Ocean Vuong and I are in my car on one of the roads by his house in Northampton, where he’s lived for the past couple of years and teaches poetry at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Vuong is relaxed and chatty in the passenger seat. In just a 10-minute span, it feels as if we’ve covered an hour’s worth of conversation: our jade necklaces (his, a slender carving of the goddess Guan Yin that came from his mother; mine, a funny-shaped lucky peach that was a wedding gift from an aunt); his affinity for writing late at night; the thunderstorm he weathered while at a retreat at an Italian castle that forced him to write part of his new novel by hand.
He directs us to a T. J. Maxx about an hour away in Connecticut, near the nail salon where his mother used to work.
Over the years, Vuong has garnered some of the highest literary praise for his poetry. He’s pocketed a Whiting Award and a T. S. Eliot prize, and The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani has likened Vuong’s poetry to that of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. All this after his poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, was published in 2016. It is studded with vestiges of the Vietnam War and the experiences of queer and immigrant folks in America, and pulls partly from his own life.
But with his new novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong wades into a different form. I ask him about the transition from writing poetry to prose. “If I had my way, I’d recommend the earnest pursuit of poetry for every writer,” Vuong says while I point us south and carefully follow my car’s navigation, consistently 10 miles under the speed limit, because driving and talking at the same time is not one of my strengths. His logic is that by the time poets write their first collection, they’ve started and finished hundreds of poems, which is a helpful building block for any other kind of writing. “You have much more experience negotiating the fossilization of an idea,” he says. “There’s more trial and error in a moment.”
I’m on this miniature road trip with Vuong for a reason that has much to do with how I first learned his name, more than a decade earlier. It was 2008, my senior year of high school, and one of my English teachers told me about a talented poetry student of his who had graduated a couple of years earlier and was making a go of writing. Though we overlapped for two years at Glastonbury High, Vuong and I didn’t know each other, which is a little feat. Not very many Asian American kids went there; you tend to take stock of your people in situations like that. So I was curious to finally meet him in the place where we spent our adolescent years and visit some of his old haunts.
“I do give a lot of credit to growing up here,” Vuong says, referring to Glastonbury. “Not in a This town made me kind of way, like Old boy does good, you know? But the ways that it was brutal, and how I survived it.”
Vuong knows how to capture the essence of survival in his work. I recall a part of his poem “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” from Night Sky. It felt as if I were stealing a glance at a set of self-affirmations, or maybe self-promises:
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.”
As we float down I-91, it’s hard not to think that this trip to Glastonbury is somehow transporting us backwards in time.
There is something surreal and triggering about returning to this place, Vuong and I agree as we pass by his mother’s old nail salon. We have a muscle memory for the town’s handful of strip malls—the buildings adorned with a neat white trim—and the seemingly idyllic housing developments that sprawl along the winding roads. Like Vuong, I spent much of my time as a teenager counting the days until I could leave, and like Vuong, I’ve spent much of my adult life avoiding returning here.
“Oh my God,” he says after we pass a shopping center where he used to work at a natural-food market. “I would bike these whole roads.”
When I first read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I understood Vuong’s regional references immediately: Mozzicato’s, Town Line Diner, Franklin Ave., the enormous tobacco fields and orchards, the McMansions with living rooms the size of houses, the endless evenings. On Earth’s descriptions of Connecticut felt familiar, and yet like I was seeing it in a fresh light, with new vocabulary to describe the peculiar experience of my time there—simultaneous flashes of loneliness and hope for the future.
Glastonbury sits just southeast of Hartford and is tucked along a few bends of the Connecticut River. The first and probably most common adjective people use to describe it is “rich,” because “white” is likely already implied. The high school has about 2,000 students, and its mascot is the Tomahawks, possibly a twisted ode to the Native Americans who lived on this land before white settlers colonized it. An unspoken uniform—common at wealthy Connecticut high schools—made the school’s homogeneity even more conspicuous: black North Face fleece, matching backpack, Ugg boots, and leggings.
