It is a rare occurrence I find a Vietnamese American voice in mainstream relatable. Most often, these voices appear one-dimensional, as if the American in them have subconsciously colonized the Vietnamese throughout them, leaving the only trace of the latter in its undeniable physicality. However, a young poet named Ocean Vuong has dispelled that notion with his rare and unique voice to articulate the struggles, complexities, and feelings of the Vietnamese American experience and identity post Vietnam War. His poems, though written in English, anchor a strong Vietnamese spirit with the specter of our motherland. Like many from the Diaspora, Vuong inhabits the tension of two disparately complicated worlds—grappling with an internal war of loss, catastrophe, and dislocation— while trying to piece together a fragmented identity. Author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Vuong’s work reads like an autobiography where poetic intuition overshadows linear narrative. The author confronts the perilous face of humanity in his work, seemingly enabling him to find his way home through forgiveness and empathy …for the world… but most importantly…himself.
Born Vinh Quoc Vuong in 1988 from the coastal town of Go Long 58 km east of Saigon, Vuong and his family immigrated to the United States in 1990 where they settled in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. His mother appositely renamed him Ocean to symbolize the connection between the native and the new land. The family consisted of seven people: Vuong’s parents, maternal grandmother, two aunts, and an uncle a couple years his senior. It was not an easy beginning inflicted with losses and struggles. But within the tight quarter— perhaps claustrophobic for American standard— they built their arduous American dream together.
Now, an acclaimed and celebrated poet with accolades crowding his mantle, I caught up with Vuong to learn more about his roots and the bullet wounds that filled his night sky.
TD: Do you prefer I address you as Ocean or Vinh.
OV: Either…and if you want we can conduct the interview in Vietnamese, but just to warn you, my Vietnamese is “hai lua” (hillbilly).
TD: (Laughing)…Mine is no better…perhaps even worse. So listening to you speak, I am curious to know if you grew up in/near a Vietnamese community?
OV: No. I grew up with a community of women inside a one-bedroom apartment in Hartford. That was my little Vietnam. I learned my history through the field songs and ca dao my mother and grandmother would sing to me.
TD: What community did you engage with outside your apartment?
OV: I was easily taken in and accepted by the black community who were wary of whites. Since I was non-white, I was a non-offender. My family was poor and that’s where we settled. The black community embraced us; saw us as a part of them. This was the America I grew up in. Many of my black friends grew up fatherless. We had these connections. I took on their values and culture.
TD: I noticed there is a recurring theme of being fatherless in your work like in Telemachus, My Father Writes from Prison, and Homewrecker. When did your parents divorced?
OV: A few months after arriving [Hartford]. Well it just happened because he was abusive…in Vietnam the police come and he can give them some money and they would go away but in America the cops came because people called and it would be out of their hands.
TD: Are you still in touch with your father because I noticed in the dedication of your book you bracketed him?
OV: Yes…brackets… you know just to acknowledge the different threads of their lives, and out of respect for them to acknowledge the difference. But I am not that much in contact …he is alive and well. He has another family. We send letters here and there but not much.
TD: You lost your father to domestic violence, and the other male figure in your life, your uncle to suicide. How did you deal with that?
OV: Being a product of war, we are inheritors of trauma. My father inherited trauma. My uncle inherited trauma, living with culture loss and grief. This was the trajectory of the Vietnamese life. I believed he was bi-polar. We didn’t know how to address it. Vietnamese could benefit from exploring mental illness. We are accustomed to dealing with tragedy by naming kids the grotesque, hoping for evil to bypass rather than addressing the problems. It’s something we need to address in our community.
TD: I agree. Mental illness is something the Vietnamese need to examine deeply so we can remove the taboos that trap us. So without stable male figures in your household, did you find it more or less difficult being gay in a predominantly female household?
OV: A lack of male figures represents a broken… fracture. Was there enough love? Sure there were…there were enough and I never missed a father given the love and strength of the women in my family.
TD: And you also had poetry, your fire escape…a beautiful allegorical symbol for catharsis.
OV: Yes poetry is my architecture of resistance, a place where I can be honest and be myself. I always wonder if poetry would help my uncle, if it could save his life.
TD: Being Vietnamese, was it difficult to come out to your family.
OV: I told my mother I had something to tell her. She thought I was having a baby. From where she came from I think it was easy for her to come to terms with it. She cried for a day and wondered if I would start wearing a dress. And then she told Grandma. I was 18 at the time. I always noticed I had attraction and desire for the same sex. Not sexual. I felt deeply rooted and advance maturity. I felt different. It made sense to me through Vietnamese Buddhist reincarnation.
