'I've Been Training All My Life To Be A Writer' A Conversation With Ocean Vuong | Connecticut Public Radio
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'I've Been Training All My Life To Be A Writer' A Conversation With Ocean Vuong

Aug 21, 2019

Ocean Vuong grew up in a Hartford that many of us don’t pay attention to. His family emigrated from Vietnam when he was two years old, and he came to know the area through the nail salons and tobacco fields where he and his mother worked. All the while, they struggled to create joy for themselves in the context of xenophobia, racism, and trauma from an American-led war that still weaves itself into our ways of knowing and living. 

His first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, documents an American story that’s often erased — that of immigrant, war-torn, non-white, working-class life. 

On the Colin McEnroe Show, Vuong discussed these complex experiences. He also examined American figures — from Toni Morrison to Tiger Woods — who can help us make sense of them.

Listen to the entire interview between Vuong and McEnroe, which originally aired July 17th, 2019 on The Colin McEnroe Show. 

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the moment in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous where his characters are laughed at as they try to order food without being able to speak English...

That’s an iconic moment for me of what it means to be a refugee or a person of color in America. Which is estrangement, but also utter loneliness. That if you don’t have the language, you are not seen. You are not at the table. Your mouth is what gets you visibility. And I think any child of immigrants going through that realizes that he must now make a commitment to be the translator of his family so that they can be seen and valued as people. And it’s a commitment that I think all immigrants do and must do, and it’s part of the American fabric because when that child grows up, he now understands that to live in American space is to move and transgress multiple borders — linguistic, cultural, racial, geographic, and otherwise. I look back on those moments and I think, “Well, my goodness, maybe I’ve been training all my life to be a writer.”

On being the child of immigrants… 

Your parents tell you to assimilate, to be invisible, don’t be the nail that sticks up that must be hammered down, to blend in as much as you can. And sometimes you do it so well that you render yourself invisible. I think one of the tasks and the challenges of children in the second generation is that they realize, “Wait a minute, I want to be seen. I want to be somebody. I don’t want to fade away into the background.” And then we start to, in a way, betray the lessons our parents teach us in order to embody an American identity that we choose.

On what Tiger Woods can teach us about collective history…

Tiger Woods is a product of war, just like [the book’s protagonist] Little Dog's mother is a product of war. His father was a soldier who met a Thai woman while he was deployed there. And without that war, he wouldn't have his life. I think at once that's tragic but also it's part of American possibility that, if we are more thorough with our histories, we can be taken more thoroughly and more intricately. One of the misfortunes of being a sports idol is that like many idols in our culture we don't want them to have history. We want them to either shine and if they fail they're off the stage… 

Our country has a very precarious and fraught relationship with history. If we look back further enough we arrive at slavery and Native American genocide. And that's just the distant past. The recent pasts are full of pitfalls. But I think in order to understand ourselves as a people, in order to garner self-knowledge so that we don't repeat the mistakes our forefathers did, we have to reckon with the historic violence. And I think Tiger Woods is a perfect example of the American identity because he is a hero. He's also faulted. He is also challenged. But he's also rich in where he comes from and his history is as prominent as the history of this country as it relates to war and violence as well as glory.

On the lingering presence of war…

Our country is marked by war. We literally measure our history by war. Is it post-war? Pre-war? Antebellum? World War Two? Vietnam era? Korean era? Iraq era? And so we mark ourselves that way. And I think one of the dangers of amnesia — which is to say, "It's a Vietnam war, it's over there" — is that we start to divest America's participation in it.

The repercussions are incredibly fraught because we have veterans who come home and now suffer. That war doesn't end for them. They still experience that war every single day, forty, fifty years after the fact. And I think this book tries to look at PTSD amongst all people — white folks, Asian American folks, Vietnamese folks, black and brown folks. War is something that seeps into our culture, our vocabulary, and in order for us to find progress and better ourselves as a people, we have to say, "How did we get here? Who are we?" And one of the ways to answer who we are is to find out what we have done to each other. 

On working-class, minority representation…

Toni Morrison, one of my heroes, says "I write because I don't see myself out there. I'm writing for black girls," she says "because I don't see any books who hold black girls as a priority." And I think I wanted to write about working-class New England life…

Their lives are real and the challenges that they overcame helped them realize how important beauty is. Therefore the title: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. You know, many folks would say, perhaps in the mainstream media, "How dare you call these folks beautiful? How dare these yellow, broken, brown bodies in New England — how can they be beautiful?" And one of the most important things you can say as an author  because being an author is your chance to speak, [is,] "Well, here's why. Here's why they're beautiful to me."

On the unique opportunity of books…

We might pass these characters as we go about our days, but a book allows us to stop and focus. The book is a doorway… That is the potential of a novel, is that we can't turn away. At least not for 242 pages, and it's very hard to do that in life. We pass somebody within seconds. We might not even think about them, who they are. But the novel allows us to slow down and say, "Who are you?" And ultimately, "I recognize you. I didn't think I would, but I do."