Ocean Vuong Refuses to Compromise

The poet on his debut novel "On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous"

Letter writing
Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

Spanning three generations of family history from Vietnam to rural Connecticut, established poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is structured as a letter from the main character, Little Dog, to his mother who cannot read. As he remembers the nuanced complexities of a first young love and grapples with questions of race, class, masculinity, and survival, he reveals just how much joy and healing can still be found.

As a longtime admirer of his poetry, I was eager to hear about Vuong’s transition from poetry to fiction before we discussed how his debut novel examines violence and tenderness without flinching.

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Marci Cancio-Bello: I would like to begin with your memorable title, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. You also have a poem of the same title in your poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Was one somehow a catalyst for the other?

Ocean Vuong: Not really—I just liked the title. It’s one of those titles that does subtle yet persistent work, which I’m partial to when it happens. Although they are quite different to some degree, both the poems and the novel do contain my perennial obsessions: love, sex, death, loneliness, and the very specific terror of being young and helpless but full of impossible, brimming hope.

MCB: Because of the lyric leaps and braidings of the narrative, the novel makes many poetic movements and allows readers slow down to savor your rich language and image-making while holding onto these characters with deep investment. I think it was in 2017 that you published a poem in Harper’s called “Dear Rose,” which reads almost like an early draft of the novel. What prompted you to switch from poetry to fiction, and how was this genre different for you?

Both the poems and the novel contain my perennial obsessions: love, sex, death, loneliness, and the very specific terror of being young and helpless but full of impossible, brimming hope.

OV: The poem, “Dear Rose” was actually me attempting to switch gears while writing the novel. I always believed our obsessions, questions, and interrogations to be inexhaustible. But things get tricky inside capitalism. We tend to see themes as products: once we produce work around them, they should be “done with” and therefore abandoned; we should then “move on.” Otherwise we would repeat ourselves. A culture bent on “fresh new flavors” frowns on obsession, which is misread, particularly in the western lens, as stasis and therefore death. But it’s arbitrary that any book should be an ultimate container for its investigations. So I wrote the poem in Harper’s to check in with myself, to be certain that I could still find a potent resolve within another form, and that the novel, already in its third draft by then, was not the master of those set of questions—but merely an alternative route.

The process was different in ways you would expect. The novel is longer, larger. But what I wasn’t prepared for was what came with size: haunting. Unlike a poem, which I would usually draft and put away, then go back to doing the dishes with relative calm, etc. The novel, the more you build it, the more it enlarges on your periphery—like the slowest nightfall—until you can’t do anything without seeing it darken the corner of your eye: an entire world you made getting larger, garnering its own frictions, weathers, velocities. I was haunted by fiction. If I knew how hard it would be, how total, I don’t think I would’ve done it—honestly. But now I have this set of idiosyncratic skills related to novel writing. So I hope, godspeed, that I’ll be able to use this skill at least one more time before my life is over.

MCB: Throughout the novel, violence seems like a form of intimacy (not love, necessarily, though often they overlapped). Early on, Little Dog writes, “What I really wanted to say was that a monster is not such a terrible thing to be. […] To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.” And immediately afterward: “Perhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war.” And later: “By then, violence was already mundane to me, was what I knew, ultimately, of love.”

Tenderness, on the other hand, feels more violent to him than violence itself. When describing the way calves are prepared for slaughter and veal, he writes that they stand “very still because tenderness depends on how little the world touches you. To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones.” This echoes this haunting line from earlier, when Little Dog is with his first love: “Sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.” Can you speak to the way these two forms of intimacy frame the novel?

The novel is one of the mediums where bodies can be tested through love and violence, through tenderness and hurt.

OV: I think, if nothing else, I wanted to write a novel because I needed explore how certain actions change people (characters). I didn’t want to let them off the hook—and did not want myself, as a writer, to be off the hook in turn. The novel, then, is one of the mediums where bodies can be tested through love and violence, through tenderness and hurt—but what’s more, and perhaps most importantly, it offers the scope of an aftermath, the camera cannot pan away, the page, turning, only offers more of the world, rather than erasing it. I found this expansion both helpful and challenging in my ultimate attempt: which is to complicate the line between violence and tenderness, which felt true to my experience as a person in the world, in history.

Even the way we talk about love, our euphemisms for sex, for example, are full of possession and devouring: I could eat you, you look good enough to eat, you’re a snack, meal, sugar, honeybun, baby cake, eye candy, smash her, smash him, bang, bag, own, lock her down etc. I wanted the novel to examine those linguistic ties already found in our collective imagination and enact them into detailed lives, mediated by time and gravity. In other words, I wanted the novel to be a faithful dramatization of the American psyche. Or, perhaps even more so: a dramatization of faith, not religious per se—but the faith of desire despite the body’s limitations.

MCB: Despite the many forms of trauma, abuse, and war that reverberate through each generation, none of the characters, particularly Little Dog, come across as bitter or furious (though they have every right to be), which is astonishing in the best way. Anger gives way to a more complex way of survival and risk via Simone Weil’s “perfect joy,” and beauty, and I loved the moment Little Dog says, “The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine. I made them, damnnit.” Can you talk about writing joy and beauty to the forefront rather than anger?

