Tommy Orange: Sounded like somebody really wanted to get my actual attention for a second.
Thank you all for coming out. I was here last year and I feel like the lights were brighter and I couldn’t tell how many people there were. This feels a lot scarier. Can we do something about that? Just kidding.
So I met Ocean for the first time today in person. We’ve been texting over the past, feels like couple of years, but maybe just year. The only text I’ve ever wanted to take a picture of or print and frame came from him. He was in Germany, in Berlin, about a week after I was there. And the German translation for “There There” is “Dort Dort.” And he sent me a text that said, “dort dort for life.” And this is something that will end up framed and in my office hanged.
But I was telling Ocean today, when we met for the first time–because for whatever reason timingwise, we both ended up in the sauna of our hotel. Ocean and his partner, Peter, and we all hung out in the sauna. Just went at the exact same time today. That happened. And I told him that he was my doorway to poetry. And that’s true.
Over the years, I’ve vacillated between hating poetry and being afraid of it and being left out and being suspicious of it and wanting to know its secret, and finally something about what Ocean was doing in his debut collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” made me want to know enough that I’ve been trying to find my way deeper and deeper in ever since. If you all haven’t read “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” you should–I don’t know why you’re here if you haven’t read it. You shouldn’t be here if you hadn’t read it.
Ocean and I are at the same literary agency, and when I found out his book was coming out, I got pretty excited in ways that I don’t get excited about books coming out anymore. But we’re at the same agency and I found out I can, I could get an advanced reader’s copy. And I did. And was asked for a blurb, and that seemed crazy to try to say something with language about somebody who just is a master of language in a way that I still have so much to learn from. And this book, this novel that he wrote, I think can be read endlessly.
And I just found out in the sauna with him and Peter that he reads “Confederacy of Dunces” I think once a year. And it’s the only book I’ve read more than four times. Which to me, just made me love Peter so much. But the rereading of Ocean’s work when, since I’ve reread it, since the first time reading it, it’s just a masterpiece. And on a sentence level, and what he did, does, zooming in and out of the sentence and history and identity and politics, I’ve just never seen it done before like he’s done it in this book. So let’s all give a hand to the one and only Ocean Vuong.
Ocean Vuong: Thank you so much everyone for being here. I know a lot of tonight is going to be Tommy asking me questions and I’m answering them. Thank you so much, Tommy, for that beautiful introduction. But I want to take a moment to just acknowledge the incredible act that continues to be charged with power in the achievement that is “There, There,” and what Tommy did.
I think it’s a book that, you know, it’s one of those books that it’ll take maybe half a century before we realize how radical and genre-changing it is in the discourse of American letters, particularly at the moment when you’re reading it halfway through, and Tommy sort of stops the story, right? To give this–shining this light on the history of Native American life in this country.
And I think it’s such a subversive act in turning one’s own story into a Trojan horse. And to make it a dangerous and compassionate moment of knowledge-giving, as well as, you know, telling a story, which is kind of what we ask for when we buy a novel. To be entertained, to sit back and be told something new. And Tommy does that, but halfway through he says, “well, hold on.” And he comes out from behind the curtain and he says, “you can’t just get the entertainment without the deadly facts.” And he did that. So thank you so much.
Tommy Orange: Thank you, Ocean. That’s incredible to hear. And one could argue that you found a sort of stealthy way to do that throughout the novel that you wrote. That way that you zoom in and out of metaphor and image, like with butterflies and moths and certain kinds of relatives and how they relate to this country and how they relate to your heritage.
You did not come out and part the curtain, but you seamlessly did the work in the narrative in a three act sort of way, in a very true-to-the-novel form. You did this seamlessly. Can you talk about how you made these decisions to somehow seamlessly float in and out of the immediate sort of scene and intimacy of that with like the political commentary and the emotional relationship to your mother, and always being sort of inherently trapped within this epistolary form?
Ocean Vuong: Yeah. I think a lot of it was informed by poetry. You know, I admit that I’ve never been in a fiction workshop. So a lot of my thinking around the novel is informed by poetry and how it is a form that requires fracture in order to realize itself. And I think a lot of our culture, beginning with the myth, the false myth of manifest destiny, and how that myth enters our creative process, a lot of writers are told that they must fill the page. They must get to a quota. They must get the word count. And we’re told that we must conquer the white space. We must fill it endlessly. We must overwhelm it.
And even the metaphors we use to create is metaphors of war. I’m wrestling with the muse. I’m fighting the sentence. This book is kicking my butt, right? It’s always the language of warfare, to use, to create something where we have our utmost freedom. And I felt like it’s such a detrimental way to think. Particularly in the form of a novel, which requires you to keep going. To extend the temporal reality beyond a certain page. Unlike the lyric poem.
But what the lyric poem taught me, was that when I confront the right margin, what that moment really is, is a cliff. Imagine working with language at such a molecular level. Not the paragraph, not the sentence, but after five or six words, you must innovate in a way that makes the progression meaningful around fracture.
