Northampton writer Ocean Vuong wins MacArthur ‘genius grant’

  • OCEAN VUONG OCEAN VUONG

  • Ocean Vuong. COURTESY OF THE MACARTHUR FOUNDATION

Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2019 3:46:55 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Ocean Vuong took the literary world by storm a few years ago with his debut collection of poetry, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” winning a number of major awards, including Great Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize.

Now the Northampton writer has been recognized again — this time with a MacArthur Fellowship, the “genius grant” awarded annually to people who demonstrate “exceptional creativity” and which provides a $625,000 stipend spread over five years.

Vuong, who is 30, joins 25 other 2019 MacArthur Fellows whose ranks include artists, educators, a criminal justice reformer, a paleontologist and a marine scientist, among others. He’s also the second Valley resident to win a MacArthur grant in the past year: Northampton fantasy and science fiction writer Kelly Link was awarded one last October.

This year has already been a busy one for Vuong, who teaches in the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In late May, he released his second book, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” a part-novel, part-memoir that received excellent reviews and became an international bestseller.

A lengthy book tour then took him across the United States and to the UK over the summer, and he continues to give regular readings, most recently in Germany.

In a statement to the Gazette, Vuong said he was grateful for the MacArthur Fellowship and that he planned to use it to help his family, a longstanding goal.

“Often we say a fellowship gives us ‘time and space,’ and that is very much true — but for me, the definition of time and space is the freedom to alleviate my family’s financial stresses,” he said. “This grant allows me to take care of my family in perpetuity — and I can do my work with commitment and dedication knowing I will be able to care for them in any catastrophe.”

Critics have been drawn to Vuong’s writing in part for the powerful evocation of his tough past. He was born in Vietnam, coming to the U.S. at age 2 after he and his family had spent a year in a Philippine refugee camp. He grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was raised by his mother, grandmother and two aunts.

“Growing up, when someone in the family needed something simple as having a tooth pulled, there would be a desperate and chaotic scrambling for money,” Vuong said.

In both his poems and in “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” Vuong, who is gay, has also examined the age-old struggle of the immigrant to find a place in a new land and reconcile that with a past culture and traditions.

The MacArthur Foundation, which awards the annual grants, praised Vuong’s writing by saying it combines “folkloric traditions with linguistic experimentation … that explore the effects of intergenerational trauma, the refugee experience and the complexities of identity and desire with eloquence and clarity.”

In a statement, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy also congratulated Vuong, saying the school is “extraordinarily proud” to have him on campus. “The MacArthur Fellowship celebrates his emerging status as a gifted writer who is a major voice of his generation and a creative force.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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