On the UK release of his much-acclaimed debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, we welcome Ocean Vuong to Southbank Centre for a London exclusive talk on 2 July. But who is this contemporary literary phenomenon who’s moved so seamlessly from poetry to prose?
Ocean Vuong was born in October 1988 in Ho Chi Minh City. His mother had been employed in a Saigon hair salon until she was banned from working by the communist regime when they discovered she was mixed race. The family was evacuated – via a spell in a Philippines refugee camp – to the USA; arriving in Hartford, the State capital of Connecticut in 1990. Vuong has written candidly about his background, particularly in the poem Notebook Fragments.
Vuong knows little about his father. He knows his mother kicked him out, and – as he explained in an interview with The Guardian’s Emma Brockes – that he “went off to do criminal things and ended up going to jail”. As such he was raised in the US by his mother, his aunt and his grandmother. The relationship with his mother - a loving one prone to occasional violence – has since been caricatured by Vuong in his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous through the central character Little Dog’s connection with his own mother.
Vuong suspects that dyslexia runs in his family. “I write very slowly and see words as objects,” he told The Guardian’s Claire Armistead in a 2017 interview. He was the first in his family to learn to read, doing so at the age of 11.
Persuaded to enrol at community college rather than follow his mother in working in the local nail salon, Vuong embraced the opportunity, reading Foucault, Baudelaire and Langston Hughes. Though he knew he wanted to be a poet, his want to support the family saw him enrol in business school. He walked out after only eight weeks, tired of learning how to lie, and enrolled instead to read literature at Brooklyn College.
Whilst studying at Brooklyn College, Vuong began writing poetry. His first chapbook, Burnings (2011) was selected among notable LGBTQ books by the American Library Association. Spending his days studying or working in a cafe, he wrote his poems late in the evening, finding that his own tendency to self-criticise was less prevalent at the end of a long day.
The result of Vuong’s late night writing was the collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. He entered the collection into a competition which promised to send personal rejection letters to all entrants, with hope of receiving constructive feedback for his work. Instead he received an offer to publish. Released by Copper Canyon Press in 2016, Night Sky With Exit Wounds duly won both the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the TS Eliot Prize the following year.
Released in the US earlier this year, Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Vuong, had been heralded as one of the most anticipated books of 2019. It hasn’t disappointed; proving that Vuong is as emphatically enchanting with prose as he is with poetry the novel has already made its way into the ‘best summer reads’ lists of both the New York Times and Washington Post. The book, which is released in the UK on 20 June, draws on Vuong’s own life and his poetry to offer a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling.
The praise for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is even more remarkable when you consider where it was written. Vuong faced a problem of finding space to concentrate in an apartment shared with noisy housemates. Looking for a way to get as far away from the noise as possible he eventually settled on the closet. “I turned it into a portal to write my book,” he explained on a June 2019 episode of Late Night with Seth Myers. “I went in there with a little lamp and my laptop and it was perfect.”