In other words, the poem breaks itself towards unity. And I felt that innately, that’s such a queer and yet also faithful rendition of American life. I happen to have grown up post 9/11, during 9/11. And it was so jarring to overnight have childhood end. People stopped playing outside. Everyone pulled in. The fear, you know, our nation told us how to be afraid through colors. Today is orange alert, red alert, right?
So I think the ability to zoom in and out was through the understanding of poetry. That the paragraph, the stanza break, is a chance to start over. And the book begins with, “let me begin again.” And so I think I also had good elders. Marguerite Duras. James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It To The Mountain,” his first novel.
Often when we think about the bildungsroman, the coming of age story, particularly the American one–perhaps J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Sylvia Plath’s “Bell Jar” comes to mind–they are focused within a very short time, right? Salinger, a few days, Plath, a few months. What is missing from these works is a prehistory. How did we get here? And I think American narratives are very fraught with looking back, because we only arrive at slavery and genocide as the beginning of the nation and the beginning of American identity under this sovereignty, this republic, right. And so a lot of the literature that comes out of that is very nervous about looking back.
And I wanted to write a coming-of-age story that begins not with the main character’s life, but the lives of those who made his life possible. And I thought that was an interesting thing, to start beforehand. And that’s what James Baldwin did in “Go Tell it To the Mountain.” That book takes place in one day. 300 pages. One day.
And what you got in that book was Baldwin going into church in Harlem and expounding on every person that made his main character possible. He turned them into doorways. People that you would drive by and wouldn’t think a second thought of, he forced the narrative to slow down. He wasn’t even going to tell the story. He said, “before we can even go forward, we have to go inward.” And he talked about the great migration of black bodies from the South to the North. And he talked about the black lives in Harlem in a way that gave it a prehistory and a context.
And he never told the story, which is so powerful for me, because you read that book and you say, “when are we gonna go forward in the plot?” And he never reveals it. He said, “before you have to understand my work, you have to know where I’m coming from. And that I didn’t escape the quote unquote ghetto. I didn’t escape my milieu to do this. I’m here because of them. They taught me how to imagine.”
So a bildungsroman is also an artist statement. And the Germans have a word for it, called Künstlerroman. And I felt in a way that was what this book is. It’s my artist’s statement.
Tommy Orange: And I think the way that you handle time and pain and memory, I wonder, I wondered both times that I’ve read it–this image of butterflies and moths and buffaloes. And does the image come to you first and then you sort of research facts that inform the metaphor, or does it, or did you feel like you intuit it all at once and that you somehow know this information from a previous life? Not metaphysically. I just mean like, did you study…? I don’t want to get into that.
Ocean Vuong: I think I, first and foremost, I value just looking. You know, I think that’s the first act, is to look at the world as if it is inexhaustible. That there’s more ways, you know, anyone who’s seen a sculpture in a museum knows this, that you can’t just look at it from one angle. You gotta do the 360.
And I think, for myself, when I see something interesting, I write it down in my notebook. And when you start to write the novel, you connect them. And as many symbols as there are, there are a lot of defunct ones, failed ones that didn’t make it in, you know. When it comes time, I have my list of interesting things, you know.
I mean, what is a novel but a, you know, a list of interesting things? And that you just, you’re just moving bodies through interesting things, right. And some of them are very interesting, but it didn’t fit, so it didn’t work out. But that’s all it is. It’s just to look at the world as if it’s not just mundane or, you know, useless.
I think that’s one of the rare powers of being an artist is that you get to resist what’s told to you by media or commercials. You know, we’re told that we drive by, we look at things, and in our culture, it’s always about the fresh new product. “Now, better tasting.” Whatever that means, right? And when we look at the, you know, world with the faith that it can give us more than what it should, that in itself is an act of reclamation, whether you turn it into art or not.
And I think maybe because I’m only 31 that I’m naive in this thinking still, that maybe in 20 years I will think what I’m saying now was all BS. But right now I think there’s the great pleasure and joy in being a writer. It’s actually not the writing. You know, I would admit here that I loathe writing. It’s so hard, and I’m not good at grammar, you know? But I love looking. I can look at something for forever, and that’s the pleasure of being alive, is to be present.
Tommy Orange: We were talking earlier, in the sauna, about some–you said this and I’ve used it before in having been asked questions about how you came to literature or writing or–you said you came, you snuck in the back door. And that this is something that I felt too, this is, the way that I came to writing was on my own. So I’m wondering if you could have just, I think it’d be interesting for people to hear, like, what is the backdoor that you came into, through?
Ocean Vuong: I dropped out of business school.
Tommy Orange: What was the dream there?
