'Start With Truth And End With Art': Poet Ocean Vuong On His Debut Novel

Jun 1, 2019
Originally published on June 2, 2019 10:57 am

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read.

The mother has come to Hartford, Conn. after living through a hellscape of war in Vietnam. She goes to work at a nail salon, smokes Marlboro Reds, and more than once — more than 20 times — beats her son. But she tells herself, "I'm not a monster. I'm a mother."

The son, known as Little Dog, bears some resemblance to his author, Ocean Vuong.

"What I wanted, what I hoped to do was to speak to a rich American tradition of autobiography, all the way down to Herman Melville and Moby Dick," Vuong says in an interview. "And so for myself, I always saw the self in the American space as a potent moment of fiction. And I wanted to start with truth and end with art, as a writer. That was very important to me."

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is the highly-anticipated novel from Vuong, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was 2 years old. Though he's won awards for his poetry, this is his first novel.


Interview Highlights

On the passage that reads:

Because I am your son, what I know of work I know equally of loss. And what I know of both I know of your hands. Their once supple contours I've never felt, the palms already callused and blistered long before I was born, then ruined further from three decades in factories and nail salons. Your hands are hideous — and I hate everything that made them that way. I hate how they are the wreck and reckoning of a dream. How you'd come home, night after night, plop down on the couch, and fall asleep inside a minute. I'd come back with your glass of water and you'd already be snoring, your hands in your lap like two partially scaled fish.

The image, the object that is a mother's hands, is also a biography of that person. It marks who they are, where they come from and what they've done, including cost of raising a child as a single mother in the American landscape. And I think when a son looks at a mother's hands that have been that calloused, he realized all the things that led to his actual life — that the hands are evidence that nothing has been easy.

On the scene where Little Dog tries to teach his mother how to read

That's the intimate moment between mother and son — he's in a position of power, 'cause knowledge is power. But that also means the son is now in a different hierarchical space. He's now the one teaching his mother. The power dynamic shifts. And as important as it is, she couldn't bear it, because that's all she has, is this fixed power shift that she always maintained as a mother. And if it means not being able to read, so be it — it was more important to her to remain a mother.

On Lan, the grandmother character in the story

It's a life that is part of American history. And you know, that's one of the things the book attempts to recast. Often we think of the refugee or the immigrant "finds" her American identity once she steps on American soil. But in fact, this novel argues that American identity for refugees actually begins the moment American bombs start to fall on Vietnam. In other words, American-ness begins with American foreign policy, and that in fact the lives of these people, these American immigrants — their American-ness began as soon as war started to spark in that little country no larger than California.

On Little Dog's realization that he will grow up to be different than his mother

I think one of the most perennial questions for any immigrant, but particularly an immigrant like Little Dog who's attempting to write not only about his life but the lives of those he loved, is that to write about them is to both betray them and preserve them at once. And it's a paradox that many first or second generation immigrants must confront. And often there are no ways to come to terms with it except to embrace that fact and that project.

On the mother's statement: "I'm not a monster. I'm a mother."

It's her way of trying to recast herself in the story. And I think it's a beautiful moment where she tries to correct his vision, but also a moment of self-awareness — that she knows that she suffers from PTSD from the war, and that led to a lot of abuse and trauma and difficulty. And that there's a moment where she says: I'm still your mother. The fact that I gave birth to you, that will never change. And it's her way of staking a claim onto his life and her life. And actually, that moment to me feels the most motherly, is that reminder, that powerful reminder a woman makes to her child that: Don't forget, that you're here because of me, that I'm not a monster regardless of what I've done.

On if his own mother reads his work

She doesn't. She struggles with it ... she's spent her whole life working in factories and nail salons. And she told me herself when I started writing — she says, "You go on. You do this work. My time was all for you." And I think I try to honor that by writing the best sentences that I can.

Hiba Ahmad, Peter Breslow and Evie Stone produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Mother's come to Hartford, Conn. after living through a hellscape of war in Vietnam. She goes to work at a nail salon, smokes Marlboro Reds and more than once - more than 20 times - beats her son but tells herself I'm not a monster, I'm a mother. "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" is the highly awaited, debut novel from Ocean Vuong - a T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet and assistant professor in the MFA program for poets and writers at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He joins us from WFCR in Amherst.

Thanks so much for being with us.

OCEAN VUONG: Thank you, Scott. Glad to be here.

