Monday, 15 July 2024

Ocean Vuong

Here’s why

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In just two books Ocean Vuong has gone from a nobody (his words) to a literary superstar able to bend the English language into new and surprising forms that tell the stories of marginalised America with beauty and truth. The awards gained for his poetry collection ‘Night Sky with Exit Wounds’ and his novel ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ include the Whiting Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the Genius Grant. He’s just finished a new book, another collection of poetry, and he loves it. It’s the first time he’s ever been happy with his work and he thinks he might never write anything ever again.

From Fantastic Man n° 34 — 2021
Interview by E. ALEX JUNG
Photography by COLLIER SCHORR

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ALEX — I get the sense that you’re more of an introvert. Did you welcome the cloistering of the pandemic?

OCEAN — I did. It was so easy because in a way I could now just stay home without cancelling things, because I was known for cancelling last minute. That was nice, to wipe that off my plate and not have to disappear from parties without saying goodbye and then write frantic apologetic emails the day after. That’s been very nice, but it’s hard to enjoy it when the world and people are dying all around you.

What are the rhythms of your days like?

I have no real structure. I just wake up; I meditate. That’s the only thing that I adhere to, and I just do whatever my mind gravitates to. It’s utter flow and it shouldn’t be that way. In my head, I want to be the writer that wakes up at four, starting in the blue dark, and prays to the gods wherever they are, and then scribbles as the sun rises. It never happens. I really don’t know how I get anything done, actually. Because I can’t drive. I can’t really manage a property, which I have. Adulting is very difficult. I made peace with that. Being a professor [Ocean is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst] feeds into that chaos because I don’t have to do anything other than teach.

From what I can tell, you’re doing quite well. I’ve seen pictures of your home renovations and they’re gorgeous.

Oh my god, okay. The beautiful thing about living in Northampton is there’s a very rich queer community and we really help each other. There are farmers, there are contractors, sculptors. If you need a pot fixed, there’s a queer person. My friend Dick would fix your ceramic pot. We do meal trains. One of my friends just had top surgery and they’re laid out and so we’re doing a meal train for them. Another friend of mine, her partner died of an overdose last year, and so we did a meal train for her, it’s just a way of taking care of each other. It’s just showing up for someone, literally feeding someone through very, very challenging times. I’ve been thinking about this a lot: What is queerness? What is hetero­normative power? Often we think of hetero­normative structures as structures of monolithic power and conquest. Much of that is true. But I also look at it and I also see such pervasive sadness associated with power. It’s actually quite primitive, the ideas that control so much of the power structures in our country. It’s spiritually primitive compared to what we have on the margins because we’re so invested in a more sincere question of, what does someone need and how do I show up for them?

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When you were still living in New York, I went to a reading that you did at KGB Bar in the East Village.

What brought you there? Did you say, “I want some poetry tonight?”

It was you.
Oh, I’m so touched. Me, when I was a nobody. You’re an OG.

I was too nervous to say hi or anything.

I was probably too nervous. You probably noticed that I didn’t even look up. I would read with my head down the whole time and that was my little trick. I learned to be okay with not having any banter, not having any clever remarks. I learned a lot about writing and living, reading at open mics. I started out at an open mic, Bar 13, near Union Square, sitting in the back of the bar and waiting my turn for three minutes on the stage. It smelled like bleach, because there was probably an orgy the night before.

Is it bleach or is it cum? Who knows?

Who knows? It was a lot. You needed the drinks when you could get them. How do you introduce yourself to the world with three minutes? I was so terrified that I hid. I returned to my world. I looked at the sheet of paper like a portal. People seemed to really respond to that. I realised, “Oh, you don’t have to have jokes.” This isn’t a comedy show. People are here to feel sad or to have their sadness confirmed. There’s joy in that communal confirmation. It was really wonderful to me to realise I could be myself. Even if it’s a limitation, if I embrace it authentically, then the world can recognise that. Then I took that idea into my work. I knew that if you commit to something, even an idea that people don’t see any value in, you can go in and harness value from it as if you’re diving for treasure, but you’re diving into yourself.