Ocean Vuong: That’s a good question. I think the dream was the American dream. You know, I think the–we all want to believe in the American dream, until that belief starts to become an unfeasible nightmare. And we realize it was never a true dream, but a myth. Or in fact it is always a dream, in that it is out of reach when we decide to wake up. And I was in there, right there in Wall Street, going to school, and everyone around me was speaking a different language. You know, they had suits and they would go off to internships at Chase Bank or what have you.
And I went there just to–I thought I could make money and take care of my mom. Take care of my family. I’m the first go to college. Like many immigrants, I thought I can, my dream, my personal dream to be an artist can be deferred 20, 30 years. That’s fine. And many Asian American writers before me did that. They were lawyers. They were doctors. They did the thing. And then they started writing when they were in their forties and fifties.
And I think I was on my way to doing the same thing. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t fake it as well. So I left. I walked, I walked out of Pace University, where I was studying business. And I just walked across the Brooklyn Bridge thinking about Hart Crane and Whitman, right, who, you know, legendary writers who wrote about the bridge. And I just, it was this thing that happened. I said, “you know what? I’m not going to go back in that building.” I never signed out. I never unregistered. I just stopped going. There’s a bill somewhere.
But you know, I just, and then I started hanging around. I couldn’t go back empty handed. I couldn’t go back to my mom and say, “mom, I failed.” You know, she would, she didn’t even know the name of my school, but when she worked in the nail salon, the clients would say, “where’s your son?” And she says, “he’s in college,” you know, she said it, she would lift her head up and say, “he’s in college. In New York.”
I was so ashamed, I couldn’t go back. And so I just couch-surfed with friends. And someone said, you know, “you can go to CUNY. It’s a city school. You matriculated into the city by now. It’s cheap. Go there, at least get a degree.”
And so I went there. And I asked the registrar lady, I said, “I want to be a poet.” I know it’s so silly, but. It’s so silly. But I had no other desire. And you know, bless her soul, she took me seriously, and she said, “alright, well, you got to go to the English department.”
And I was so naive. I mean, I started community college before. You know, I was so naive that I was upset with her. I said, “excuse me, I can speak English pretty well. You know, I’m fluent.” And she said, “no, just, just go. Just go. Here’s the room number.” And I walked in, it was Brooklyn College, and I saw the photos of Alan Ginsburg and John Ashbery, who both taught there. And I said, “Oh my God, this is it. I know I want to be a writer. I want to learn how to read.”
So I took Chaucer and Milton and a year after Ben Lerner was hired. And you know, he’s very intimidating cause he has these eyebrows. And I was, but he, the beautiful thing with Ben was that he treated his students as if they were his peers. He didn’t dumb anything down. He just, you know, all the stakes was in the room. Like language, under the manipulation of the state that serves the military industrial complex. What will you do with it when it’s in your hands? I mean, I was like, “oh my God.” And, but that was what I wanted. To be challenged beyond my reckoning with myself.
And I just did that. And it felt like the back room, you know, my friends were all great, cool artists. They were in bands and painters and I wanted to do something, so I wrote poems to sort of, you know, be a cool person. I didn’t know you could publish, you know, so I just did it that way.
Tommy Orange: I have a question about Ben Lerner, cause he’s in the acknowledgements, and what you just said is interesting and sort of the future of the novel question that doesn’t seem right for right now. What I want to know is how did you show up to college administrators saying, “I want to be a poet?” Like what convinced you before that point?
Ocean Vuong: I was wandering the stacks.
Tommy Orange: Stacks?
Ocean Vuong: The library stacks in the community college outside of Hartford, Connecticut. And I was majoring in something called Gen Ed. And I didn’t want to go home. You know, I rode my bike to school. And it’s New England, so it’s freezing and I just, I, you know, it’s dark. My classes were done. I was wandering. And I just wanted to just delay. You know, it’s like that–when you’re young and you don’t really know what’s going on, I think you live in like a constant, at least I did, in like a constant low-grade depression. You know, you’re trying to like…
Tommy Orange: Yeah, no. For sure.
Ocean Vuong: Like, is it relatable? And that just manifests of just wandering library stacks. Because it was well lit. Books were colorful. I mean, it sounds so silly, but I just–and then I heard an open mic happening in this inner room. It’s like a large board room in the library. And I went, I just, it was just sound, and I went in, and it was, I saw people standing at the microphone, you know, people who were older, people who were shy, but when they stood behind the microphone, they gained a second life. They stood up. They were so proud of what was coming out of them, because they were wielding language on their own terms.
And I realized that this is what my grandmother was doing at the kitchen where she told stories. That the air is like a second page that you get to rewrite and take over where you have so little power. You know, in our daily life, we’re at the mercy of schedules, gravity, the limits of the body. But when it comes to language, we are truly free. It’s in the air. It’s manipulable. And it’s changing. And I just talked to those people and one of the guys dropped Arthur Rimbaud in my lap. And if any of you read Rimbaud when you were 17–that was it. And I felt, I read about Rimbaud, I said “he was 16 when he wrote this?” I felt so behind, you know. And so I said, “that’s it. I want to do that.” You know, not knowing what I was getting into.
