The Writer Ocean Vuong was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1988; his family immigrated to Hartford, Connecticut in 1990. His mother was a hapa woman, a daughter of a Vietnamese farm girl and an American G.I during the american war in Vietnam. In the US, his mother became a worker in a nail salon, in which he was substantially raised: his mother was the breadwinner of the house, providing for a household of herself, Vuong, his grandma, and his brother on a 12k salary, yes 12k—Vuong revealed this fact in a recent interview, and even him himself was still amazed at how she managed to raise a family on such an income. She carried the burden, the bodily toll of a physically toxic working condition, which eventually led to her cancer and her death at 51, so that Vuong can have the “luxury” (luxury relative what she did, in Vuong’s words) of reading, of writing, of literature.
Regarding his higher educational formation, he first dropped out of business school because it was no place for a poet—he enrolled instead at Brooklyn College and graduated with a B.A. in 19th century American Poetry. He has won numerous prestigious literary prizes for his debuts in two genres: a poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and a novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous—he is also a MacArthur fellow.
Both Night Sky and On Earth are autobiographical; the latter is often categorized as “autofiction,” autobiographical fiction. In his poetry collection, Vuong explores, as Li-Young Lee describes, “his obsessions [with] love, family, violence, the sacred, the erotic, maleness and femininity”, and these are the same subjects he returns to in his novel, and again and again in the futurity of his art. On Earth tells a story that is very close to Vuong’s life, in terms of the setting of his growing-up places, of the condition of life he found himself in, of the matrilineage in Vuong’s family; even the narrator’s mother bears the name of his real mother.
In her CNN interview with Vuong, the journalist Michel Martin, when talking about his poems, does not refer to the speaker of the poem but to Vuong directly, equating him to the speaker–he does not correct her. Somewhere (I am certain, but don’t recall exactly where) Vuong has declared that he has rewritten his poetry collection in the form of a novel, i.e. On Earth. “You don’t need to reinvent yourself,” Vuong said, critiquing the literary tradition of America, imbued with the capitalistic mode of constantly having to reinvent oneself, having something new to say in a second book—for Vuong, it was always about “privileging inexhaustible questions.” In his encounters with renowned Asian American writers (he didn’t name who), Vuong saw these writers’ condescension in their self-proclaimed surpassing beyond the “immigrant novel,” beyond writing about the diaspora, to writing about space and science fiction, so as to successfully extricate themselves from the white gaze/expectations, but as Vuong argues, their art would still be reacting to whiteness in their spite to remove itself from it.
“I never wanted to build a ‘body of work,’” the writer narrator of On Earth says of his art and his family, “but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work” (175). This is no doubt also Vuong’s intentionality and vision as he insists on again and again, in public and in the construction of his work, the perennial and inexhaustible questions grounded in his body and the bodies of his familial genealogy.