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Interview with Ocean Vuong

‘Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you,’ begins Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019). It is an epistolary novel, written from a son, affectionately called ‘Little Dog’, to a mother who cannot read. Their relationship is underscored by migration, loss, inherited trauma and the difficulty of navigating working-class life in America. Vuong’s writing gives clarity to tender feelings. In his first collection of poetry, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016), is a poem entitled ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’. ‘Ocean, don’t be afraid,’ the author writes, ‘The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed.’

 

In the following conversation, which took place in the wake of a spate of high-profile anti-Asian hate crimes, Vuong discusses Asian American literature with the performance artist and writer Alok Vaid-Menon.

 

On 16 March 2021, a 21-year-old white male entered three massage and spa parlours in Atlanta, Georgia, and opened fire. He killed eight people, six of whom were Asian. ‘Stop Asian Hate’ flooded the global newsfeed, the shooting a brutal reflection of the anti-Asian sentiment already heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic. This conversation begins there, examining the ways in which Asian American literature has been recruited in the service of cultivating white empathy and humanising Asian Americans. What does it mean to write subjects who have been so overdetermined by the racist imagination? Vuong and Vaid-Menon grapple with finding ways to push beyond inclusion and appreciate the creative work of Asian Americans on their own terms.

 

Vuong’s new collection of poems, Time is a Mother, will be released in 2022. They are poems of mourning and grief, which negotiate the aftermath of the death of Vuong’s mother. They are also poems of survival. As he writes, ‘How else do we return ourselves but to fold / The page so it points to the good part.’

 

Q

The White Review

— ‘Where are you from?’ sets the geo-political coordinates of who belongs and who doesn’t. And it’s often levied against us as Asian Americans. Where are you really from? When we don’t offer the answer they presume, there’s chaos. What I notice you doing is troubling whether that should be the question we should be asking in the first place. You seem so much more concerned with being and becoming, than with origins. In one of my favourite poems of yours ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’ (2016), you write: ‘The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed.’

 

When people ask me, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ the question is already presuming what is possible. I think a more interesting question is: ‘Where are you going?’ But they don’t ask that. Beneath the question ‘Where are you from?’ is a surveillance desire. It’s ‘show me your papers’, but by another name. I notice people describe your work as auto-fiction even when you explain that it isn’t really based on your own life. There’s a presumption that an Asian American queer writer cannot write in the abstract, that we must be autobiographical. What forces require us to be constantly transparent and legible? For whom? I want to think about Asian American abstraction with you. What does it mean to refuse, and be rendered obscure because of it?

A

Ocean Vuong

— I’m still surprised that On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous took off. My heroes, like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Bhanu Kapil, were not bestsellers. Their desire was actually to complicate and disjoint. To create debris. What I hoped to write with this book was pieces of debris. I refuse to make it legible, cohesive. Refuse to perform a temporal linearity. I insist on detours that are philosophical and meditative. And because of that, a very common response to the book is that it’s pretentious. This is something that’s very familiar to me as an Asian American writer: we are so often coded as bodies of service, that when we finally sort of disrupt something, it’s very jarring to the white gaze. Because it’s saying, ‘I’m not interested in translating myself to you.’

 

This happens at readings. I read in Vietnamese and the first question is ‘What did you say?’ It took me a long time to reply, ‘I’m not going to translate that.’ If I wanted to, I would have spoken in English. As bodies of colour, it is often demanded that we perform ethnography through our art, to drive the tour bus, and also put the microphone on and say, ‘Look, to your left, this brown suffering of the Global South.’ Then this is supposed to elicit empathy in a liberal white reader. And this is where I have a lot of trouble. For me, what it actually does is keep whiteness complicit in our erasure. So many of the horrors we’re seeing are the result of Asian American invisibility. The Asian women in Atlanta were reduced to a category, and a symptom of one man’s failure. Right? So much has to happen for human beings to be that way. Yet, it has been happening for 2000 years.