Tommy Orange: You talk about how you wrote your book in a closet. This is from the Seth Meyers interview that he talked about this.
Ocean Vuong: Yeah.
Tommy Orange: Because his roommates were loud. Which is amazing, and the reclaiming of the closet language is amazing. But I loved when you said, in that interview when you said that it was a portal, I felt… So portal is like, I don’t know what language it belongs to. It’s somewhere between video games and fantasy literature and like dream language maybe? Like what is a portal?
Ocean Vuong: Yeah.
Tommy Orange: What is a portal? Let me just finish. That’s not actually my question for you. I’m just wondering, what is a portal?
Ocean Vuong: We could go there.
Tommy Orange: I kept feeling while reading your work, different times that I’ve read it, the way that you move through time, in and out of time, and meaning, and metaphor, at the turn of a sentence, we can be anywhere from a microscopic level on the sentence to the form of a comma, and what that means to the political nature of somebody’s relationship to the Vietnam War. Like this is what you’re doing constantly throughout the book. You move in and out of time and memory and politics, identity, belonging, beauty, and violence.
Can you talk about this kind of zooming in and out? And another example, “how laughter is trapped in the word slaughter.” Just gorgeous, amazing, like thinking about language. Can you talk about your process in writing and how you have the, I guess the courage to move in and out of history and language and the microscopic levels and the macroscopic levels that you do?
Ocean Vuong: Right. I don’t know if it is courage or desperation. I think, when I’m at my best, my desire to speak merely outpaces my terror of living. And I think it’s some days one wins. And the days when the desire to speak and create gets the upper hand is when I can write a sentence. And so I don’t know if it’s like a healthy method. I don’t know. I just work in that urgency, you know.
And a lot of this happens off the page. And this is why when I teach, I tell my students, “don’t measure your worth through your pages. Anybody can click and click and click and get a stack of a manuscript. You measure your worth by your questions. What kind of questions are you asking yourself? What are you trying to discover in the work, and are those questions inexhaustible? The fact that you cannot answer them right away is the very fact why you should stay with them. Take them for a walk. Collaborate.”
And so I think for me, the act of making, and what you’re noticing is that I’m, you know, in the book it garners and it snowballs, all of these, the detritus, both large and small accrue. And it’s a work of accretion. And I think that work is created through the desire to hold all things together. And not say either or.
And I think we’re in a world where a lot of simplification is demanded of us. To be easily digested. “Ah, you’re Native American writer, Asian American writer, queer writer.” That’s it. Oh, check, check, check. And I think it was Teju Cole, in one of his essays, where he says “the greatest thing the politicized body can do is to write towards specificity.” Because what it’s saying is that I’m this and that, but I’m also dog lover, vegan, fan of mixed martial arts, what have you, son, brother, right. Allergic to mushrooms. And all of a sudden you take from the zeitgeist, which simplifies you, and you create an intricacy and a uniqueness that is only true to you. In other words, you humanize yourself in a plane where you should have already been human. But Lord knows the history of this planet, some are often deemed more human than others.
And I think it’s that desire to do that, when it outpaces my fear, I get the job done. But again, I think it comes out of just not–I think if I was in a traditional fiction workshop, a lot of this would have been, you know, trained out of me. It would have been beaten out of me. “What’s the connection? You know, why–these symbols must add to something.”
A lot of the way we think of narratology in the West is a zero sum game, right? It must all equal–this is where I disagree with Chekhov. I think Chekhov’s great. But you know, if the gun appears, it must be used. And I think that that orchestration is a very patriarchical one. That, you know, if it’s not useful, it is gone. And that’s what happened when we looked at the land in this country. If it is not useful to me, it should not be there. I must overwhelm it and pave over it and make Walmart. And I think that mentality has gotten us into a lot of trouble.
And I’m interested in raising those stakes on the level of writing a book. And it is–the stakes are much lower in some sense, but the philosophy is not. And, and I think I agree with Claudia Rankine in her book “Citizen,” where she says, “we might call them microaggressions, but they are all tied to the ultimate devaluation of black bodies in this country. That every interaction is a symptomatic lesion of the devaluation of these bodies. And it’s important to talk about them because they are just as real as everything else.” And I think one of my interests is to queer the way we think about–.
Tommy Orange: Is that a dog?
Ocean Vuong: He agrees.
Tommy Orange: Maybe a service dog.
Ocean Vuong: It’s an all inclusive space. But yeah, I mean, I just, just to really think about what is the philosophy of making and not just–I think like, one of the shortfalls of the creative writing workshop, and I teach in an MFA, but I think one of the things that we can do better as teachers in MFAs, is to change the discourse around what it means to make something. And a lot of it is, you know, “get in, tighten,” right? Notice that the words, the language around creativity in the workshop is the language of materiality. “Tighten, cleanup.” Even the workshop itself is a labor.