This is very true of the reading, where it felt almost like a private meditation that other people were privy to or experiencing. That very much carries on, I think, through the texture of your writing, too.

Thank you for saying that. Thank you for being there. Do you write poems yourself?

I think it was Franz Wright, when he wrote his first poem, when he finally told his father, James Wright, “I’m going to be a poet,” his father says, “Welcome to hell.”

Is that how you feel?
I really don’t want to romanticise the difficulties, because there are other difficult things: working in a nail salon, working in factories. But would I want my child, if I had one, to be a writer? No. I would want them to just have a job and live a rich life of examination without having the pressure to make anything out of examination. I think the pressure of making sometimes ruins the endeavour of understanding. To examine life simply to enrich one’s livelihood or one’s personhood for no other end: that’s actually the harder endeavour. It’s perhaps the more holy endeavour. There’s always something that haunts the writer, in that they’re trying to see what can come out of this. Something happens to you when you look at the world not so much for what it could be, or how perfect it is as it is, but for what it could potentially be turned into. I think ultimately it might be better not to be a poet. My career might be just as a teacher. That I can do again and again. I go by this Zen idea that what is not constructed, can’t be deconstructed. To me, the notion of a writer is a construction that I’ve never really embodied. People can call me what they want, but I’ve never really lived in that construction. I am someone who has written and that’s it. Right now, I’m nothing until I can go into another project. If there’s nothing else, if there’s no other books from here on out, that’s okay.

At this point, there’s also no need, right? If there is no economic pressure to do it, then you can free yourself from that.

Yeah. It’s like a drug, I have to be honest. I’m an addict. I’m recovering. Still, I don’t talk about it too much, because I don’t feel like I’m truly sober. I am since 2013, but I still think like an addict. It’s just like my vices are controlled and they’re all literary, but I can feel it: “Oh, that’s a great line.” I’ll stop what I’m doing. I’ll lay down and try to get that line right or I’ll look at an image or a tree and I’ll see some kind of connection. It feels too much like when I was doing the other bad stuff that was destroying my body. I think my sobriety is like crashing a car. Your car is flipped over in the ditch and you look around and you realise, “Oh god, I’m still here.” And then you just start crawling on the side of the road. You crawl; you don’t look back. You’re too scared. You don’t know what’s back there. And after a while you get on your hands and knees, and then you’re miles away from the car. You start walking. You see a thrift shop. You go in, you put on some new clothes and you keep walking. And eventually you walk into a university. You walk onstage. You walk into a publisher’s house. I’m still walking from that car crash. That’s the metaphor that I feel.

What was the drug?

Well, it’s a cliche in New England, but it was Oxy and Percocets. And then if you crushed that over weed, it’s like a double downer; you mix it with coke, then you have a speedball. So it was those. All the white things you can crush. It was rough. I still remember what it feels like, and it’s the best thing in the world. I mean, this is why it is what it is, because it creates a synthetic heaven, but the price is hell.

Does it feel similar to the high of creation?

No. It’s bodily. I liked the uppers because I didn’t want to escape the world. A lot of my friends went to heroin because they wanted to get out. I understood that, but I never wanted to get out. I just wanted more of what was here. I wanted more of the beautiful sunset. And when you’re on the uppers, it just magnifies what’s there, and then you feel even more thrilled. My drug of choice was coke. And it was this ability to really be drawn into the world further. But it was not real, because the world should have been already enough.

You’ve spoken about ways in which speaking Vietnamese allows you to bend English and stretch it, for instance, on a metaphoric level. Do you see it also working on other levels of language?

Vietnamese is monosyllabic. It’s tonal. So every sound has its own life, and English can’t say that. And so if you’re a Vietnamese child listening in a Vietnamese household, your life depends on every syllable. We also don’t have tenses. We just have a tense modifier, the word roi, at the end. And so you have to really pay attention to the end of the sentence. In a way, it’s this Olympian journey of listening. By the time I listened to English, I realised that Vietnamese became almost like a superpower. When entering the English realm, I could hear music underneath everything. I could hear tones. And this is why I’m really influenced by singers like Whitney Houston and Etta James, because how they articulate, how they whisper a word in their songs, changes the feeling. And I’ve always been trying to keep that awareness when I’m thinking about tone. A book is silent, in a way. It can’t utter itself. But the way the language operates, there are shadows of tones, and tones dictate mood and feeling. And this is all through my learning of and speaking Vietnamese.

