Going Home With Ocean Vuong

Heʼs best known as an award-winning young poet,
and heʼs now getting attention for his novel, On
Earth Weʼre Briefly Gorgeous. But I first knew him as
a talented writer a couple of years ahead of me in
high school.
Kat Chow

Ocean Vuong and I are in my car on one of the roads by his house in
Northampton, where heʼs lived for the past couple of years and teaches
poetry at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Vuong is relaxed and
chatty in the passenger seat. In just a 10-minute span, it feels as if weʼve
covered an hourʼs worth of conversation: our jade necklaces (his, a slender

carving of the goddess Guan Yin that came from his mother; mine, a funny-
shaped lucky peach that was a wedding gift from an aunt); his affinity for

writing late at night; the thunderstorm he weathered while at a retreat at an
Italian castle that forced him to write part of his new novel by hand.
He directs us to a T. J. Maxx about an hour away in Connecticut, near the nail
salon where his mother used to work.

Over the years, Vuong has garnered some of the highest literary praise for
his poetry. Heʼs pocketed a Whiting Award and a T. S. Eliot prize, and The
New York Timesʼ Michiko Kakutani has likened Vuongʼs poetry to that of
Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. All this after his poetry
collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, was published in 2016. It is studded
with vestiges of the Vietnam War and the experiences of queer and
immigrant folks in America, and pulls partly from his own life.
But with his new novel, On Earth Weʼre Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong wades into a
different form. I ask him about the transition from writing poetry to prose. “If
I had my way, Iʼd recommend the earnest pursuit of poetry for every writer,”
Vuong says while I point us south and carefully follow my carʼs navigation,
consistently 10 miles under the speed limit, because driving and talking at
the same time is not one of my strengths. His logic is that by the time poets
write their first collection, theyʼve started and finished hundreds of poems,
which is a helpful building block for any other kind of writing. “You have
much more experience negotiating the fossilization of an idea,” he says.
“Thereʼs more trial and error in a moment.”

Iʼm on this miniature road trip with Vuong for a reason that has much to do
with how I first learned his name, more than a decade earlier. It was 2008,
my senior year of high school, and one of my English teachers told me about
a talented poetry student of his who had graduated a couple of years earlier
and was making a go of writing. Though we overlapped for two years at
Glastonbury High, Vuong and I didnʼt know each other, which is a little feat.
Not very many Asian American kids went there; you tend to take stock of

your people in situations like that. So I was curious to finally meet him in the
place where we spent our adolescent years and visit some of his old haunts.
“I do give a lot of credit to growing up here,” Vuong says, referring to
Glastonbury. “Not in a This town made me kind of way, like Old boy does
good, you know? But the ways that it was brutal, and how I survived it.”

Vuong knows how to capture the essence of survival in his work. I recall a
part of his poem “Someday Iʼll Love Ocean Vuong,” from Night Sky. It felt as

if I were stealing a glance at a set of self-affirmations, or maybe self-

“Ocean. Ocean—
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where itʼs headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.”

As we float down I-91, itʼs hard not to think that this trip to Glastonbury is
somehow transporting us backwards in time.

There is something surreal and triggering about returning to this place,
Vuong and I agree as we pass by his motherʼs old nail salon. We have a
muscle memory for the townʼs handful of strip malls—the buildings adorned
with a neat white trim—and the seemingly idyllic housing developments that
sprawl along the winding roads. Like Vuong, I spent much of my time as a
teenager counting the days until I could leave, and like Vuong, Iʼve spent
much of my adult life avoiding returning here.

“Oh my God,” he says after we pass a shopping center where he used to
work at a natural-food market. “I would bike these whole roads.”

