gives us life. Memory is water.
Your new book is called On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. What do you remember about the Earth? If you were given a pen and a paper to sketch the Earth and had to draw it within, say, thirty seconds, maybe without language, what would you draw?
The best and perhaps most cliched response is that of a tree. I mean it’s the root, the fruit. You can cut a branch off and plant it in any good dirt and you have another tree. To me, that’s the ideal that we’re often told as children. “Draw a family tree.” My horror as a child was that I only had three or four names. My tree had a root and it didn’t reach the top at all, and I think about the tree as an organic, resilient moment of possibility, and we always contribute to its growth. I’m thinking about W.S. Merwin and that great line, “on the last day of the world, I will plant a tree.” That’s the first thing I think about. Now, when I think of Earth, I think of its perishing and its fragility because of where we are. I would like to plant a tree at the end of the Earth.
Speaking to finitude, to our future selves, as well as to potential future projects, how will or have you prepared for your death?
The odd thing is that I do this every day. It’s called death meditations. It’s a Zen Buddhist practice. I did it this morning. You sit down and imagine your death. It’s a practice of impermanence and it also should bring joy. And it does. All of your little quarrels go away when you are asked to hold death first thing in the morning. All the pettiness of having a human body falls away when you realize oh, yeah, that’s the destination. That’s not an option or a possibility. It’s a destination; the period at the end of every sentence that you write. When we do that, I think we live a little better. I always prepare for it.
Speaking as an artist, I never saw my writing as a career. And I still don’t. Maybe it’s because I come from a working-class Vietnamese family, but I never saw it as a career. If this novel and the book of poems were all I ever wrote, that would be a good life. If I were on my deathbed and saw these two books, I would be happy. I don’t think it’s a given that we become writers first and foremost and second, that we remain writers. I think a book is a singular act. Many folks live their whole lives wanting to write a book and for whatever reason they couldn’t. For me to be able to do it twice in two genres, that’s a good life. If I were to die at any time, I would be happy with what I’ve done.
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