Tommy Orange: Kill your darlings.
Ocean Vuong: Yes. Kill your darlings. Right? You know, “I owned that workshop. I killed it, right? I smashed him. I went into that novel guns blazing.” And we realize that the lexicon of creativity in this country is rooted in the lexicon of death. Here we are, our one moment to create something on our own terms, and the only tools we have–we are so deprived as a culture–that the only tools we have is the tools of death, in order to make. It’s so oxymoronic.
And I think it’s important to teach students how to ask questions first. The product will always be there, but you have to have a foundation of deep, critical thinking. And I think that’s what I strive for in my own works and what I hope to teach my students.
Tommy Orange: And let’s not even get into the violent language of criticism and blurb–of the violence that happens. Like “gutting, devastating. Killed me. Was brutal.” Just like, it feels like a MMA announcer talking about how the replay of–. But speaking of MMA announcers, we had talked about, through text, the influence of MMA fighting, the unexpected–speaking of violence and language and–the unexpected influence of MMA fight-watching on you and the book and writing in general. I would love to hear about that.
Ocean Vuong: Yeah. I dated a guy who was really into watching cage fighting.
Tommy Orange: Octagon.
Ocean Vuong: Octagon. And I thought, you know, but I also thought, okay, all right. Joyce Carol Oates. Joyce Carol Oates has a great book on boxing. So at the very least, I can get some, I can get an essay out of this. So I, you know, I sat with him and we watched. And I mean, you know, I can see why it exists. You know, there’s a through line between the Coliseum, the Roman Coliseum, and the Octagon. And also what happens every Sunday in this country in the largest grossing sport, which is a theatrics of war and violence. And war, actually with real repercussions of brain damage.
But I was trying to find, you know, what was happening there. And then I started to become a fan. I started to follow and follow these fighters. And I realized something that was very interesting: that the fighters who run out of the gate swinging, you know, with this very charged aggression–you would think that they would be very successful, but they’re the ones that tend to fail. And I think it’s the fighters who adjust and improvise and ask questions about their opponent that succeed. And I started to learn ways to think about creativity and a willingness to detour from a plan. To leave a game plan behind in order to privilege the present moment.
And I saw this in, particularly in the work of a boxer named Floyd Mayweather. Where it was about protecting the body through working and collaborating with the opponent, right. They didn’t impose their will. They were more fluid. And Bruce Lee says, “be water.” And I didn’t really understand that until I started to see it. When the stakes are this high through bodily damage, you know?
And I started to really appreciate it as an art. This is truly an art. And in the same way Miles Davis creates the riffs on the Blue Notes through improvisation. One of my own teachers, Yusef Komunyakaa, you know, he idolized and worships the act of improvisation. You know, it’s something so important to him.
And I saw that in fighters like Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva, great fighters who fought on the back foot. And I thought, “that’s what it feels like.” That act of letting the world throw itself at you and then dodging around it with the most minimal energy wasted, most expert efficiency, in order to achieve the ultimate goal. That felt like a subversive act of writing to me. And I started to learn, you know, different ways of writing while watching martial arts.
Tommy Orange: Now I can’t help but wonder, in your description, this particular epistolary form, how it would create a kind of sparring partner POV-wise as a writer, it has its limitations. You’re writing to a specific person and you’re trying to tell a story. So you have to consider the reader wanting a story to keep happening and to have it organically feel like I’m also like legitimately telling my mother about myself. I mean, the character in the, Little Dog. I wonder, what were the limitations you found and what were the freedoms you found within having to have this epistolary form? Cause I imagine both happened probably in equal part.
Ocean Vuong: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I knew that I wanted to, what excited me about the epistolary form was that, you know, for the first time in my reading, or my understanding, I got a chance to write a book where an Asian-American character spoke to another Asian-American character. And that that is central. That in fact, in order to finish the book, in order to consume the book, if you will, you must enter this conversation, that in a way excludes you. And it was a a moment to hold that as the center, that as a reader, you’re an eavesdropper.
It felt so powerful to me, you know, particularly reading the Western canon where things are never deciphered for a reader like myself, right. England is never translated. What a castle was, right? What a friar was. Those things were never translated for me. You know, when someone says Seinfeld, I didn’t know what that was. They just say it, right.
Whereas, you know, and Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about this, where a writer of color, a Vietnamese writer would write and they say, “she sat down to a bowl of pho, a beef noodle soup flavored with anise.” And it’s like, well who are you writing for? You know, am I in the room here? You know? And so it was a moment where I felt it was important as a political act to say, “this story that you’re eavesdropping on is important. Not, and it’s important in ways that you don’t have to understand all of it. That this orientation is part of the American fabric. You know, and that’s okay.”
I was also informed by “Moby Dick” and Melville. I grew up in New England, and I was always sort of haunted by Melville’s presence. And I think one of the wonderful things in that book was that he never compromised. 20 pages on how to harvest spermaceti from a whale, so be it, you know. You know, 25 pages on comparing whale drawings across Europe and America. So be it. And then he also tells a story when he wants to. So the epistle sort of, you know–and I thought that is the beginning of American fiction, right? Often we go back to that totem.