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Do you feel complicated about writing predominantly in English?

It is complicated. I always felt that there is a great opportunity for someone like myself to derange English in ways that it’s never been done, because it has excluded so many people of colour. It has been the tool to conquer so many people of colour while excluding them in the utterances of power. I felt intimidated by it early on. Because poetry has been so reified in the ivory tower. The readings that I went to early on in my community college were filled with old white people. No one under 50. And so there’s this sense that you’re trespassing into a genre. But I never felt like learning English and writing in English was a betrayal of who I was, because the context of my life as a refugee put me here. American bombs and American foreign policy were the genesis of my American identity. I want to use it, not to conform and gain power from it in the same way that you write a respectable email to your boss, but I want to enter through the back door, through this mischievous work. To “derange the senses” as Rimbaud, one of my heroes, said. And I think deranging English as a monolithic standardised force through poetry is such a potent project. I’ll never finish it, but participating in it has so many opportunities to disrupt, discover and reclaim so much that has been lost. When I consider the troubled position that I feel about it, the possibilities far outweigh some of the paradoxes embedded in it.

What are you listening to right now?

I just found this incredible band called Lebanon Hanover. I think it’s the truest inheritor of Joy Division. It’s very moody, gothic, unsmiling European, black mascara. And it reminded me a lot of growing up in the goth age with my friends with UFO pants.

Were you goth?
No, I was not. I didn’t have the means. Those pants cost, like, $80. I was an unmarked outcast. Or maybe marked only by my Asianness. But I got to hang out. They always embraced me. Between them and the skater kids. And skate culture always interested me because it was also an outsider art. It’s always the weird kids. So I gravitated to them a lot. I skated myself when I was a teenager. I wasn’t very good. I was too scared. I think I was more gay than a skater. I was, like, “Oh, gravity. No. I’ll watch.”

You liked the mood and the aesthetic.

So true. I liked the smoking cigarettes on the bench after.

Are you working on a poetry collection right now?

I just finished one [‘Time Is a Mother’, to be published by Penguin next Spring]. It’s weird to say, but I think it’s the only thing that I feel truly proud of. I like this collection. We’re dealing with first proofs now. Usually, at this point, when I look at them, I want to write to my editor and say, “Just let me start all over. I hate this. This is not art. I’ll give you all the money back, just forget this ever happened.” It happens every time, but this time it didn’t happen. I think everybody grows, and your work either catches up to your growth, or it doesn’t. I think with this collection, I match where my book is, and I feel, really, it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I don’t regret it like I usually do. Usually, I regret a book. I feel I compromised so much, or I haven’t developed enough skill to write the best version of the book.

Is it more a state of being rather than the thing itself?

It is. I mean, the text is a fossil. The text is a photograph. ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ [Ocean’s debut novel] was a photograph of my mind in, I believe it was March 2019. That was the last time I handed in any corrections, and it’s frozen there. Naturally, I’m changed. My hair changed, my cells changed, the tone of my skin. Like a photograph, a book is stuck in time. So you make peace with it. But here, everything is caught up. I looked at it, and I said, “I have no real edits.” I think that’s one of the first times I felt I achieved something in my very short career. I had to write my first two books in order to write something that is truly myself. There’s joy, there’s experimentation. Particularly with the first book [the poetry collection ‘Night Sky with Exit Wounds’], I just felt, “Am I a poet? How do I write this so that people would believe that I’m a real poet? How do I really get into the club?” With my novel and now this collection, I started to really question if it’s even a seat at the table that I want. Now I think I don’t actually want to be at the table. I want to question whether the table is the destination, and I got to do that here. And it felt really, really good. It’s strange to say, because I get immediately very sceptical when I say something like, “I love my work.” It’s pretentious; it’s probably delusional. But for the first time, I really love these poems, and I’m just really excited to share this collection with the world. I can really look at it in its entirety and say, “Wow, I’m fully there. I didn’t compromise anything for the first time.”

