Ocean Vuong

Vietnamese American poet, essayist and novelist

Ocean Vuong (born Vương Quốc Vinh; October 14, 1988) is a Vietnamese American writer, poet and essayist.


  • The stories, at first, were folklore. My grandmother would tell a ghost story, then she would say: oh, that was after the napalm. So through cycles of these stories, that world started opening and as a child I would ask: what’s napalm? They ploughed on. It was almost intoxicating for them to create a mythology of their lives, because they were so powerless. They were all women. The men were gone; they did their harm and were gone. And they were empty hands, had no English, were powerless everywhere else. But when it was time to tell the story, they held everything.
  • I think that might not have been enough, were it not for me being my family ’s only hope. Because they were also dying, in a different way: financially, mentally. And I thought, I can’t die. Literally I can’t die.
  • When I really assess Western culture in how it grapples with other bodies and other ecologies of thinking, at the end of the day, my response is: please catch up. And I do mean – please – because we want you to catch up, we want you to be here, because where you’re at is a quicksand that’s killing you.
  • The incredible thing that I can never quite understand was how they were able to kick them all out. The men had access to jobs, money, a patriarchal presence in the world, and even though they had troubles too, as immigrants and refugees, we come from a patriarchal tradition in the old country just as deeply rooted as in the west. In some cases, when men are talking to each other, women aren’t supposed to even be in the room. So that was what they were coming out of. And to think divorce?! These things were still taboo where they came from. And they all really did it.
  • We’re talking about a claim to storytelling. We are taught that a valid or useful education is one in medicine, science, bioengineering. That storytelling, or the ‘liberal arts’, are defunct or fading. Yet, in the Fortune 500 companies, in the Googles, the Amazons and the Facebooks, they’re obsessed with storytelling. So you can have technology, but it’s moot if you do not have a story to provoke it. We also see this in political campaigns. They’re all about manipulation of story. I agree with you a hundred per cent, the urgency of the moment now is to create new myths.This is also informed by Buddhism, because Buddhist practice is so interested in lucid dreaming. Monks constantly practice lucid dreaming. If you can be aware that you are dreaming, then you can also be aware that you are being foggy or ignorant in the living stage. This sharpens your ability for discernment, and the capacity to look at the world more clearly. Buddhism is very clear to me because it is this feeling, above all else – above even the object – that matters. So reading is not about the book, it’s about the transition of the thought, orchestrated through language, into the brain. That’s why it’s so real to us. I think that’s very true to how we live: sometimes the feeling is much more than the world can support. That’s why myth-making, like you said, is where we’re going. That’s the future.
  • The great male writers of the European tradition, be it Proust, Tolstoy, Turgenev, deemed that those most inspiring to them existed in a white aristocracy…You read those books and you wouldn’t even know that people of colour existed in Europe. To each his own, and that was their choice. But I wanted to say: these lives, of women, and even of poor white people – these lives are worthy of literature. As Turgenev looked at the crumbling Russian empire, I look at these folks in a different crumbling empire and deemed that these are inspiring lives to an artist.
  • This book is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a coming-of-art. I would say that I begin with the voices of those I care for, family or otherwise, and follow them until they drop off, until I have to create them in order to hear them. My writing is an echo. In this way, On Earth is not so much a novel, but the ghost of a novel. That’s the hope anyway.
  • The novel insists that there is power, and with it, agency, in survival—which includes the interracial tensions you speak of—because trauma is still an integral reality for queer folks. But these bodies do know joy, and they know it by acknowledging and honoring the tribulations they outlived. We often think of survival as something that merely happens to us, that we are perhaps lucky to have. But I like to think of survival as a result of active self-knowledge, and even more so, a creative force.
  • The world can misread us, and they will, and they have, and they won’t stop. But we do not have to misread ourselves. We can’t lose sight of what we came here for, which is to write for ourselves or for the people we love. The Western myth tells us to discard our former selves, that we have to constantly improve, move towards perfection. There’s a sort of verticality to Judeo-Christian values. But I think when I am writing I’m going back. I think it’s important for us to go back and say thank you to who we were, to go back and rescue that person and actually invite them into the present. I think writing is a dispersing of selves. When you sit down to write and to do your work, you must gather the phantoms in one place so they can work together.
  • ...you realize that grief is perhaps the last and final translation of love. And I think, you know, this is the last act of loving someone. And you realize that it will never end. You get to do this to translate this last act of love for the rest of your life. And so, you know, it's - really, her absence is felt every day. But because I'm becoming an author again in another book, it's doubly felt. And ever since I lost her, I felt that my life has been lived in only two days, if that makes any sense. You know, there's the today, where she is not here, and then the vast and endless yesterday where she was, even though it's been three years since. How many months and days? But I only see it in - with one demarcation. Two days - today without my mother, and yesterday, when she was alive. That's all I see. That's how I see my life now.
  • When I lost my mother, I thought, there's no point. Everything I have done, I'd done for her. I went to school for her. She gave me no pressure. You know, and it's important for me to say this because, you know, there's a stereotype of the Asian tiger mom. My mother was never such a mother. She said, whatever you want to do, as long as you're happy, you can do it. And worse comes to worst, she points to the desk. She works in a nail salon. She points to the desk beside her. There's always an empty desk in the salon. She says, you can sit down right here, and then we'll work together. So I had ultimate freedom to explore. And I think for me, you know, that freedom really was all to serve her. It was, how do I help my mother get out of the projects? Every immigrant has that dream.

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