TD: When did you know about these feelings for the same sex?
OV: I always knew something was different. I remembered when I was 4 or 5 I had a crush on this boy. You know… I went to a poor school and the food from the free lunch program was terrible. And there was this boy named Jason and he brought pizza bagels to lunch one day. He gave me one and I thought that was the craziest gift in the world. So after recess I followed him. Maybe pizza bagel made me gay.
TD: I can listen to your stories all day. I love the way you see the world. I love the imagery the title of your book paints for me. Night Sky With Exit Wounds has a sense of hope in the bleakest of human tragedy and experience; such as one that the Vietnamese Diaspora carries deeply with them, one that you and I are inheritors of. Can you give us a glimpse into how the title came to you?
OV: I was at my friend’s roof top party in Brooklyn. You know I was hanging out with them…most of them there were Caucasians and while looking under the same sky, they were identifying all the stars and constellations like Cancer, Orion and such but all I saw were bullet holes… where we come from we didn’t have name for these things. We didn’t look at the sky or had name for the stars and constellations.
So when I look at the night sky, all I saw were bullet wounds. With a bullet wound, you always have an entrance wound…but not necessarily an exit wound. Most often having an exit wound is the best-case scenario…a higher chance for survival. Like that… in a moment of violent, we have a moment of hope. As inheritors of the aftermath of war we need hope to heal.
TD: It’s a very poignant way looking at hope and our dark history. I am fascinated by how you see things and the way you tell stories through your poetry. Has that always been natural for you?
OV: I come from a family of poets and storytellers. It’s how we pass on our history because my family can’t read or write. My grandmother was a fascinating storyteller. She would tell me stories in exchange that I would pick her gray hair. Have you ever done that?
TD: Yeah, I think it’s fairly common. When I was younger, my mom would give me a nickel for each gray hair I picked for her. I think was nostalgia or therapy for the motherland.
OV: The barter was I would start picking her gray hair and she would reward me with her stories. She had all these ghost stories and surreal tales. I would imagine myself as the characters in them, sometimes a witness in the stories. They were Harry Potter and Ghostbusters-like. We come from a village deeply immersed in superstition so there was a lot of ngai bua in her stories. One time she and her friend were crossing the rice field and sat down. They felt a strange wind pass through a summer’s night. They saw a tall man about 7-8 feet running back and forth in the field. They believed it was a dead soldier or Viet Cong roaming the field. It gave me chills listening.
TD: A lot of your poetry weaves oral history, songs, and ca dao. I am curious as to what were the songs your grandmother sung to you or the ca dao she would recite to you because there seems to be a lot of influences from those things in your formative years.
OV: Absolutely. Actually there’s a whole book of them and I didn’t know they had titles. Our Grandparents they don’t just say the titles they just go right into it. . I actually didn’t know they had titles until I came across a book of translation by the same press that put out my book. I believe his name is John Balaban, he did a book of ca dao…he collected the ca dao during the war. He had tapes of them. You can actually hear some of the villagers reciting these with shellfire in the background. I went into that book and I saw the ones my grandmother would sing. The one that stuck in my mind the most is:
Ví dầu cầu ván đóng đinh,
cầu tre lắc lẻo dập dình khó đi
Khó đi mẹ dẫn con đi
con đi trường học, mẹ đi trường đời
OV: Do you know that one?
TD: No I don’t but I will check it out. You sing it beautifully.
OV: She also sung songs by Khanh Ly. One fantastically painful song I recall my grandmother singing often was Hát Trên Những Xác Người. She also loved Che Linh with Thanh Pho Buon. These songs were the backdrops of my childhood.
TD: I love these songs. They came late into my life, but they have made a lasting impression. It’s always warming and prideful for me to meet Vietnamese American artists with such great depth and honesty in their work without ever losing their identity. Thank you so much for sharing your work and allowing us into your beautiful mind and world.
OV: Thank you so much for the (victorious)*conversation and your insightful questions.
*he’s playing with my name, Thang or Victorious.
I don’t believe in magic, but after reading Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds I am entranced by his work. He is a magician of language, able to suspend me into his vortex of intoxicating poems. His poems can beguile me with one calm line; then whirls me into a thrashing universe in the next. They are primal and mellifluous, punching me one moment and gradually consoling me the next. They reexamine wounds with raw provocation in search of unanswered answers that may help us heal in this space we call America. One in which our night skies may twinkle again.