When I first read On Earth Weʼre Briefly Gorgeous, I understood Vuongʼs
regional references immediately: Mozzicatoʼs, Town Line Diner, Franklin Ave.,
the enormous tobacco fields and orchards, the McMansions with living
rooms the size of houses, the endless evenings. On Earthʼs descriptions of
Connecticut felt familiar, and yet like I was seeing it in a fresh light, with new
vocabulary to describe the peculiar experience of my time there—
simultaneous flashes of loneliness and hope for the future.
Glastonbury sits just southeast of Hartford and is tucked along a few bends
of the Connecticut River. The first and probably most common adjective
people use to describe it is “rich,” because “white” is likely already implied.
The high school has about 2,000 students, and its mascot is the
Tomahawks, possibly a twisted ode to the Native Americans who lived on
this land before white settlers colonized it. An unspoken uniform—common
at wealthy Connecticut high schools—made the schoolʼs homogeneity even
more conspicuous: black North Face fleece, matching backpack, Ugg boots,
and leggings.
Weʼve been trading stories throughout the drive about former teachers who
helped us (or didnʼt); the drug abuse Vuong witnessed and experienced; the
enormous striations of class we encountered; the lack of racial diversity that
we noted any time we stepped into a room; and the singular definition of
masculinity that seemed to pervade the school and town. (One of the most
terrifying things people used to say in high school was “no homo,” he tells
me later in the day.)
Vuong runs through a list of racist things kids called him: Jackie Chan; SARS,
almost creatively, after the flu-like viral disease that had an outbreak in Asia;
and the Grudge, a nod to the chilling ghostlike character from the Japanese
horror film and its American remake.

I tell him that a couple of kids from middle school—my friends—sometimes
called me the Grudge, too. “Iʼm so sorry I didnʼt know you back there,” he
says. “I think we would have helped each other out.”

Iʼm not sure if heʼs telling me this because itʼs the sort of thing one says to
be nice, but weʼd been talking so much about how isolated weʼd felt that I
take this sincerely. During the first couple months of my freshman year, Iʼd
told him earlier in the day, my mom died suddenly from cancer, launching me
and my family into grieving disarray for much of my time in high school. Itʼs a
small comfort knowing that someone with a shared experience—though very
different—had been nearby.
Vuongʼs family fled Vietnam as refugees in 1990, when he was 2, and
resettled in Hartford. Through what he describes as some “creative”
geographic maneuvering, Vuongʼs relatives sent him to Glastonburyʼs public
schools. When Vuong was 13, his family landed a unit within Glastonburyʼs

Welles Village, part of the townʼs affordable-housing program. (I lived in a
neighboring suburb and crossed the river every day to get to school; I was
enrolled in the high schoolʼs agriculture program, which was meant to teach
students animal and plant science, but seemed in practice to exist mostly to
add out-of-town racial diversity to the school.)
“We literally erased ourselves to go to school here,” Vuong says. “And there
was shame with that, too, because I didnʼt know how to make use of it.
Everyone says, ‘Itʼs a great school,ʼ and I was like, ‘I dunno! … I donʼt know if
itʼs that great. I feel like Iʼm judged before I step into any roomʼ … I couldnʼt
show my mother anything, like my grades or anything.” Vuong says he had a
1.7 GPA at one point in high school; he was ashamed he didnʼt have much to
show for the sacrifices his family had made.

On Earth Weʼre Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter that a young boy
named Little Dog writes to his illiterate mother. In trying to explain himself,
Little Dog reveals an identity fashioned out of violence and revisits some of
the most poignant moments from his childhood: his familyʼs trauma from the
Vietnam War, drug addiction, finding lust and love, understanding his own
sexuality, creating solidarity among the women in his family, and ultimately,
suffering a great loss.
“I would never call this book a tragic story,” Vuong says. Hope and joy, he
notes, are essential to the story too. “I think the best stories have those
things side by side—because thatʼs how life is lived.”
Little Dog and his family live in Hartford, and he sometimes rides his bike
across the river and through the rolling, tree-lined hills to a tobacco farm
where he works in the summer. He spends much of his free time with a boy
named Trevor, whose grandfather runs the farm, and with whom he
becomes romantically intertwined. In the novel, Vuong describes the stifling
restlessness that comes from living in a place like this, where you donʼt fit in
—the tender ache to break away, and the needling fear that youʼve been