What does that mean for you?

I think it means, “That’s it.” There’s always the drive of wanting to make more. But to me, it’s like putting down your weapons when you’re home. It’s: “Oh wow, I got here in three books.” It’s such a good feeling, that I’m not inspired to write anything else. I think I want to write a few novels that I have ideas about, but as far as poetry, I just think, “There it is.”

When you released your novel, did you feel you had to create a public-facing persona or maybe even that one was foisted on you?

Oh, that’s interesting. I think Buddhist philosophy tells us that there are always personas. Buddhism believes that there are private selves, secret selves that we don’t even know about: the way we pick our nose, the way we position our bodies when we’re alone in a room, is very different than when we’re amongst family, very different when we’re amongst friends, very different when we’re amongst colleagues, and so on and so forth. So there’s so many levels. To me, it’s never a binary of just public and private. It’s a matrix of so many performances, to the point where I think one could spend one’s whole life exploring, “What is a true self?” and not get there. When it comes to pressure, I think I was very fortunate to never feel any pressure from anybody, editors or publicists. My main goal was to use the platform of publicity to talk as eloquently as I can about the ideas that were important to me. That’s still my goal. I have friends who really love “fame.” They thrive on it, extroverts; they like the performance, they turn it up, and they really enjoy it. And I feel like, after I do these things, I have to go to a hotel, and just shut off the lights and then just lay down.

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Can you tell me about your Instagram bio, “i’m like at least 4x stronger than i look”? It’s connected to this conversation, I think.

I think so. I thought more about my joy and satisfaction in finishing this last book, where I could finally say something like that. And it comes from this awareness of what an Asian male frame, this avatar, should be or should do. And in a way it’s anticipating what misjudgement comes. But it’s also having fun with it. Maybe the thesis of my work is, “I’m four times stronger than I look, and here’s why.” The “here’s why” is my work.

I can’t leave this conversation without asking you about your Pride photo from a couple of years ago [in which Ocean kneels on the floor, wearing black underwear and a fetish mask].

You’re the first, so I’m giving you the exclusive. The context was to celebrate that there are so many sides to us; there’s so many facets to who we are, that an author has more to them than what the author photo suggests or what the profile suggests. Instagram, I really appreciate, particularly as a writer of colour, I rarely get to have my narrative in my own hands and I rarely get to show what’s valuable to me. I’ve been in interviews where I’m described as, “surprisingly eloquent despite his preteen frame.” And that was under the guise of “objective” reportage.

So the mask is a pup mask, right?


Do you identify as a pup?

Those frameworks, I was never into. Because I always describe my work as that of a junkyard artist. I take older, defunct literary techniques and I cast them into new uses. And I think it’s the same. I don’t feel like a pup, it just didn’t feel true, but I like the mask and I like the anonymity, even amongst people who are familiar with each other. So I just kind of, I could say I co-opted the schema.

Wow, is this pup appropriation?

Guilty as charged. It is what it is. But I don’t go anywhere beyond that. There’s no barking or wagging. I’m glad that you asked though, because I always want to talk about how power and submission works in a novel, but I’m always afraid that very hetero journalists will just not…

Get it.
Get it. So I try not to bring it up for them and instead wait for them, but they never do. So I’m really glad that you have. For me, you realise, participating in kink, that there are power structures that are equally levelled on both ends when there’s mutual consensus between everybody. The performances are performances of power, but there’s power on both sides. And I would argue that the bottom, or the pup, has the most power, because they are the site of the event. Where we go depends on somebody’s willingness to give power. Giving power is a gift. And I wanted to portray that as a dignified act of agency. In ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’, I describe giving head as somebody holding a kite. The bottom holding a kite, and the kite is attached to their entire world. You let it go, it’s gone. And that’s kind of where I’m really interested in trying to take stereotypes of bottomhood and even Asian-American men and reclaim them as sites of power. I didn’t want to just create an Asian-American John Wayne, or do something that’s like Wonder Woman being the “female equivalent” to Superman, right? I didn’t want the equivalent of hetero­normative fantasy, I wanted to recalibrate where true power lies amongst what’s already readily available. So in the same way that bottomhood is a site of power and control, in the novel, “passive observations” are also sites of power. Quietness. The ability to recognise beauty, looking, things that we don’t see as sites of agency in America. You’re just merely a witness or you’re on the sideline. I think it was important for me to almost stubbornly remain. And for me, the most powerful mode that I’m interested in exhibiting as an Asian-American artist is disobedience, to just be stubbornly insistent that what you see as weaknesses are powerful tools.