 

This was what European humanism in the nineteenth century was doing. It was: these ‘barbarians’ have art, they have music, and therefore should be spared. It should have been, ‘How about you don’t pillage them because they’re people?’ But we are still working in this tradition; I still see this project in the readings I go to in the academy. In the liberal enclaves. We are still supposed to be agents towards wider empathy. Empathy is often spoken about in literature as the final destination. That’s the ultimate goal, the cherished goal. Reading is supposed to provoke empathy. Well, that’s all fine and good, but it’s
a goal that is specific and narrowed to the white audience. When you flip that paradigm, all of a sudden the project of empathy falls apart, and you realise it was always for whiteness.

Q

The White Review

— The establishment still only understands creative work as the published work. But there’s so much that goes into it, a biography to our writing, which comes from living. Poetry, for me, is a mode of living. It’s actually about saying that there’s no standard grammar to life, not just to literature.

 

You did a thoughtful series of stories on Instagram about metaphor, and one of the things that you said is that the work of writing isn’t just happening on the page, it’s happening in the mind. In that is an insistence that literature does not just belong in one place: it’s pervasive and omnipresent. Living is the artist residency. So I want to ask you about the politics of metaphor.

A

Ocean Vuong

— Metaphor is political. I think there’s been a very perennial aversion to metaphor in the twentieth-century Anglo tradition. After World War I, Europe and America had to turn their back on romanticism. Romanticism was no longer feasible. The sublime was no longer feasible when the pastoral was literally rotting with corpses. The cows had bullet holes in them. And then then we have Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, who truncated the sentence, took out the metaphor as an embellishment, as a decorous, decadent tool.

 

All the way through the mid-century, and even now, there’s a very laconic line that’s cherished in the more hegemonic literary criticism. Sure, that’s white folks having their own conversation, but the problem with literary taste-making is that often it is white people having a conversation while everyone is left outside. They say, ‘Okay, so here’s what it is now, get on board.’ If you’re not on board, then you’re failing.

 

I would like to see the metaphor from a different calibration. Metaphors are one of the oldest forms of figurative writing, in thinking and speaking, that our species has ever had. All of our myths come out of looking at the stars and finding a metaphor for them. Which is why I titled my first book of poems Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The metaphor is also an autobiography, a vision. What does it say about someone who looks at the night sky – where so many see cohesion, and a sort of pinnacle, a utopia of storytelling – but for me to see loss, to see exit wounds?

 

The metaphor in other places on a global scale has very different meanings. In Vietnamese culture we say chính xác, and that means ‘clear as corpse’. What does it say about a group of people who’ve been at war for so long, defending against multiple imperial forces, to now talk about clarity in terms of death? Then, when we think of Billie Holiday singing about strange fruit, that’s a metaphor in order to not say the devastating exactness of what is happening. So, the metaphor there becomes balm, it becomes a way of teaching and passing down information without harm.

 

I think my biggest issue with Western criticism is that it holds everything else up to the dialectic that it came out of. It doesn’t have the capacity to have a different dialectic. That’s a great, great depravity. Maybe now we’re adding to that, and that’s a good thing. But I don’t want to see us only as additions. I want us to really be on our own way. I want to be cautious of just telling Asian Americans to rectify whiteness. It’s not our job, right? It’s not, it shouldn’t be; we shouldn’t be the band-aid for the wound that preceded us.

Q

The White Review

— What feels so dangerous about metaphor, is that it exhorts us to see intimacies that must be renounced in order for the Western project to work. The Western project requires clear bifurcations and distinctions between us/them, man/woman, here/there. But metaphor insists that there’s a crack in every one of those walls that are created. In On Earth you write, ‘I studied him like a new word.’ Suddenly, it’s revealed that the body that speaks can also be spoken. The author is the text, and the text is the author.

 

That’s why I understand poetry as a political praxis. Within the confines of a poem the only rule is there are no rules. That anarchy isn’t chaos, it’s creativity. It returns us to what we were speaking of earlier: the incessant imperative to disclose and prove is a pursuit we’re not interested in. Why should we have to argue for what already is? We must naturalise what they politicise, and politicise what they naturalise. What the metaphor teaches is that everything is interconnected. I’ve listened to you speak about how the practice of writing can teach people how to construct a life or how to relate to each other. Writing is not just depicting reality, it’s creating reality. I’d love to hear your thoughts around writing as a practice of freedom, writing as a practice of ethics, writing as a practice of being.