SIMON: Your narrator known as Little Dog has more than a few biographical resemblances to you, doesn't he?

VUONG: Yes, absolutely.

SIMON: So where do you leave off and the character pickup and vice versa?

VUONG: They're all intermingled. I think what I wanted, what I hoped to do was to speak to a rich American tradition of autobiography all the way down to Herman Melville in "Moby-Dick." And so, for myself, I always saw the self in the American space as a potent moment of fiction. And I wanted to start with truth and end with art as a writer. And that was very important to me.

SIMON: So much of the prose in this book is so vivid, affecting and startling, I would like you to read a paragraph that begins with a description of the hands of Little Dog's mother.

VUONG: Absolutely.

(Reading) Because I am your son what I know of work I know equally of loss. And what I know of both I know of your hands. Their once supple contours I've never felt, the palms already calloused and blistered long before I was born, then ruined further from three decades in factories and nail salons. Your hands are hideous, and I hate everything that made them that way.

SIMON: Help us understand, I hate everything that made them that way.

VUONG: Yes, the image, the object that is a mother's hands is also a biography of that person. It marks who they are, where they come from and what they've done - including the cost of raising a child as a single mother in the American landscape. And I think when a son looks at a mother's hands that have been that callous, he realized all the things that led to his actual life, that the hands are evidence that nothing has been easy.

SIMON: One of the most affecting scenes for me, too, is when Little Dog is learning how to read..

VUONG: Right.

SIMON: ...And tries to teach his mother how to read.

VUONG: Right.

SIMON: She doesn't like this role reversal, does she?

VUONG: No. No. And that's the intimate moment between mother and son. He's in a position of power because knowledge is power. And he realizes that if my mother's going to succeed, I have to show her this gift - this almost magic of reading. But that also means the son is now in a different hierarchical space. He's now the one teaching his mother the power dynamic shifts. And as important as it is, she couldn't bear it because that's all she has is this fixed power shift that she always maintained as a mother. And if it means not being able to read, so be it. It was more important to her to remain a mother.

SIMON: I find myself thinking, hoping that Lan, Little Dog's elderly grandmother, might wind up being her own novel on day (laughter).

VUONG: Right, perhaps.

SIMON: Can I say bar girl?

VUONG: Yes.

SIMON: In Vietnam deemed a traitor for consorting with the enemy - what a life.

VUONG: And it's a life that is part of American history. And, you know, that's one of the things the book attempts to recast. Often we think of the refugee or the immigrant is - finds her American identity once she steps on American soil. But in fact, this novel argues that American identity for refugees actually begins the moment American bombs starts to fall on Vietnam. Their Americanness begin as soon as war started to spark in that little country no larger than California.

SIMON: Tensions are created - as Little Dog understands, he's growing up to be, will grow up to be very different from his mother...

VUONG: Right.

SIMON: ...And for that matter, his absent father. Does that make him feel like he's part of some kind of betrayal?

VUONG: I think so. I think so. I think one of the most perennial questions for any immigrant but particularly an immigrant like Little Dog who's attempting to write not only about his life but the lives of those he loves is that to write about them is to both betray them and preserve them at once. And it's a paradox that many first and second generation immigrants must confront. And often there are no ways to come to terms with it except to embrace that fact and that project.

SIMON: And help us understand when Little Dog's mother says I'm not a monster, I'm a mother.

VUONG: It's her way of trying to recast herself in the story but also a moment of self-awareness that she knows that she suffers from PTSD, from the war and that led to a lot of abuse and trauma and difficulty. And that - there's a moment where she says I am still your mother. The fact that I gave birth to you that will never change. Actually that moment, to me, feels the most motherly. It's that reminder that a woman makes to her child that don't forget you're here because of me, that I'm not a monster regardless of what I've done.

SIMON: I was deeply moved when she tells him - this woman who can't read - you have a belly full of English you have to use it.

VUONG: Right.

SIMON: May I ask? Can your mother read your books, your poems?

VUONG: She doesn't. She struggles with it, and she's - you know, she spent her whole life working in factories and nail salons. And she told me herself when I started writing she says you go on. You do this work. My time was all for you. And I think I tried to honor that by writing the best sentences that I can.

SIMON: Ocean Vuong, his debut novel published in 15 languages is "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," thank you so much for being with us.

VUONG: Thank you so much, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.