OV: For as long as I could remember, I have always been suspicious of anger. When I was about 12 or 13, I saw a boy, about 15, urinating in the middle of a park. It was early afternoon. He had a pistol pointed to his temple—this was back in Hartford. I remembered the gun clearly because I thought to myself how much it resembled the one James Bond used (Walter PPK). The boy was crying, urine leaking through his basketball shorts. He owed somebody money. He was in the middle of a basketball game when the other boy—maybe 19, 20—confronted him. The boy with the gun ran right into the game so fluidly that, for a moment, it seemed he was a part of the fast break, so it was a surprise to everyone when the gun came out.

I think of that image: the boy, the gun, the pool of urine widening between his Air Force 1s. That moment was charged with fear and anger—and I think it imprinted in my spirit how corrupt those energies are. They are, indeed, energies; force. And like all energies we can use them to get things done (collect a debt, retaliate injustices, bomb a country, etc), but unlike all energies, anger exhausts as it creates, and it has the power to extinguish even those—or especially those—who wield it. But anger is also an American ideal, it is one of our oldest relics and I suppose my attempt at art making is to ask—what else? Are there other energies to see and live and make by? Can I use a force more sustainable to myself, those around me? Can I possess a way of thinking that regenerates instead of destroys?

The gun, the almost-Walter PPK, turned out to be fake. It was only a lighter in the shape of death. But the fear was real. The damage was done. The other day, I yelled at my dog when he ate something he wasn’t supposed to. He was so scared he peed on the carpet. I felt so awful I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I fed him, like, two boxes of treats in a span of 8 hours. Anger is not an intelligent praxis for me—and clearly neither is guilt.

MCB: You set up the novel with an epistolary framework, which lets the story unfurl as if we are eavesdropping. Yet from the beginning the speaker admits that because his mother can’t read in English, “the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my writing it possible.” In attempting to close distance, Little Dog expands it. The narrative spirals like history, characters wish they could press themselves on the page like words, a scar becomes a comma and a mouth becomes a period, and language itself fails when challenged. This line in particular resonated with me: “But by writing, I mar it. I change, embellish, and preserve you all at once,” which echoes the refrain: “Memory is a choice.” Certain lines read like an admonishment on the craft of writing. Would you say more about the novel’s structure and elements of craft advice incorporated into the novel itself?

OV: When I was younger, I used to go, whenever circumstances allowed, to Sunday service at the Baptist church in my neighborhood. There I was introduced to the story of Noah’s Ark. I was so enamored of that narrative—and I think, even now, it informs how I create. The pressure for Noah was so extreme, so grand, it seems comical to look at it as a method for making anything. To think: you must build a vessel worthy of ferrying into the future everything you think will be necessary after an apocalypse. It’s a tall order—but it’s always in the back of my head. And I think I ended up asking that in both the collection of poems and the novel: what do I want to salvage of myself for a future I might not survive?

What do I want to salvage of myself for a future I might not survive?

It seems an incredibly grandiose notion—and it might very well be—but I think it’s important to actually present those stakes to ourselves, if only to challenge our craft to meet them. If nothing else, it tricks you into leaving only the very essentials in your writing, the things you’ll need to start a new world for yourself. When I was in grad school, a professor made me feel really shitty about having ambitions larger than publishing a poem here and there. He felt having hopes beyond a literary career, that is, having your work live and negotiate with a larger world—was fraudulent. I believed him for a while—but upon looking at it further, it became clear to me that the performance of humbleness—that is, empty humility—was more fraudulent. Writing then, became an accessory to a self—not a vehicle for selfhood. What we do, as writers, is hard but it’s not coal-mining or being a nail manicurist. It is a choice we made, and we made it in hopes of getting so close with language that something breaks through, something tears from the esoteric into the mundane. I think it’s okay to be honest with ourselves and ask for that. There is nothing to be embarrassed about hoping your work—this thing you work so hard on—has larger ramifications. You don’t expect it to, of course, but you should allow yourself that dream. You load your words into your Ark because you believe they can save you—and why shouldn’t they?

What I love about Moby Dick, for example, is that the novel becomes Melville’s Ark. It’s memoir, auto fiction, essay, theological, biological and metaphorical inquiry, as well as a very comprehensible yet poetic manual on whaling. He chose to compromise nothing in order to load his ship, literally. The scale of the project does not resemble the scale of other patriarchal tomes like Tolstoy or Dickens, it enlarges via inquiry, even if those queries run into dead ends. In this way, Moby Dick is not so much a novel, in the traditional sense—but a map of investigations in order order to answer questions beyond the reach of any one milieu.

Anyway, it felt important to me, as an Asian American writer, to not compromise, to refuse the decree of plot and veer, meander, detour, circumvent, queer and complicate, actions of which, in western criticism, are often seen as failures in narrative—but I feel, have always felt, are the very means of which I have built my life. To be lost, then, is never to be wrong—but simply more.

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