A

Ocean Vuong

— I love that you said that living is the artist residency, because our inability to name and own this comes from a pervasive sense of shame. It’s strange to say so but I think beneath the white machismo embodiment of artists there’s a lot of shame. I’ve had teachers tell me, ‘You should never write a poem for anybody. Who are you to think that a poem could be for anyone? How dare you even think a poem can have political value and power, or a piece of writing?’ And where they’re coming from is a kind of Boy Scout vibe of subordination and self-flagellation. Humble yourself. Have elders humble you. Then you earn your seat at the bar over time. It’s about bowing down. Harold Bloom talks about this anxiety of influence, writers just being so concerned about being mimetic of their elders. This whole narrative of how the son has to defeat the father in order to have value. David has to defeat Goliath, right? It’s always supplanting the lineage to move forward, rather than collaborating. In that desire to destroy, in order to create or to replace, in order to take presence, is shame.

 

There’s a lot of this argument of ‘Well, you’re just doing poetry, you’re not doing rocket science’ or ‘Just put your head down and work.’ And I think the informant of that, the greatest influence of that shame, is capitalism. The sadness is that we’ve allowed this patriarchal tradition to dominate us so much. Meanwhile, the folks who are building the weapons in the military-industrial complex, the folks who are designing the ‘medicines’ that often make us sick and make us dependent on the pharmaceutical companies, they’re not saying, ‘Be humble to each other!’ They’re not saying, ‘Be grateful!’ They’re not saying, ‘Why don’t you pull back a little bit so that nuclear bomb, you know, has less circumference and radius.’ ‘That semi-automatic, let’s have it shoot ten less bullets.’ They never say that.

 

Yet, they’ve made it so that the artists always self-regulate. People get really uneasy when you say, ‘My life is art.’ This. The present tense is worthy of art. I think there’s a great discomfort in the Western gaze, because immediately they want to say, ‘You’re pretentious. There’s museums where things are housed, there’s the stage where you get to speak your art. You can’t speak it here, not in front of me at the grocery store.’

 

When I really assess Western culture in how it grapples with other bodies and other ecologies of thinking, at the end of the day, my response is: please catch up. And I do mean – please – because we want you to catch up, we want you to be here, because where you’re at is a quicksand that’s killing you.

Q

The White Review

— Right. It’s not just killing me, it’s killing you. And that is so devastating, because how do you heal a wound that people don’t even know that they’re carrying? It is so much of what we’re up against as writers. I’m tasked into this process of articulating my wound, saying, ‘This is what it’s like, for me as a gender non-conforming person… people laugh at me on the street, they insult me.’ But I’m more interested in having a conversation about the wounds that had to happen to you in order for you to insult me. How have you become so conditioned to your perpetual unfreedom, that you mistake it as being alive?

 

They are so fixated on our dying, they forget to notice the incandescence of our living. Living is about refusing the confinement of art to the stage or the gallery or the novel. When I fashion my outfit I’m going to bring the art exhibition with me wherever I go. When I paint my face, you’re getting an entire gallery at the store checkout, darling! I think the West is so terrified of heaven being made real here. I think so many people are waiting for the rapture.

 

What I felt when I was reading your work, Ocean, is that it’s here now. Reading you write about love felt more real than love. Reading you write loss felt more real than loss. Even the way you write about writing, lands so deep. In On Earth you say, ‘Writing is… getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball.’

 

This brings me to myth-making. I think ‘myth’ has a negative connotation these days. People think that if something is constructed that means it’s not real. But, actually, myths make things real. When people with power tell myths they become seen as a certifiable corroborated truth, but when we tell myths they get dismissed as illusory, ridiculous, superfluous. I think that what we need now more than ever are different myths instead of the pursuit of ‘real’, empirical truth.

A

Ocean Vuong

— And also, does truth exist? Let’s see how truth has been performed through historians. A truth in nineteenth-century America was that white settlers were predestined, ordained by God through Manifest Destiny, to settle the land where people had been thriving for thousands of years. That was considered truth. I have a lot of trouble surrendering the ground. When we surrender
the ground, we have to assume that an objective truth is there to be seen. If we actually give up that ground, someone else is taking it over.