trapped all along.
“As we climbed the road up the steep hill, the starless sky opened up, the
trees fell slowly back, and the houses grew further and further apart from
one another … We stopped at the top of one of the hills, exhausted.
Moonlight appraised the orchard to our right,” Little Dog narrates. “It was
Hartford. It was a cluster of light that pulsed with a force I never realized it
possessed … The city brims before us with a strange, rare brilliance—as if it
was not a city at all, but the sparks made by some god sharpening his
weapons above us.”
When I read this description after my conversation with Vuong, I think of
something he said about his process. In his work, he told me, he tries to
supplant the American mythos that “something is only valuable once weʼve
tamed it or conquered it or dominated it.” He strives for a more complicated
view. “I think my approach to this book was to have a different route,” he
said. “There are no victims and no villains.”

He wanted to afford every character—a human, a place, an idea—its own

With the navigation off, I drive a little aimlessly along Glastonburyʼs main
strip while Vuong points out the landmarks of his teenage years: Thatʼs the
Dunkinʼ Donuts where, his senior year, he used to pull sacks of day-old
donuts and bagels from the Dumpster at 11 oʼclock at night, re-bag them,
and then sell them for 50 cents to classmates and teachers the next
Thatʼs the Panera where he worked, which seemed so bougie to him then.
Vuong then directs me down his old street, Risley Road, which appears in
one of his poems, “Dear Rose.” As we drive past small houses that have
been split into duplexes, he notes the ones where people he knew

overdosed. “We didnʼt know what was happening to us, you know? That was
just how we coped,” heʼd said earlier. “We didnʼt have rides to basketball. We
couldnʼt participate in any after-school clubs … there were drugs. And the
drugs helped.”
This was Connecticut deep in its opioid epidemic, before there was much
clarity on how widespread the issue was. (On Earth captures this crisis: “I
never did heroin because Iʼm chicken about needles,” Little Dog says. “When
I declined his offer to shoot it, Trevor, tightening the cell phone charger
around his arm with his teeth, nodded toward my feet. ‘Looks like you
dropped your tampon.ʼ Then he winked, smiled—and faded back into the
dream he made of himself.”)

In high school, Vuong understood he had to leave Connecticut. At the urging
of a guidance counselor—and by studying the tenets of Buddhism in the
school library—he slowly began to make alterations to his life, which
included stopping his drug use and making more of an effort with
schoolwork. After spending some time at a community college, Vuong
headed to Pace University, in New York, to study marketing. His time there
lasted only a few weeks before he understood it wasnʼt for him. But he
couldnʼt bring himself to head back to Connecticut, where his mother was
proudly telling clients her son was studying business.
There was poetry, though. Since high school, there had always been poetry;
heʼd written in his diary at age 15 that one day, heʼd be a poet, finally. “They
say if you wish something true—you must say it over and over,” he wrote in
an entry he posted on Instagram. To make this true, he enrolled in a program
at Brooklyn College. But Vuong quickly realized that even when surrounded
by other writers, he felt like an outsider. He recalls one of his first literary
events in New York. He was dressed in sweatpants, and a woman gave him
the classic up-and-down look, as if to say, How did you get in?
“At one point, one woman turned to me and says, ‘Really, youʼre so lucky.
You get to write about war. Iʼm white, I got nothing,ʼ” Vuong says. “The crazy

thing, I was so naive I believed her, because she was from Columbia
[University]. I said, ‘Oh my God, youʼre right.ʼ” (He says now that writers like
that have a “willing amnesia … to convince themselves they have nothing,
when in fact they have everything.”)
After the success of Night Sky, some people suggested he write about other
things besides war, violence, queerness, and immigration. But he felt he
wasnʼt finished asking questions about those themes—all integral to
understanding American identity. So he set to work on his novel, which itself
seemed to be a pointed act.

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