They ploughed on. That’s what I admired about them. There’s a long lineage of immigrants in Connecticut, and I thought Connecticut is actually quite a microcosm of the country at large. I thought, What would happen if an Asian American writer decided not to compromise? To Little Dog, the protagonist – so named by his family to protect him beneath a cloak of worthlessness – the world is an ugly place, in which beauty is made more so for the improbability of existing at all. Yes, in many ways it’s a novel about failure—the failure of communication, the failure of language, the failure of the American Dream, the failure of an ideal of masculinity. (In one scene, the poet describes his father masturbating in a bathroom after he has beaten his mother, observing “that a man in climax is the closest thing to surrender”.) When his father left, his mother got work in a nail salon, menial work for little reward and a quality of life that Vuong had no particular expectation of exceeding. It might have been the Opioid Novel, or the Vietnam Novel, or the Exploitative World of the Nail Salon novel. Yes, for me it was a way to pay homage to this place that made my imagination. Last modified on Mon 22 Jul 2019 14.56 BST, While he was an undergraduate, Ocean Vuong formed the habit of writing at night. These days, if any of his upper-middle-class students grouse that they don’t have a good backstory, he mildly points out that Virginia Woolf got one of the best novels ever written out of someone basically crossing a lawn. And I said: oh, I’m not in an MFA [master of fine arts]. His horizons had been limited in other ways, too. At the time, however, he was shocked and disappointed. Ocean Vuong, bestselling author of "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," talks about writing and inspiration with the L.A. Times Book Club. I spoke with Vuong by phone about exploring American identity and masculinity from new points of view. That doesn’t mean they hoped their children would be queer. To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories. Ocean Vuong: I wanted to write a book that allowed for tangents and detours, but we’re told in writing workshops that you need a strong plot and conflicts. And then he had an unsettling experience. “Sometimes being offered tenderness,” writes Vuong, “feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.”, Vuong grew up in a world in which he was marginalised across every axis – class, race, sexuality. Partly it came out of boredom. They turned themselves into the Odyssey.”. “You read those books and you wouldn’t even know that people of colour existed in Europe. I’m really proud to be part of that. Violence was the ugly expression of this trauma, but with distance, Vuong could see a positive release of that energy, too – chiefly in the way that his mother and grandmother told stories. They literally nurse these broken bodies back to health. Four days into it there were power cuts. And I think the question then is: How do we find joy despite that? “Nobody hides themselves from a fool.”, • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99). The men were gone; they did their harm and were gone. The cat’s out to play.”. Lan, the grandmother, yelling at his addled mother to get back in the car, shouts to get through to her, “get back in the helicopter”. “Freedom,” he says, “is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.”, That On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of the most anticipated novels of the year – the novelist Max Porter has called it “staggeringly beautiful”, observing that “it seems obvious now that a gay young poet born in Saigon would write the great American novel” – is, in large part, down to its perfect engineering, a piece of autobiographical fiction that avoids all the traps of that genre. And Ginsburg and Lorca and Rimbaud. So through cycles of these stories, that world started opening and as a child I would ask: what’s napalm? You read the prose and you would never think this woman has any doubt. To say women have been doing this and they’re not necessarily these heroic legends. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the searing debut novel by 30-year-old Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong, unfolds in lightning flashes of language and memory. My grandmother would tell a ghost story, then she would say: oh, that was after the napalm. Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy. And he does. The novel has a similarly shocking breadth of sympathies. And what do we do about it in the future?” So that the reckoning with the violence that has fashioned our identities is a means of self-knowledge. You can see them from all their angles.” It’s the wisdom of his life. Poor kid. Vanity Fair: In your acknowledgments you mention that you began writing the book during a blackout in Italy, and it certainly has the feeling of an exorcism. Anger is energy – you can get a lot done with anger; you can write multiple books. How did a Vietnamese refugee come to write what many are hailing as the great American novel? These things were still taboo where they came from. See? He thinks of something she said to him when he first left for New York. So when I went to New York in 2007, I had no iPhone, no Facebook; in my community, when it comes to technology and access, they are mostly in the late 90s.”, They were also culturally fairly regressive, although in his own home at least, homophobia was one of Vuong’s lesser problems. The subversive power of being “a small, queer, person of colour” is that Vuong has the ability to see everything. But there was something else going on, too. Vuong is slight, with a silver earring in one ear and the habit of pushing his tortoiseshell glasses up his nose. And what you see in Trevor is this 15-year-old at a fork in the road, where he has to make these decisions about how he’s going to move forward in his body and whether he can turn his position of privilege and power into one of care. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99, • Ocean Vuong will be at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, London, on 2 July, Ocean Vuong: ‘As a child I would ask: What’s napalm?’. And something miraculous happened: When you write by hand, you have to sit with the sentence longer than you do with a computer, so I found myself seeing more of the world that I was writing about. You want to file for sexual assault? Ocean Vuong’s much-anticipated novel has much to say about race, memory and trauma but lacks a compelling structure When I got a writing residency in Italy, I brought my laptop and was all ready to start. And you felt that fiction rather than poetry was the best way to approach these questions? Honestly if I knew it was this challenging, I might not have done it. It wasn’t just the sense of isolation that comes from being the only one awake, when “you look out of the window and it’s completely dark and you’re at sea in this little ship”. Meanwhile, Trevor, despite his explosive, “knuckled American rage,” is very tender with Little Dog—almost merciful in one powerful scene. I wanted to reclaim a small footage of New England working-class identity. “And when we looked at each other again, we just sobbed and said: oh, we can’t do that. We should’ve been gone up in smoke. A bird on a windowsill appears not as a bucolic symbol but “a charred pear”. I see with my students that they’re under a lot of pressure from their families. When that editor falls asleep, I get to do what I want. A parent will say to me: “my future Pulitzer winner!” and I just groan. You knew you wanted to focus on the complicated, at times abusive, dynamic between Little Dog and his mother? To show that there are working-class people here and they’re very diverse. “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,” he says. And it really asks, “Is it worth it?” I wrote a lot of this novel during the election cycle that led to Trump’s inauguration. “They turned themselves into myths and it had a rhetorical power. Buying a dress from the Salvation Army, his mother asks Little Dog to read the label and find out, “is it fireproof?” In the family mythology, Vuong was the single last hope of these indestructible women and when, in the mid-2000s, Hartford was hit by the opioid epidemic, it’s the thing that stopped him from leaning towards drugs.

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