 

We’re talking about a claim to storytelling. We are taught that a valid or useful education is one in medicine, science, bioengineering. That storytelling, or the ‘liberal arts’, are defunct or fading. Yet, in the Fortune 500 companies, in the Googles, the Amazons and the Facebooks, they’re obsessed with storytelling. So you can have technology, but it’s moot if you do not have a story to provoke it. We also see this in political campaigns. They’re all about manipulation of story. I agree with you a hundred per cent, the urgency of the moment now is to create new myths.

 

This is also informed by Buddhism, because Buddhist practice is so interested in lucid dreaming. Monks constantly practice lucid dreaming. If you can be aware that you are dreaming, then you can also be aware that you are being foggy or ignorant in the living stage. This sharpens your ability for discernment, and the capacity to look at the world more clearly. Buddhism is very clear to me because it is this feeling, above all else – above even the object – that matters. So reading is not about the book, it’s about the transition of the thought, orchestrated through language, into the brain. That’s why it’s so real to us. I think that’s very true to how we live: sometimes the feeling is much more than the world can support. That’s why myth-making, like you said, is where we’re going. That’s the future.

Q

The White Review

— As I’m hearing you speak, I’m realising that so much of the dilemma of being an Asian American artist is the imperative for a kind of empiricism to prove where we came from. White supremacy and transmisogyny are screenwriters that have made us into characters. People have pre-formatted tropes about us that are made more real than our own existence. So the goal becomes shifting the modes of perception alongside the modes of production. What kind of intimacies could we generate, if we suspended the imperative to prove? How do you find the motivation to write, especially under the conditions of celebrity when everyone feels like they have already authored the story for you? I know I’m finding it increasingly difficult to parse out what I want to write, rather than what other people expect me to.
A

Ocean Vuong

— It’s ironic, right? We talked about Asian American invisibility and the mythologising of transness. Fame works the same way. Instead of a selfhood, we get a hologram. We’re made into phantoms. Through replication of the work and distribution, the self becomes abstracted and more phantom-like than before. Ironically, so much of our writing is about grief and loss and the ghosts of elders and through that, through that work, we become living ghosts.

 

As a writer, intention is so important to me. I think that’s part of my practice. My writing is my Buddhist practice, my Buddhist practice is my life, and my life is my art. And it’s not even in that linear trajectory. It’s a constellation that informs one image. When I wrote my two books, I wanted to articulate something in a very specific way. I think the beauty of a book is that it’s the fingerprint of the mind.

 

The world can misread us, and they will, and they have, and they won’t stop. But we do not have to misread ourselves. We can’t lose sight of what we came here for, which is to write for ourselves or for the people we love. The Western myth tells us to discard our former selves, that we have to constantly improve, move towards perfection. There’s a sort of verticality to Judeo-Christian values. But I think when I am writing I’m going back. I think it’s important for us to go back and say thank you to who we were, to go back and rescue that person and actually invite them into the present. I think writing is a dispersing of selves. When you sit down to write and to do your work, you must gather the phantoms in one place so they can work together.

 

Narrative comes from the Latin gnarus, which means to recognise or to know. We move horizontally – because that’s how we’re reading in the Anglo tradition – towards knowledge to propel a narrative forward. When I ask myself who I am writing for, everything else falls away. Because that’s what I want to privilege. If I write for whiteness, even to prove it wrong, then I’ve lost myself already.

 

Before you write, go back and ask, who was that person that wanted to be a writer? What did they see? What did they feel? What did they want? And when you’re in that, you share that mindspace. From there, it clears everything, because that person definitely wasn’t thinking about the things that we’re thinking about now. We write for them.

 

Maybe do a little trick and just write ‘Dear Alok’ before every page. It doesn’t have to be a letter to the self. It could be whatever you’re writing, but just put that at the top of the page. It could be the middle of a novel. It could be an essay, just say, ‘Dear Alok’. And then just continue and then just have that dearness with you in the work. I do that myself all the time.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

OCEAN VUONG is the author of the novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Vintage, 2019). A recipient of a 2019 MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’, he is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Jonathan Cape, 2017). A Poetry Foundation Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg fellow, his honours include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and the Elizabeth George Foundation, and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Pushcart Prize.

ALOK VAID-MENON is the author of Beyond the Gender Binary (Penguin Workshop, 2020) and Femme in Public (2017). Their poetic challenge to the gender binary is internationally renowned.

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