Author Spotlight: Ocean Vuong

There is always something quite impressive about writers who can be as successful in poetry as they are with novel writing and so, in honor of Pride Month, I’d like to take a moment to spotlight Vietnamese-American poet and author Ocean Vuong. With two full-length collections of poetry and a much loved, bestselling novel, Ocean Vuong has had quite an impressive start to a career that you should definitely check out. He works through themes of family, identity, immigration but what stands out most about Ocean Vuong are his beautiful turns of phrase that make even the most heartbreaking moments of life seem like they are made of magic.

Ocean Vuong burst onto the literary scene in 2016 with a debut collection of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which would win both the T.S. Eliot Prize and a Whiting Award for poetry and he became the most talked about poet of the year. Then in 2019 came On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, a semi-autobiographical novel told in the form of letters written by a first-generation Vietnamese American son to his mother. His mother, however, is illiterate, having never finished school due to a napalm attack destroying her village in the Vietnam War. Knowing his mother will never read the letters, the son is able to open up about his feelings and tell the tragic tale about the first boy he ever loved. His second collection of poetry, Time Is A Mother, reads almost like a poetic sequel to the novel as many of the poems deal with the death of his mother who’s real stories made its way into the character of the mother in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Fiction is strongest when it launches a moral question. When it goes out and seeks to answer. The questions that we couldn't ask in life because the costs would be too much. Fiction and narrative art give us a vicarious opportunity to see these questions play out, at no true cost to our own.”

Ocean Vuong in Lithub Magazine

Family is a major theme in Vuong’s works. Processing generational trauma or surviving an abusive father makes its way into many of his poems and novel, as does the struggles of growing up as the child of Vietnamese refugees in the United States. Coming to the US at the age of 2 with parents unable to speak the language, Vuong says it was from reading literature that he really learned to speak and read. He often references the works of poet Frank O'Hara as a teacher of sorts. Vuong has a lovely and inimitable style that is immediately noticeable upon reading him, and it is quite beautiful. “His lines are both long and short, his pose narrative and lyric, his diction formal and insouciant,” wrote critic Daniel Wegner in a profile on Vuong for the New Yorker,  “from the outside, Vuong has fashioned a poetry of inclusion.” Because literature and language has long been so important to him, language is also a frequent theme in his poetry. It is through language that Vuong processes the world and through his gorgeous use of language we can see the world in fresh and moving ways. 

But before you go, I’d like to share a favorite poem of his with you from Night Sky With Exit Wounds, which is available through both Hoopla and Libby. I hope you will enjoy the works of Ocean Vuong which make great reading selections for this Pride Month, here is the poem Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong:

Ocean, don’t be afraid.

The end of the road is so far ahead

it is already behind us.

Don’t worry. Your father is only your father

until one of you forgets. Like how the spine

won’t remember its wings

no matter how many times our knees

kiss the pavement. Ocean,

are you listening? The most beautiful part

of your body is wherever

your mother's shadow falls.

Here's the house with childhood

whittled down to a single red trip wire.

Don't worry. Just call it horizon

& you'll never reach it.

Here's today. Jump. I promise it's not

a lifeboat. Here's the man

whose arms are wide enough to gather

your leaving. & here the moment,

just after the lights go out, when you can still see

the faint torch between his legs.

How you use it again & again

to find your own hands.

You asked for a second chance

& are given a mouth to empty out of.

Don't be afraid, the gunfire

is only the sound of people

trying to live a little longer

& failing. Ocean. Ocean —

get up. The most beautiful part of your body

is where it's headed. & remember,

loneliness is still time spent

with the world. Here's

the room with everyone in it.

Your dead friends passing

through you like wind

through a wind chime. Here's a desk

with the gimp leg & a brick

to make it last. Yes, here's a room

so warm & blood-close,

I swear, you will wake —

& mistake these walls

for skin.