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Ocean is an Associate Professor in the MFA programme for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where his research areas include contemporary and 20th-century poetry, global literary theory, diaspora studies and narratology. His office hours are 1–2.30pm on Thursdays, or by appointment.

This is very much the thesis of Nguyen Tan Hoang’s book ‘A View from the Bottom’, which is to think of bottomhood as a revolutionary position through which to see the world.

Absolutely. This is true with colonialism in general. What the Vietnamese did with the baguette, turning the baguette into banh mi, that’s bottomhood innovation. Fred Moten says that amongst so many things, the bottom of the slave ship, amongst so many horrors, was also a language lab. It was the site of problem solving and innovation for survival. And we can’t forget that reality. And I think that’s what I’m really interested in: that what you saw as hell, or hellish, was also a means of dignity and power and innovation. And I didn’t see that in the culture; I just saw so much aversion to it. Even amongst my favourite queer writers, sex was glossed over, right? “We collapsed on the bed and afterward, as the light came through, I…” Wait, afterward? Come on. And there’s this puritan anxiety. Even in a “revolutionary” film like ‘Call Me by Your Name’.

The moment where the camera goes out the window.

To a tree. We haven’t fallen far from the Bible. When Elio was experimenting with a girl, it’s fully there, it’s recognisable. It has this context that does not need translation. And I think when the camera pans, it’s the failure of translation or the refusal to depict it. And it’s almost like the format of the film surrendering or turning its back on its subjects. It’s a betrayal to turn to the tree, which is just absurd.

He also did not film my favourite part of the book, which was when Elio’s pooping and the other one is rubbing his stomach.

Yeah, we all wanted to see Timothée Chalamet poop.

Do you ever fear vulgarity when writing about sex?

No, I think about this often. And I think it has a lot to do with Vietnamese culture. We live very comfortably in the grotesque, which I think vulgarity branches out of. Western empires have a very different relationship with the grotesque and the vulgar than the global South, particularly in Vietnam. There’s this hypocritical demand for piety or respectability politics from the Western empires of colonised peoples. Meanwhile, they never had to see the grotesque reality of colonialism and death. And so there’s this demand, even in art, even in novels, to be cohesive, restrained, controlled. To have a balance. You have a sense that these values of art-making were created in Versailles, amongst beautifully symmetrical chandeliers. Meanwhile, the folks who are coming out of the global South do not have the privilege of symmetry, cohesion; their lives are factored by the empire. I think Vietnam’s being a small country no bigger than California, struggling with imperial forces for nearly 2000 years, from Kublai Khan to China, to Japan, the French, the Americans, means that we are very comfortable with the grotesque. Even in terms of what we eat: fish sauce is literally liquified fish corpses. And we turn that into the essence of life. You go to visit a village that makes fish sauce, and you can smell the rot of life, the biome, the fermentation, this essential feeling. We are very comfortable with death. Death and the grotesque and the vulgar were always a part of living and dying and it’s beautiful. And I think that’s why I put sex and death next to each other in my book. They’re side by side; there’s no judgment on it. It’s what we do all the time. It’s what ‘Call Me by Your Name’ as a film didn’t do. And so I’m interested in that as part of the human condition. And it would be a great shame if I replicated the same lens through which the Western zeitgeist has judged what is vulgar or grotesque. I would just leave myself out of it, which would be a great loss. I couldn’t do that.


Photographic assistance by Ari Sadok. Digital operation by Anthony Miller. Styling assistance by Elaine Uzor. Hair by Tamas Tuzes at L’Atelier NYC. Make-up by Linda Gradin at L’Atelier NYC. Production by Artist Commissions.