Ocean Vuong: 'I Don’t Want To Serve American Expectations' | Vietcetera
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Jan 25, 2022

Ocean Vuong: 'I Don’t Want To Serve American Expectations'

“It's important for both readers and writers to be skeptical of all formats and models, and to return to the root of poetry — linguistic pleasure.”
Ocean Vuong: 'I Don’t Want To Serve American Expectations'

It doesn’t matter what you say, but how you say it.

“I’m so proud and excited that the book will be lived in Vietnamese, the language closest to the concept of “home” to me, the language that always revives in me the strongest feelings of flesh and blood, emotion, and joy,” Ocean Vuong shared with Nha Nam on the occasion of his first novel — “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” — being officially released in Vietnam, titled ‘Một thoáng ta rực rỡ ở nhân gian.’

Not only Ocean, but Vietnamese readers are equally proud and excited. After being published in more than 30 languages, a literary work that has created a great resonance and is being turned into a movie by A24, has finally reached Vietnamese readers in our native language.

With all those expectations, Nha Nam Publishing and Communications JSC have recently held the first online exchange between Ocean Vuong and Vietnamese readers. Using both English and Vietnamese, Ocean Vuong not only answered questions around his novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” but also suggested many things about the profession of writing and creativity from the perspective of a writer-teacher.

How do you usually approach writing?

With curiosity, wonder, and most of all, courage.

Coming from a working family, I realize that the sadness or discomfort when working with paper and pen is only a very small price to pay, compared to the fact that my loved ones are sacrificing their bodies to work. Writing, therefore, is a privilege, a luxury that I know I must cherish and pursue seriously.

To me, composing is like being pregnant. Before a child is born, it is raised in the womb for nine months — and so is the work. With writing, the ‘pregnancy’ process is the time to come up with ideas, circumstances, then nourish and wait for them to grow. I spend two years just ‘notebooking’ and sketching. After that, the work will begin to take on a life of its own.

At first, I’ll start to outline vaguely, leaving a lot of room for imagination along the way. When emerging on a journey, we will want to discover new things as we go. A plan that is too detailed, or a structure that is too specific, could easily suck up the author’s creativity when “bearing” the work.

Finally, be wary of familiar models of climax and patterns when composing. When we consume that pattern, we start to anticipate it, thereby killing the surprising feature of the work. The value of narrative arts lies in the fact that it brings surprises to the audiences and manipulates their expectations.

So my advice to other writers is to find new or seldomly used models of storytelling. Avoid pre-existing patterns that have a beginning, a development, a climax, and an end. Find a novel pattern to tell a story in your own way, with your own “fingerprint.”

It doesn’t matter what you say, but how you say it. Same as reading, a work that holds the reader’s attention is a work that can bring surprises. Everything we write is all about love, life and death. If so, what is the point of writing if we don't find our own style of narration, which surprises even ourselves?

With the opportunity of this book, I want to change and reaffirm the beauty and value of my community.

Why was the word “ma” translated into Vietnamese as “mẹ” not “má”?

Basically, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a work written in English. Its paradox is that the book is written in the form of an English letter from a son to his mother who can only speak Vietnamese.

In English, ‘ma’ is short for ‘momma’ — a way of addressing the mother in Southern America. Moreover, for me, the word ‘ma’ is also more countryfied, more ‘nhà quê', which is true to the character’s living situation. That’s why Little Dog calls his mother ‘ma’, not ‘mother’ or ‘mom.’

I was born in Saigon and raised in a Southern Vietnamese family. In fact, at home, I call my mother ‘mẹ,’ while she calls hers ‘má.’ Having two distinct words to address ‘mother' is convenient in a place where many generations live together like my family.

"A glimpse of me is brilliant in the human world" | Source: Nguyen Viet Ha

What does the word “gorgeous” in the title of the book mean?

