One of the highlights of travel is the way it focuses and redirects your mind, both before, during, and after the trip. Before several recent ventures abroad, I’ve taken the opportunity to read books and hear talks from writers with life stories and perspectives that differ from mine. In preparing for an upcoming trip to Southeast Asia, I’ve taken advantage of this time to turn to writers who are new to me. These new voices have moved me in unexpected ways.
Among the talented and widely recognized new artists I’ve found in these explorations, the award-winning Vietnamese American writer Ocean Vuong stands out. As noted in his website biography,
Ocean Vuong is the author of The New York Times bestselling poetry collection, Time is a Mother (Penguin Press 2022), and The New York Times bestselling novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press 2019), which has been translated into 37 languages. A recipient of a 2019 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, he is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Vuong was born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, in a working-class family of nail salon and factory laborers. He began his study at a nearby community college before transferring to Pace University and then eventually finding his was to Brooklyn College, where he graduated with a BA in Nineteenth Century American Literature. He subsequently received his MFA in Poetry from NYU.
I read Vuong’s two most recent works. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a stunning piece of writing, especially for a first novel. Vuong has created a letter to his mother, who he knows will probably not be able to read it because of her limited grasp of English. But the work is much more about processing difficult memories, from his childhood in Vietnam to the move with his mother and grandmother to America, to his first love. As Heller McAlpin describes the plot for NPR,
Abused by his loving but mentally ill mother and tormented by schoolmates, the narrator, Little Dog, eventually finds solace in his first love affair, a tragic relationship with a rough American teenager ravaged by drugs. His true salvation, however, comes mostly in reading and writing, which cracks open his understanding of his family’s history.
Another part of the McAlpin review rang true to me.
Vuong writes of the new immigrant’s temporary nail salon work that becomes permanent, “a place where dreams become calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones — with or without citizenship — aching, toxic, and underpaid.” He writes of Tiger Woods, another mixed-race byproduct of the Vietnam War, and of Hartford, the former city of Mark Twain and Wallace Stevens, now a place of gunshots “where fathers were phantoms, dipping in and out of shadows and their children’s lives.”
This is not an easy book to read. The memories — as with the descriptions of growing up in the nail salon or when Little Dog comes out as gay to his mom, only to have her use that occasion to tell him that she had a forced abortion at age 17 — are painful yet written with a bluntness that is honest and real. This is a masterful work, very much worth the read.
Because the two books go hand-in-hand, I also read Vuong’s most recent book of poetry, Time is a Mother. It was written after his mother had passed away and he describes the aftershocks from the realization of her death.
Time is a Mother is a very intimate book that was challenging for me, as someone who doesn’t read poetry on a regular basis. As others have written, this work embodies “the paradox of sitting within grief while being determined to survive beyond it. Shifting through memory, and in concert with the themes of his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong contends with personal loss, the meaning of family, and the cost of being the product of an American war in America.”
The two books, so completely linked and yet so important separately, have vaulted Vuong to where he is now seen as one of the rising voices of literature.
More to come…