We’ve been trading stories throughout the drive about former teachers who helped us (or didn’t); the drug abuse Vuong witnessed and experienced; the enormous striations of class we encountered; the lack of racial diversity that we noted any time we stepped into a room; and the singular definition of masculinity that seemed to pervade the school and town. (One of the most terrifying things people used to say in high school was “no homo,” he tells me later in the day.)
Vuong runs through a list of racist things kids called him: Jackie Chan; SARS, almost creatively, after the flu-like viral disease that had an outbreak in Asia; and the Grudge, a nod to the chilling ghostlike character from the Japanese horror film and its American remake.
I tell him that a couple of kids from middle school—my friends—sometimes called me the Grudge, too. “I’m so sorry I didn’t know you back there,” he says. “I think we would have helped each other out.”
I’m not sure if he’s telling me this because it’s the sort of thing one says to be nice, but we’d been talking so much about how isolated we’d felt that I take this sincerely. During the first couple months of my freshman year, I’d told him earlier in the day, my mom died suddenly from cancer, launching me and my family into grieving disarray for much of my time in high school. It’s a small comfort knowing that someone with a shared experience—though very different—had been nearby.
Vuong’s family fled Vietnam as refugees in 1990, when he was 2, and resettled in Hartford. Through what he describes as some “creative” geographic maneuvering, Vuong’s relatives sent him to Glastonbury’s public schools. When Vuong was 13, his family landed a unit within Glastonbury’s Welles Village, part of the town’s affordable-housing program. (I lived in a neighboring suburb and crossed the river every day to get to school; I was enrolled in the high school’s agriculture program, which was meant to teach students animal and plant science, but seemed in practice to exist mostly to add out-of-town racial diversity to the school.)
“We literally erased ourselves to go to school here,” Vuong says. “And there was shame with that, too, because I didn’t know how to make use of it. Everyone says, ‘It’s a great school,’ and I was like, ‘I dunno! … I don’t know if it’s that great. I feel like I’m judged before I step into any room’ … I couldn’t show my mother anything, like my grades or anything.” Vuong says he had a 1.7 GPA at one point in high school; he was ashamed he didn’t have much to show for the sacrifices his family had made.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter that a young boy named Little Dog writes to his illiterate mother. In trying to explain himself, Little Dog reveals an identity fashioned out of violence and revisits some of the most poignant moments from his childhood: his family’s trauma from the Vietnam War, drug addiction, finding lust and love, understanding his own sexuality, creating solidarity among the women in his family, and ultimately, suffering a great loss.
“I would never call this book a tragic story,” Vuong says. Hope and joy, he notes, are essential to the story too. “I think the best stories have those things side by side—because that’s how life is lived.”
Little Dog and his family live in Hartford, and he sometimes rides his bike across the river and through the rolling, tree-lined hills to a tobacco farm where he works in the summer. He spends much of his free time with a boy named Trevor, whose grandfather runs the farm, and with whom he becomes romantically intertwined. In the novel, Vuong describes the stifling restlessness that comes from living in a place like this, where you don’t fit in—the tender ache to break away, and the needling fear that you’ve been trapped all along.
“As we climbed the road up the steep hill, the starless sky opened up, the trees fell slowly back, and the houses grew further and further apart from one another … We stopped at the top of one of the hills, exhausted. Moonlight appraised the orchard to our right,” Little Dog narrates. “It was Hartford. It was a cluster of light that pulsed with a force I never realized it possessed … The city brims before us with a strange, rare brilliance—as if it was not a city at all, but the sparks made by some god sharpening his weapons above us.”
When I read this description after my conversation with Vuong, I think of something he said about his process. In his work, he told me, he tries to supplant the American mythos that “something is only valuable once we’ve tamed it or conquered it or dominated it.” He strives for a more complicated view. “I think my approach to this book was to have a different route,” he said. “There are no victims and no villains.”
He wanted to afford every character—a human, a place, an idea—its own agency.
With the navigation off, I drive a little aimlessly along Glastonbury’s main strip while Vuong points out the landmarks of his teenage years: That’s the Dunkin’ Donuts where, his senior year, he used to pull sacks of day-old donuts and bagels from the Dumpster at 11 o’clock at night, re-bag them, and then sell them for 50 cents to classmates and teachers the next morning.