And I think what was so powerful about that book was that he was writing an autobiographical novel about New England life when New England life was seen as subordinate to British life, particularly British letters. He was trying to say, American life, American whaling, which sustains New England, you know, puritanical life is important. And I thought, what if I did the same? What if I insisted that these Asian American lives in Hartford, Connecticut is important, is central?
So the epistle allowed detours. It also allows the plot to move along steadily. One of the things you give up is a lot of plot. But I knew I wasn’t interested in plot. I was inspired by Miyazaki’s films, and particularly a Japanese form of narratology called kishōtenketsu, where plot is forgone and conflict is forgone for proximity.
So what I discovered was that when you let go of plot–one could argue that plot is the woodchipper where all bodies are fed into. All characters serve the dominant force of plot, and plot has a very phallic trajectory, right? It’s like climax, right? I mean, I never went into a fiction workshop, but I dipped into fiction craft books. And at one point I saw what was called an inverted checkmark, right. So it starts, you know, you start from the bottom and you climax, and then you decrescendo and you kind of have your cigarette, you know. And I thought like, this, is this the only–I’m not against that, by the way. It’s fine. But I’m like, is this the only way, is to see a novel’s trajectory in the same way a man sees the end of a sexual encounter? As a finish. And it felt like a very patriarchal tradition and I wanted–and it’s fine, there’s plenty of works that that works well. I love “The Odyssey.” But…
Tommy Orange: Well, “Moby Dick” was your main point.
Ocean Vuong: Yeah. It literally ends in an explosion, right? And again, I just thought, you know, what would happen if it didn’t? What would happen if there is no story, traditionally. Then when you let go of plot, what you gain is people.
And so this book can be seen not so much as a tour bus moving through a decimated landscape, which is what often writers of color are expected to perform. Be a tour guide of a smoldering world. What if it wasn’t that? What of it’s more of a gallery? A portrait gallery? Surrounded by the faces of these people. And that you move through the book on your own terms. But most importantly, these people get to stand on their own terms, including the white characters. That’s why it was so important to me to write about whiteness.
The ultimate question with the character of Trevor is what happens to a white boy when he starts to reject his elders? The toxic masculinity informed by whiteness as a peak, as a pinnacle, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, these bold, strong men. What happens if that starts to destroy him? And if he rejects it, can he survive? Can whiteness survive itself when it says no to its darkest and most harmful aspects?
Tommy Orange: And the way that you do this with Trevor and Paul is, you know, masterful. You have Trevor asking, “what were you before we were together?” Then you say, “drowning.” “And what are you now?” And you say “water.” And not only do you do that so beautifully and so heartbreakingly, but then you have Trevor sort of being like, “shut the fuck up.” Like even though it’s the most devastating, beautiful thing to say, that now I’m water after I was drowning with you. It’s so romantic and like so like loving, but like the way you handle it as part of your craft is like you make it bullshit.
And how human and full and fucked up Trevor is, is so perfect. And the way you handle this American identity that happens through Trevor and hapens through Paul in very different ways. And, I just think that’s, it’s so incredible, this book. And, I have a lot of questions that I didn’t get to, but I think we’re nearing–I want to ask, there’s this thing you did that I’ve never seen in any book. And it’s small, but you say at the–there’s a quote at the end of the book that says, “the past tense of sing is not singed.” So can you talk about that for a second?
Ocean Vuong: Yeah. Hoa Nguyen. It was one of our recent poet laureates, Juan Filipe Herrera. He has, in one of his books, he has an epigraph at the end. I thought it was such, it was such a beautiful, humble thing to do. When you hit the epigraph, you’re trained to think, “ah, there’s more.” Right. And when you hit–the first time I encountered that epigraph at the end of the book, I flipped it, and it was over.
And what he was doing there, I think, was he expected us to want more. And we get more. And we close the book and we get our life. That he created a framework to exit a book into life. And also we get to end on someone else’s voice, which I think is so important to me. And Hoa Nguyen is a mixed-race emigration writer who’s the same age as my mother, you know? And it just felt perfect. And she’s a brilliant writer. And I thought, what better way to end the book, through the doorway of my elder.
Tommy Orange: Thank you. Let’s all have a big round of applause for Ocean, please. I think it’s time for questions from the audience.
Ocean Vuong: Wow. Oh my god, so many people.
Tommy Orange: There’s a lot of people.
Ocean Vuong: Wow.
Tommy Orange: If not enough questions are asked, I want to talk about the buffaloes.
Ocean Vuong: Okay.
Tommy Orange: Like where did it come from?
Ocean Vuong: Yeah.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the center and back of the orchestra.
