‘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.’