That’s the Panera where he worked, which seemed so bougie to him then.
Vuong then directs me down his old street, Risley Road, which appears in one of his poems, “Dear Rose.” As we drive past small houses that have been split into duplexes, he notes the ones where people he knew overdosed. “We didn’t know what was happening to us, you know? That was just how we coped,” he’d said earlier. “We didn’t have rides to basketball. We couldn’t participate in any after-school clubs … there were drugs. And the drugs helped.”
This was Connecticut deep in its opioid epidemic, before there was much clarity on how widespread the issue was. (On Earth captures this crisis: “I never did heroin because I’m chicken about needles,” Little Dog says. “When I declined his offer to shoot it, Trevor, tightening the cell phone charger around his arm with his teeth, nodded toward my feet. ‘Looks like you dropped your tampon.’ Then he winked, smiled—and faded back into the dream he made of himself.”)
In high school, Vuong understood he had to leave Connecticut. At the urging of a guidance counselor—and by studying the tenets of Buddhism in the school library—he slowly began to make alterations to his life, which included stopping his drug use and making more of an effort with schoolwork. After spending some time at a community college, Vuong headed to Pace University, in New York, to study marketing. His time there lasted only a few weeks before he understood it wasn’t for him. But he couldn’t bring himself to head back to Connecticut, where his mother was proudly telling clients her son was studying business.
There was poetry, though. Since high school, there had always been poetry; he’d written in his diary at age 15 that one day, he’d be a poet, finally. “They say if you wish something true—you must say it over and over,” he wrote in an entry he posted on Instagram. To make this true, he enrolled in a program at Brooklyn College. But Vuong quickly realized that even when surrounded by other writers, he felt like an outsider. He recalls one of his first literary events in New York. He was dressed in sweatpants, and a woman gave him the classic up-and-down look, as if to say, How did you get in?
“At one point, one woman turned to me and says, ‘Really, you’re so lucky. You get to write about war. I’m white, I got nothing,’” Vuong says. “The crazy thing, I was so naive I believed her, because she was from Columbia [University]. I said, ‘Oh my God, you’re right.’” (He says now that writers like that have a “willing amnesia … to convince themselves they have nothing, when in fact they have everything.”)
After the success of Night Sky, some people suggested he write about other things besides war, violence, queerness, and immigration. But he felt he wasn’t finished asking questions about those themes—all integral to understanding American identity. So he set to work on his novel, which itself seemed to be a pointed act.
“I wanted to be inspired by these poor, yellow bodies,” he says, “and to see that their bodies inspired me towards literature with a capital L, the way white, aristocratic bodies were so often inspired to Tolstoy, and you know, Proust and Woolf.”
As he began writing On Earth, Vuong says he tried to stick to the facts of his life. But just a few paragraphs in, he found himself embellishing details to push the story forward, as he did with his poems. “I wanted to invoke or invite an autobiographical reading, but refuse it ultimately,” Vuong says. “The book would be founded on truth, but realized by the imagination.”
In a way, it seems fitting that Vuong’s novel is constructed as a letter his speaker, Little Dog, writes to his mother, which she will never be able to read. There is something striking about Little Dog’s quest for delivering a truth only he might know, as though the act of simply telling a story is enough.
Even as Vuong’s life has pulled him from Connecticut, he’s still planting roots there—or at least, helping his family do so.
After graduating from Brooklyn College, Vuong toyed with returning to work at a Panera. He was in the process of applying to graduate school, and hadn’t yet published Night Sky or received his teaching gig at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He reasoned he could stick around at a Panera for a few years, become district manager, make a decent living, and help out his mother financially. When Vuong won the Whiting Award, in 2016, he used the prize money as a down payment for a modest home for his mother in another Hartford suburb.
Vuong credits much of his upbringing to being raised by his mother, who had him young. “We didn’t have therapy. Nobody told us anything. We kind of just stumbled together,” Vuong says. “There’s a beauty to that; you have to collaborate very closely with your life … in retrospect, I preferred it that way.”