Audience Member 1: Hello Ocean. It’s really amazing to be able to be given this opportunity to ask this question. So I’m Hmong, which is Southeast Asian, and I am here by way of immigrants displaced by the Vietnam War as well. My question to you is, you know, as an aspiring writer myself, do you ever feel trapped by having to still, you know, explain about who your identity is, laced with trauma as well?
Ocean Vuong: Yeah. I think the inextricable fact of our coming to this country is through war, through violence. And I think that is also true with human history. And I think one of the things that we fail to do, often, is we fail to realize that all of us come from geopolitical violence. And we kind of tokenize one specific recent violence over another. And that’s in a way its own act of amnesia. We supplant violence.
I mean, this country measures itself with war. Antebellum, prewar, postwar, post 9/11. So what does it mean for a country, for a people, to measure their lives through the destruction of their lives? And so I think the grappling with war is our duty, not just as survivors, but as Americans. Every single one of us. In order to know who we are, we have to know what we’ve done to each other. And I believe that American identity for refugees does not begin when we arrive at the border. It begins when the first bombs were fallen on our home. American foreign policy is the beginning of American citizenship for so many of us.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back and center of the balcony.
Audience Member 2: Hi, Ocean, I wanted to, I really enjoyed reading your book, and I wanted to understand what parts of the book were autobiographical and what parts were fiction, I guess.
Ocean Vuong: Well it’s a novel, you know, so I think it wouldn’t hold up to fact-checking. I was interested in animating a sort of parallel possibility from my own life, and I think it’s–autobiographical writing is a great project of American fiction. From Melville, Salinger, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, even Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye.” So it’s a familiar ground and I’m just, you know, kind of following the trajectory, a very dominant trajectory in American fiction. And I would say that 10% of the novel is true, in the sense that the foundation is true.
Hartford, Vietnam, the bodies, the history. But the rest of it, the walls, the windows, the roof, what happens inside this home, is the work of the imagination. And it was important for me, because in a way to write an autobiographical novel is to write an ally, a ghostly ally of yourself. To project that forward. To project that into the future, using the imagination. To amplify things and to orchestrate things. You know, one of, the power of the novel is that it’s in organizing architecture where tension is planned and orchestrated according to a system. We don’t get to do that in life.
And so I think in the chaos of American history, this is what makes the autobiographical novel so alluring. Is because we finally get to come out of the chaos towards organization. Even, you know, the beats, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Dr. Sacks, it’s full with you know, electric, pyrotechnic language, but it’s still an organized movement. We write every novel one sentence at a time, but we don’t get to live life one sentence at a time. We’re bombarded. And so I think you know, to answer your question, 10%.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the orchestra towards your right.
Audience Member 3: Hi. I think through reading your novel I really resonated with the painful intimacy as well as distance with both like having a Vietnamese mother, but also the Vietnamese language. So I was just hoping maybe you could speak a little bit more to the relationship to Vietnamese. Like as someone–earlier on when you were like, the insistence on, you know, I speak English perfectly well, really eloquently, but there’s also kind of attention for me personally, about how English, or Vietnamese was my first language, but I’m no longer eloquent in it. And just kind of how you have that aspect of language and form writing in the English language.
Ocean Vuong: Yeah. Yeah. Likewise, Vietnamese was my first language. And you know, because–it was very interesting, because at one point I started to try to learn more Vietnamese, hopefully to translate down the line. And my family, the people who raised me, their Vietnamese is about third, fourth grade level, which means mine is third, fourth grade level. I get it from them.
And I just thought, I’m, now that I’m a writer, I want to translate, I want to learn more meaning. And when I started to use certain words with my family members, they’d say, “well, what is that? What’s that word?” And I realized I don’t want to learn anymore. My English has already surpassed everything that they know, as far as linguistics. Vietnamese is the only thing I have left with them. Every new word I know in Vietnamese is one word further from them. I happen to believe in reincarnation, so I think maybe in my next life I’ll learn more. But as long as my family members are still alive, what their Vietnamese have given me is the one that I have.
And for me, the Vietnamese language I think, makes me a better English writer. It’s a language that depends on intonations. Ma, ghost. Ma, mother. Ma, grave. Ma, horse. Ma, but–but this, but that. Ma ma, ma ma, ma ma. If you’re a Vietnamese kid and you’re not paying attention, you’re in trouble. Your mother, you know, could be a horse.
And so that tuning up the ear I started to put on English and I started to put on it both visually, thereby laughter inside slaughter. Mother inside smother. To put, to charge listening as an active act of care is important for any writer. And Vietnamese taught me that.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back of the balcony to your left.
Audience Member 4: Before I ask my question, I think I just wanted to say thank you, but also maybe hello to Little Dog’s mom because I felt that her being written into existence was just like my mom. You know, my mom was also a single parent, Vietnamese, lived in, grew up in a abusive household, and it just really resonated with me a lot.
