Youn March 2019, three months before the publication of Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,He called his agent while he was in the corridor of a Hartford hospital. “There’s no way I can go on tour,” he said. “My mother has cancer. It’s over.”
The first time his mother, Hong, had gone to the emergency room with terrible back pain, he wasn’t with her. An adhesive heat pad was applied to her back by the hospital. Vuong lives with Peter in Northampton Mass. and went to her. Doctors ran more tests, and she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. The marrow was found in her spine.
“When she went herself, she got a heat pad. When I came, with English, she went to the oncology ward,” Vuong, 33, tells me. He speaks with a deep voice that carries no shock, although he can clearly hear the pain in his mother’s voice. They had experienced similar situations after their arrival in the U.S. in 1990 as refugees. “I thought, Here we are again: I have to speak for you. You have to feel my pain. You must express your humanity. Because it’s not a given. Which is the central problem with how we value Asian American women.”
Vuong, a poet and writer of international fame knows that he has the right to be seen in certain places and hear him only. He was asked by a woman of color if English was his first language when he tried to obtain his UMass Amherst university ID. “She could have looked in my file and seen that I’m an English professor,” he says, sounding almost amused. “But I’m not legible until my career makes me legible. When I walk into an event, I am Ocean Vuong doing a reading—I bypass some of the coded veils that Asian Americans are made invisible by, but only in that context. It’s an insulated privilege that doesn’t extend to other Asian Americans … to people like my mother, working in a nail salon.”
Vuong with his mother, Elizabeth Park, Hartford, Conn. circa 1992
After his mother’s diagnosis, he says, “it all just fell away”: the tour, the publicity, what the novel would mean for his career. “Who’s Ocean Vuong? I don’t know. In the hospital ward, nobody knows. None of the powerful sentences do anything when your mother is dying a few feet away from you.”
That June, with his mother’s cancer temporarily held at bay by hormone therapy, Vuong was able to tour after all. The EarthNew York City was made in an instant TimesBest seller. Rebecca Solnit, the writer, recalls an enthusiastic crowd attending an event that they organized. “Afterward, a young Asian American woman said to me, ‘Until Ocean, no one was telling our story.’ He knew what the audience needed.”
Learn More These are the 100 must-read books for 2021
When Vuong was interviewed by Seth Meyers, his mother watched from home, calling him in tears afterward because he’d spoken in Vietnamese at the end. Her cancer was spreading by September and she had trouble breathing. Her death was on November 2.
… stop writing
They spoke of your mother
But I cannot take it out.
The rose that it flowers back like my own
pink mouth …
Vuong completed his new collection of poetry. Time is a mother while mourning, in a world consumed by the advancing pandemic—“I was grieving, the world was grieving, and the only thing I really had was to go back to poems.” The collection bears witness to love, loss, and trauma in a way that may feel especially resonant to readers right now; it reads as a search for meaning and truth in a life remade by grief. He tells me that it is the only book he’s written that he is proud of, because he compromised nothing. That may be due to the fact that he lost his mother.
“All the things I’d written, it was all to try to take care of her. I went to school for her, I worked for her—she was the source,” he says. “When that was taken away, I didn’t have anything else to answer to. And so I finally wrote for myself.”
Vuong was just 2 at the timeHis family fled Vietnam. Some of his earliest memories were from his back room in Hartford’s Franklin Avenue townhouse. He remembers every detail about these rooms. The sounds and bodies they contained, along with the shared bedroom that he shared, are all recalled by him. “We had so little,” he says, “but I felt safe back then, because I was always surrounded by Vietnamese voices.”
At the age of five, he learned English. In fourth grade, he wrote his first poem, which he was accused of plagiarizing—his teacher didn’t believe he could have written it. He noticed that his teacher was paying more attention and sometimes helping him with the typing of assignments. “I learned that putting the DNA of my mind on paper had garnered this white man’s respect,” he recalls. “I felt incredibly dangerous and powerful.”
… reader I’ve
plagiarized my life
We want to make sure you get the best
of me …
Vuong tells me he became a writer because he is “full of limitations.” He proceeds to list them: he panics easily; he is dyslexic; he finds paperwork and “the minutiae of life” challenging; he struggled with drug addiction. Some of his limitations are inherited and lived traumas. Another “limitation”? “I can’t fake it,” he laughs. That’s why he left the international marketing program at Pace University in New York City, where he had enrolled in the hope of earning money to help his mother—“a position so many immigrant children are in—we defer our dreams to do the practical thing.” He dropped out once he realized that he was learning “how to lie for corporations.” “If my heart isn’t in something, I can’t do it, you know? Maybe that’s why I don’t have many drafts—by the time I get to the blank page, my heart is already there. That’s a limitation, in a way, but that’s also how I got here.”
Photograph of Poet Ocean Vuong in New York, February 21st.
Jody Rogac is TIME
Ashamed to return home empty-handed, Vuong worked in a café, slept on friends’ couches, spent his free hours at the New York Public Library, and enrolled at Brooklyn College to study literature. Open-mic poems were published in early chapbooks. His prestigious fellowships were awarded and he was granted an MFA by New York University. Night Sky and Exit Wounds won a Whiting Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Vuong calls his career “serendipitous at every turn,” but it’s also clear that there were many points when he could have given up on his writing and didn’t.
