‘A voice to capture this generation’: Ocean Vuong captivates at Bay Area reading

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Ocean Vuong did not write his novel with an audience in mind, he said. But on Tuesday, he found one anyway — a crowd that, half an hour before his reading was due to begin, stuffed itself into every nook and cranny of San Francisco’s 9th Avenue Green Apple Books. The designated seats placed at the front of the room had run out some 30 people ago, and still more were filing in, compressing themselves next to shelves with marker-labeled signs and secondhand copies of science fiction. Staff members squeezed past with difficulty, delivering tall stacks of Vuong’s book “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” to the front cash register.

“I trained as a poet first and foremost, and as a poet, you’re taught to never expect anyone to wait at the end of what you write,” Vuong said by way of opening, painting a line of written text as a microcosm of the act of writing itself — a line readers can follow and wait for it to come to an end.

Before the release of his debut novel earlier this month, the writer was already known in poets’ circles, having won acclaim — a Forward Prize for Poetry in 2017, the international T.S. Eliot Prize later that same year — for his volumes of verse. On Tuesday, he was speaking to a packed house as part of his national book tour, an event that he professed to be overwhelming as well as thrilling. “I’ll get louder as I get braver,” he added. “And the braver I get the more words I’ll say.”

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is in most senses a novel — though Vuong rejects the traditional, plot-driven definitions that come with the genre term. Told in a variety of perspectives, from first person to second-person epistolary, the book follows the character Little Dog as he writes a letter to his illiterate mother, recounting incidences of childhood, trauma, cultural disconnect and love.

Hina Shah, an associate professor of law at Golden Gate University who was in attendance, called Vuong “a voice to capture this generation (of immigrants).” He’s a writer whose work speaks to her own experiences of immigrating to America when she was 8 years old. The story that Vuong, who came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam at 2 years old, weaves throughout “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” reconciles divisions faced by many immigrants who moved at such a young age. The book questions in particular whether first-generation immigrant children, who may write in a language unfamiliar to their parents, can truly know or fairly represent their parents as subjects. It reconciles these divisions at the same time that it insists upon confronting them: Little Dog writes a letter to his mother that he knows she will never read, as she cannot read and he does not intend to send it.

Vuong explores resolution by highlighting language’s potential use as yet another facet of American violence. Language, he said, can be analogous to warfare in its appetite for destroying that which does not conform to established convention. He looks to overturn its hegemony.

“I did not want to repeat American violence (in my writing),” Vuong said. “Unlike a lot of the trajectories of the Western canon, I did not want the protagonist to realize himself through the destruction of anyone else. … Having been raised by refugee women, I learned that we didn’t come here with nothing; we came here with a long rich history of storytelling that, in the American landscape, serves as a potent moment of alterity.”

That alterity manifests in many ways, Vuong said. From rewriting the histories he had been taught in American schools about the Vietnam War to using the conventions of the English language — which, in America, seeks to assimilate and Westernize its speakers — Vuong strives to advocate against existing reductive narratives. He called the act of cultural education, which many writers of color must contend with when writing prose for a mass audience, an opportunity instead of a burden for authors. “(It’s a) privilege to ask and inquire,” he said. It’s a chance to learn the stories of those who do not share a particular set of traumas but who nonetheless experience trauma in their own ways.

True to Vuong’s roots in poetry, his book’s prose at times flows into the cadence and rhythms of its softer sibling, free verse. The effect is especially pronounced when heard out loud; Vuong’s voice, rising and falling in assonance and consonance before trailing off into whispers, transformed each period into a line break as he read.

The themes of breakage and reconciliation, originally explored in the book’s reflection on intergenerational dynamics, emerge again as the prose, through diction, renews its commitment to each word’s place within a collective. America is too often a country of individuals, Vuong said. He aims to inspire a commitment to others so that such individuals might become a people.

“Every word is absolutely malleable depending on where it stands among the citizenry of the poem,” Vuong said. “Proximity creates enough tension to create art.”

But as Vuong made clear, there cannot be proximity without there first being a schism, a deconstruction — a line break to capture meaning where words alone are insufficient, made manifest in stories that were not previously heard or a writing style scarcely previously used. Vuong ended his reading with a tribute to his childhood friends who died as a result of the opioid epidemic in Connecticut. He sang a song, “Bright Morning Star,” which he recalled hearing at their funeral services and which promises hope among breakage. His voice broke at its highest points: “Bright morning stars are rising,” he sang, his voice cracking, “Day is a-breaking / In my soul.”

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].