You talked a lot about the myth of the American dream and manifest destiny, and how in a form of writing that’s supposed to be so freeing, living in that world and culture limits us in the place where we’re supposed to be the most free. How would you think that we be free? How would you say that a person or a writer or whatever writes in a way that they’re the most free? And also considering that so many of us, just existing is a political act and just existing is an act of subversion.
Ocean Vuong: Yeah. I mean, existing is an act of subversion and writing is an additional act of subversion. And I think all freedom is relative. And the book meditates on this, that at the utmost moment of freedom, Little Dog thinks about animals released into nature preserves where they feel free, but they’re only free because the cage has widened beyond the horizon. And yet it is still there. And I think that is still the metaphor of this country.
And I don’t, I think that, you know, there’s possibility in freedom, but ultimate freedom, I still think is a tested theory and a trying one. We all chose to be here tonight at our own will, but our taxes still go to weapons that we don’t want exist. They go to companies. To fuel companies that destroy the planet and our country. We didn’t choose that. There’s no choice there. That’s the cage. That’s the cage warped by the heat of the horizon. And sometimes, you know, Little Dog says, “I know it’s there, but it might be enough that it’s so wide I can forget.”
I don’t have the answer to that. Maybe in a different system there’s a better way, but I think what I do say to myself is, regardless of what happens with my tax money and my community and my country, and in Washington or on Main Street or on Wall Street, when I step towards my desk at that square notebook, that moment is mine. The sentence cannot happen unless I find a way towards the period, and from the period find a way towards the next sentence. In a world as complicated and troubled as ours, that act of writing, that act of freedom, brief and feeble as it may be, is still worth it to me.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s coming from the back of the orchestra towards your left.
Audience Member 5: Thank you. I saw online that you traveled here to, with “Journey to the End of the Night,” which is one of my other favorites, and I wondered if you could just speak to what the book means to you, and if it’s the autobiographical novel, or what else is in the book that draws you to it.
Ocean Vuong: How it informed a lot–it changed a lot of the trajectory in American letters, informing the Beats and Henry Miller, in particularly criticizing what literary language can be. In a way, it took the language of the bourgeois and rejected it for the language of the proletariat. And I think that declassing of what can be literary, what can be poetic, was very important to me. And it felt, in some sense, incredibly American. And I think that’s why the Beats really, you know, felt liberated from that.
And as someone who’s coming to the canon at this point in time, one of the pleasures is to play archeologist and say, “well, where did this happen?” To look at the sedimentary dirt and say, “at what point did American vernacular become what it is as published?”
And in this sense, you know, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Whitman, you know, who decided to write about the Bowery, to be one of the roughs, they’re just as important to me. So I arrive at Céline, you know, with the curiosity of a literary scholar. But his politics are sketchy, right? And I think it’s important to hold all truth simultaneously.
I teach my students that. One of the questions my students ask me, what do we do with Whitman? What do we do with all of these terrible men, right, in the canon? And I think, well, one of the worst things we can do is sweep them off the desk, because then we stop thinking about them. And if we stop thinking about them, someone else will go along after we die and write something that looks like propaganda, something that is either or. And that a lot of literary education happens with either or. Here’s a great writer, here’s why. And I think that has, that education has failed us. Because we only learn how to like or hate.
What’s more useful, I think, is that Walt Whitman radicalized the poetic American line according to the King James Bible at a time where America was falling apart, leading towards the Civil War. He was also racist. Those are simultaneous truths. And we honor ourselves by holding them and asking “why?” How did the thinking triumph and how did the thinking fail? And then we can decide for ourselves and do what Emerson said, in that reading is sifting for gold.
I think that work is much more challenging and it requires careful reading and rigorous and vigorous collective education. And sometimes we don’t have enough resources to do that, but if we just sweep it off, if we just cancel Whitman, what we do is we surrender the agency to think upon him. We basically say, “Oh, get it away.” But in order to do that, we have to be really confident that after we die, the big etch-a-sketch that gets erased, when we’re gone–we have to believe that Whitman won’t come back. Right. And that is not guaranteed. And I’m not even sure that’s better.
I’m more interested in thinking, in a milieu that was predominantly racist, that was leading towards Manifest Destiny, that was vamping up the genocide of original peoples on this continent, at that moment, someone decided to write in a way that ruptured the consciousness. Why, how, when? And how does it influence us the rest of the way? That’s really exciting to me and it’s very difficult. It’s very hard. But if we do it well, we allow ourselves a moment to critically disentangle the monolithic realities of our culture and our literary canon, and to see it for what it is: messy, wrong, beautiful, possible. And as the living, we get to say, this is how we will see it. This is how we will consider it. And from what we consider, we can do better. But in order to do that, we have to take a long, hard look.
Tommy Orange: All right. I think that’s a good place to end. That’s beautiful. Let’s keep it going for Ocean Vuong. Literary master.
Ocean Vuong: Thank you so much. Beautiful. Beautiful.
Tommy Orange: Thank you all for coming out.