That type of relationship with a parent seems so familiar to us immigrant kids and kids of immigrants. You’re taught, culturally, to respect and care for your elders, yes; but something about seeing your parents displaced in this country makes you feel more protective of their sacrifices, more tender despite their complications and the ways they might have hurt you, and more prone to parenting them, in addition to yourself.
“Again, it comes down to agency,” Vuong says. He tells me, as we sit in the parking lot of Glastonbury’s community center, where he gave a reading a couple of years ago, that his mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness just a month and a half earlier.
“I felt like I was in another dimension,” Vuong says. “You know, you’re in a different world. What literary world? What books?” He’s currently on leave from teaching, and he translates for his mother at doctor appointments—a role not unsimilar to the one he used to assume when he was a kid.
Something about family always reminds him of where he’s from. “I still come from this broken ilk,” Vuong says. “I just bailed out two cousins this year. I [didn’t] know how to bail anyone out; it was a very humble moment because, ‘You’re Ocean Vuong, you’re Ocean Vuong’—every room you go into, ‘You’re Ocean Vuong.’ And then all of a sudden you’re in a police department and you don’t know how to bail somebody out … You realize, this other part of your life—these skills atrophy when you don’t use them.”
They may atrophy, but they’re always there. I see a version of this when we are in South Glastonbury, by the tobacco farm where Vuong worked more than a decade ago. Vuong directed us to this spot because his character Little Dog spends a lot of time here in the novel.
“I think you’re feeling what I’m feeling, too,” Vuong had said to me earlier when we were in the car and I was circling the fields, unsure where to park. “Like there’s this bodily notion of trespass ... I felt that when I was here. There’s such an ingrained sense of trespass. Because you know that as soon as they see your face, they know you don’t live here.”
As we’re walking by an orchard, we encounter two people within minutes of each other. We’re graduate students at UConn studying suburban farming, Vuong says each time, before they can ask why we’re here. He mentions he went to school here, and offers trivia about corn and tobacco plants and growing seasons. On our way back to my car, an older man, white like the others we’ve met, intercepts us and makes conversation with Vuong.
“Now, these are all our friends or relatives?” he says eventually, scanning our faces. Vuong and I are with a photographer and her friend, and all of us happen to be about the same age and Asian American.
“These are friends—well, classmates,” Vuong says.
“Now, you’re all Korean?”
“I’m Vietnamese,” Vuong says. We go around the circle and play our turn in this familiar game. Chinese, the photographer says. Chinese, I tell the man. Korean, the photographer’s friend says. The man launches into a story about being stationed in Korea, to which we all nod along. When he leaves, the four of us bolt to our cars.
“That was like Get Out,” Vuong says as he buckles his seatbelt. He’s summing up the way that, upon coming across each curious stranger, Vuong, the photographer, her friend, and I all tensed and slipped into an automatic and uneasy politeness. Yes, I agree. Sort of like Get Out. It’s funny how, despite all the years that have passed, despite all the measures we’ve taken to leave, it’s like we’re back in high school—how vulnerable we feel, how foreign.
before I drop him off at the house he bought for his mother, and before I head to my dad’s place across the river, we’re standing at a congested intersection. I walk haphazardly across the street.
Vuong shuffles in step next to me. As a person of color, he says while gesturing at the crosswalk, he doesn’t think cars usually see him. “I could have never done that,” he says. “It would take me a long time” to get across.
I laugh. I had only crossed because I thought he’d also started to walk.
I understand what Vuong means about often not feeling seen. But after spending a day with him, I find myself thinking—a bit earnestly—that he’s somehow retroactively rendered my own high school experience less painful, just by virtue of being in that same temporal space, even though we hadn’t met. In a way, Vuong works this same magic through his poetry, and now, his novel; he builds a world that draws from his own life and, in turn, makes the reader’s experience more real, more beautiful, and more our own.
It’s as if he followed his mother’s advice and took this notion of invisibleness and tried to turn it into something so concrete, no one could look away.
“If you don’t do it, who will?” his mother frequently asked him. “If you won’t do it, who will?”