Ocean Vuong: A voice spanning different worlds

  • At top right, Vuong’s debut collection of poetry, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” which features a cover photo of the author as a baby with his mother and an aunt, won several awards and mentions on “best of” lists in 2016.

  • Vuong’s award-winning poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” has been translated into a number of other languages, including French and Swedish. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The New York Times says Vuong’s poetry “takes the musicality of [Vietnam’s] oral tradition and weds it, brilliantly, with his love of the English language.” GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 11/30/2017 12:16:34 AM

Ocean Vuong can still recall the wonder he felt during his first visit to Brooklyn College, about nine years ago, when he began registering for classes in the English department. For an aspiring writer, the prospect of studying literature seemed like an entrée to a whole new world.

“It wasn’t even like work. It was like freedom,” said Vuong. “The registrar was talking about credits and matriculation and I was just thinking, ‘My god, I get to release myself into literature and reading and writing.’ ”

Fast forward to today, and Vuong, who now lives in Florence and teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has released himself into literature in a big way. His debut collection of poetry, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” won a number of literary prizes last year, including a $50,000 Whiting Award, and it’s also one of 10 finalists for the T.S. Eliot Prize, a British award that comes with a purse of 25,000 pounds (about $33,000).

One of the numerous critics who marveled at Vuong’s poems was the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, who drew similarities between his work and that of Emily Dickinson: “Mr. Vuong can create startling images… and make the silences and elisions in his verse speak as potently as his words.”

“I was very lucky with this book,” Vuong, 29, said recently as he sat in his home in Florence. “It’s been a beautiful, wild ride.”

You might say it’s just the latest part of a long journey Vuong began at age two, when he moved with his family from Vietnam to Hartford, Conn. — by way of a refugee camp in the Philippines — as part of a U.S. program that resettled mixed-race Vietnamese children and younger adults in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Vuong’s maternal grandmother had had a relationship with an American serviceman, and her daughter — Vuong’s mother — was the result, the irony of which Vuong touches on in a line from one poem: “Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”

Vuong also survived growing up poor in a tough part of Hartford — “It wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots in our neighborhood,” he notes — and the violence of his father, who eventually left the family. He was raised mostly by his mother, grandmother and two aunts, an experience that shaped both his approach to literature and his perception of masculinity.

“When I think about how I came to be where I am today, I would have to talk about the women who raised me,” he said. “They had no radio or TV. They only had their stories, so I absorbed that. The oral tradition was my introduction to literature… my imagination was always fired through language and storytelling.”

His mother also renamed him “Ocean” when she learned the word meant a body of water that touches many countries, including Vietnam and the U.S. (his birth name was Vinh Quoc Vuong).

After a brief but failed attempt to study business at Pace University in New York — his initial goal was to establish a business career and financially help his mother, a manicurist — Vuong found his way to Brooklyn College and writing; he later earned a master’s at New York University, where he also taught creative writing.

He and his partner, Peter Bienkowski, had visited Northampton and the Valley some years earlier, so when an opening came up this past year to teach in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass, and Vuong got the job, it was an easy decision for the couple to relocate from New York City.

“I’m so happy to be here,” said Vuong. “[The UMass MFA program] is really great, and [the Valley] is a beautiful place not only to live, but now I get a chance to contribute and expand and collaborate in the intellectual culture.”

A sense of loss

On a recent day at home in Florence, Vuong, a slender, slight man who appears younger than 29, was sitting in a partly furnished room, where stacks of books stood against one wall. He and Bienkowksi, a former lawyer who’s currently serving as Vuong’s manager, just moved in this summer and are still fixing up their digs.

They actually bought the house a couple years ago, with a long-range goal of making it a retirement home for Vuong’s mother and a visiting spot for themselves. But Vuong explains that, with the money he earned for his Whiting Award, he was able to buy a place for his mother in East Hartford. “She has a garden for the first time,” he said, smiling.

“Night Sky With Exit Wounds” is still playing a big part in his life; he gives frequent readings, including one at the Holyoke Care Center in mid November. Recently a crew from a Swedish newspaper came to Florence to interview him and take photos in the backyard, and a Swedish translation of his collection (the book has also been translated into French, Italian and Portuguese) has now been released. A copy sat on a coffee table in the room.

“I can’t read a lick of it,” Vuong said with a laugh.

He laughs easily enough and has a gentle manner. But the title of his book is no accident, and many of his poems are suffused with a sense of loss — from war, from domestic violence, from drugs, from hatred and prejudice. Vuong says that in his late teens in Connecticut, he lost several friends to opioid overdoses and stopped answering his phone to avoid bad news — a habit he has kept to this day.

His poems also reflect the immigrant’s journey, the sense of being an outsider, and they explore the age-old themes of love and sex. He was 18 when he first told his mother he was gay: “I was terrified,” he said.

Frequently, though, it’s violence, or pain, or the memory of both, that drive his narratives, as he sums up in one line: “You will always remember what you were doing / when it hurts the most.”

Images of the Vietnam War — “everyone cheering as another / brown gook crumbles under John Wayne’s M16” — are scattered through his poems, a reflection of the stories he heard from his mother, aunts and grandmother as he was growing up. He says he realized when he was older that his father, who’d been a boy during the conflict, had been scarred by it: “I have no doubt that the pain and the anger and confusion he felt was partly because of the war.”

In “Always & Forever,” the poem’s narrator, a young boy, recalls his absent father as he pulls out a box from beneath his bed; wrapped in old newspaper is the gun his father left, a “Colt .45 — silent & heavy / as an amputated hand. I hold the gun / & wonder if an entry wound in the night / would make a hole wide as morning.”

“Vietnam,” Vuong said, “has a history of war that goes back centuries, to Kublai Khan and the Chinese, to the French, the Japanese, the Americans and then the Chinese again. Grief and ghosts are part of our story and our traditions.”

Vuong notes that in his teens he was also drawn to African-American culture and music — he’s pasted one part of his living room wall with LP album sleeves by soul singers like Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin — because there he felt the same strains of grief and storytelling that he’d found in Vietnamese culture.

“But there was joy there, too, the sense that you can find peace in the world,” he noted.

These days Vuong is working on some new material, but in a different form: He’s writing a novel, and he has drawn inspiration for that in part from several visits to Iceland, where he says there’s a long tradition of writers “introducing themselves as poets” before moving on to fiction.

“That’s kind of how it’s been done for a long time there,” he said. “You begin with poetry to see where you stand, and I see myself as being part of that tradition.”

In the end, he notes, what’s important for writers is not specific genres. “You write sentences. It’s what I tell my students — you go line by line, whether it’s poetry or fiction or essay writing or whatever. You build it and you see what you’ve made.”

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

Ocean Vuong’s website is www.oceanvuong.com.














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