I understand that the title of this book is always a challenge for translators, especially when they want to adopt the word “gorgeous.” In French, it would mean “magnifique.” In English, I use “gorgeous” because it’s a pun reminiscent of the queer/LGBTQ+ community in the US.

In the 90s, when the AIDS epidemic raged across the U.S, the media always associated this community with death. At that time, “queerness” in the eyes of outsiders was always closer to death than beauty.

With the opportunity of this book, I want to change and reaffirm the beauty and value of my community. Both “gorgeous” in English and “rực rỡ” in Vietnamese — linguistically — are the proud proof of how those around me have survived the times.

Why did you structure this book as a letter?

There are so many flashbacks in my story, so the letter is a circuitous way, a detour, that allows me to wander, to jump from time to time. You don't have to follow a linear time to tell the story.

Another reason is that I want American readers to listen in on the private conversation between a Vietnamese son and mother from the perspective of outsiders.

It is a way to center a conversation around Vietnamese people first. The circle is closed but open, like the fourth wall on the stage that the audiences are looking in.

I don't want to serve American expectations anymore. Most previous Vietnamese life in America serves the American population through working in nails, food service, or dry cleaning. As an author living with the freedom of writing and expressing, I think it's such a waste to keep serving the American people as our old generations, our parents, used to do. I want to reverse that history.

I want to be an artist first, imagining everything.

Why is this book a novel, not a memoir?

I am fully aware of the fact that my readers, after finishing ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” would somehow believe the story is entirely true. However, I have never wanted to write a memoir since I am conscious of not commodifying my family story into art, to be bought and sold. And to just merely retell my personal history is such an easy job.

I want to be an artist first, imagining everything. It’s like creating a simulation, a parallel universe in which the characters live a similar life as mine.

In that sense, novels are an amazing technology, as the characters are much better than us. The characters, unlike us, have many opportunities to redo and fix their mistakes. That’s why Little Dog is much better, kinder, more patient and inquisitive than Ocean Vuong.

In real life, I only have one chance and sometimes even mess up that one chance, one draft of life. Mistakes are inescapable. For me, a novel is the second chance of life that I already lived, not to repeat it.

Just because it’s the most popular doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to write and that you should follow blindly.

What should we be skeptical of when composing?

You hardly hear this in Western classrooms, but the very first novel of human beings, ‘The tale of Genji,’ is a work of a Japanese woman written around a thousand years ago.

That’s why you should be suspicious of Western and American literary models. Just because it’s the most popular doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to write and that you should follow blindly.

As a professor at a Creative Writing Program at Massachusetts University, Amherst, I encourage both readers and writers to be skeptical of all formats and models. Sadly, most education systems around the world, particularly in America, only know how to judge words with numbers within a testing system. That's the irony.

Poetry is much older than any school system, degree, or grade. The most ancient art even began before civilization. The root of poetry, for me, is a linguistic pleasure. In terms of making and reading a literary work, if it gives you pleasure, then you have understood it and had everything you need from it.

When you go to the countryside, where poetry still lives in the oral tradition, you will realize that it uses the population. People would gather around in the evening to listen to the old folk stories from the elders, feeling joy, surprise, and pleasure. There’s a handing down of knowledge in that.

The word “narrative” in Latin means knowledge, so any kind of narrative art is, first and foremost, knowledge delivered through pleasure and joy.

Every year, my program receives many applications from all over the world, and I find that some of the weakest applications, in terms of creativity, are from Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. The reason is that these students dedicate their whole life to mastering the rules, to figure out ways to get many A’s. They are excellent at becoming mimics of the rules. Then, when it comes the time to create their own work, it’s so stale, so dead as a rock: there’s nothing new, no life in it.

The idea of writers coming out from institutions is very young, just 70 years old. Before that, hundreds of years ago, the majority of writers are only self-taught. If you are afraid of getting out of the system, go to a library, pick out a book and look for surprises, like our ancestors did. That’s how I find joy and pleasure in writing.

You can watch the whole interview here.

Translated by Thao Van and Bich Tram