His work could sometimes be “a touchy subject” with his family, who couldn’t fully grasp his life as a poet. He suspects that his mother, who was illiterate, didn’t try to read because the struggle might make the distance between herself and her son more explicit. But when he would visit her and read—not his own poems, just a magazine he’d brought with him—she would tell everyone to hush: “Ocean’s reading.”
“It felt like sorcery, a portal to another world—to success, power—that she didn’t understand,” he says. “She didn’t ask me about it, but she was like, OK, good: Do this, read your books, forever. As long as you’re sustaining yourself. You’re the first to be able to do this.”
Learn More The 21 Most Excited Books in 2022
She would not look at her son when she was attending his readings. Instead, she would place her chair so she could observe the crowd watching her child. “She read them while I was reading my work, and then she would say, ‘I understand now. I don’t know what you’re saying, but I can see how their faces change when you speak. I can feel how it’s landing in the world.’” His voice takes on a hint of the wonder his mother must have felt. “I realized this is something she taught me. I learned how to be vigilant from her as an Asian woman and a woman with a different race. How people’s faces, posture, tone, could be read. She taught me how to make everything legible when language was not.”
Vuong began writing the poem he calls “the spine” of Time is a mother, “Dear Rose,” after finishing the third draft of his novel, partly because it felt important to him to return to poetry. “I thought: What would happen if I tried to rewrite the novel as a poem? I’ve never believed that you write a book and then you’re done. I’ve always felt that our themes are inexhaustible, and our work is to keep building architectures for these obsessions. Who’s to say that one novel, or 35 poems in Night Sky could exhaust these big questions about love, trauma, migration, American identity, American grief, American history?”
A version of “Dear Rose”—his mother’s name means pink or rose—appeared in Harper’sIn 2017, she was two years old when her death occurred. In Time is a mother,With different opening lines, it is back in existence.
Now, let me start again
that you’re gone Ma
if you’re reading this then you survived
your life into this one …
One point I tell him that my mother died from cancer recently. I understand it is difficult for him to share this with me. He immediately offers his sympathy, noting that we are both “immigrants in this new land of grief.” To his mind, death is “the closest thing we have to a universal,” and so our love for those we’ve lost is also a form of common ground.
He isn’t new to grief—before his mother died, he lost friends to the opioid epidemic; he lost his uncle to suicide; he lost his grandmother. Writing about “the private deaths,” as he calls them, is an extension of the work he’s always done: considering the aftermath of trauma, war, displacement, mass death. “As an Asian American coming out of diasporas, you know this: when you look at Vietnamese conflicts, Korean conflicts, you see a lot of corpses that look like yourself,” he tells me. “The negotiation with death as self-knowledge is something a lot of Asian writers and writers of color encounter. And so grief might actually be the mode in which I write—not all my poems are mournful, but they’re haunted by the inevitability of death, and so the urgency and even the joys that come out of them are through the knowledge of our own end. On good days, that’s also how I live,” he adds with a small smile, “though sometimes I forget that.”
“He’s willing to write about difficult things with vulnerability, and with attention to not only expressing what a thing is—whether it’s grief or loss or addiction or displacement—but how it feels, and also what a way forward can look like,” says author Bryan Washington. “As a queer author of color, I can speak to how difficult that is to do, and how in many ways there is incentive not to do that.”
Tommy Orange, the author of this book is also a fan. “The beauty of what Ocean does with language is what gets me first,” he says, “the marriage of his use of language with the reckoning of an American identity … the wisdom and compassion in his work matches his craft, and I think that’s rare.”
Vuong tells VuongBecause he freely wrote the book and was open to all possibilities, he feels proud about it. “There’s more humor, more witticism. There are more registers,” he says. “This book is all of me—I’m fully here. That feels kind of like a death in itself, as well as a celebration … Have I stopped growing? Is this my plateau?”
But soon we’re talking about his teaching, his writing practice, new things he wants to try. He’s showing me his favorite Japanese notebook and explaining why he writes by hand: “If you want to write a sentence, you’ll arrive much faster with a computer. With the hand, by the time you get to the end of a sentence, or maybe somewhere in the middle, you find yourself hovering—and now there are detours; other ideas come to you. You can go anywhere else. There’s much more you can discover.” I suggest that his growth probably hasn’t plateaued if he’s still pushing, pursuing new discoveries in every sentence, and he nods: “That’s the hope.”
He thought about these things after he had won the Whiting. I’m going to buy my mother a house. Though he can no longer make a physical home for her, he’s always thinking about family, chosen and otherwise, and what it means to build a life around them. He tells me that he and Peter just bought a house in Massachusetts, with room for a crowd: “My brother can move in. If he has children, they will be able to live there. My aunt can move in there when she gets older. Our friends—most of whom are artists, queer folks of color—can come and just recover.” It strikes me as a kind of callback to the community that let him couch-surf when he was a broke young poet, but it’s clear he’s thinking back further than that, to his early childhood surrounded by family, including his mother, speaking in his mother tongue. “I think I still hope for that in some way,” he says. “What do I want my family to look like? What are the things I would like to do with my limited resources? I’d like to build places where people I love can be comfortable and OK. This is what my life has taught me.”
Chung is the memoir author. You Can Know Everything
Here are more must-read stories from TIME