Earlier this year, Ocean Vuong published his first poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The book established Ocean, born in 1988 in Vietnam and raised in the US, as a leading voice of the young, queer immigrant experience. Embedded in his work, which is graceful and expansive, there’s a sense of straddling several worlds at once. That notion is familiar to Alexander Chee, whose second novel, The Queen of the Night, was also published this year. He took his time writing it: 15 years have passed since he wrote Edinburgh, his first novel, which garnered praise and prizes.
In the intervening years, Alexander wrote non-fiction on the Korean-American experience, on gay America and more, while working on that second novel. He also taught writing at universities and has, along the way, become a kind of mentor for a generation, an exemplar for younger writers who want to push boundaries, and to do so with honesty and emotion. Writers who admire the depth and kindness of his prose. Writers such as Ocean Vuong. Wasn’t it natural that the two should meet?
So they did. One day in June, the two met in a café in New York and talked for a while about their shared experiences, and where things differed for them.
I first met Ocean Vuong on Facebook in 2009, when he introduced himself and sent me the sweetest, most humble and intelligent introductory note in addition to his friend request.
Greetings! I read your interview with Ms Zilka [Christine Huong-Oak Lee] in issue 4 of the Kartika Review. I am especially partial to your advice to emerging Asian American writers about keeping ethnicity as complex as the world we know. It is tempting to write “what they want” and your advice was a nice reminder of staying true to the course. I guess as there are so many Diasporas to be placed under, it is easy to lose ourselves and write for a particular diaspora rather than try to enhance and diversify it.
Anyways, thanks again.
Thank you! I’m so glad you thought so and it’s good of you to tell me. It’s good to meet you on here, and I look forward to seeing your work. Are you a fiction writer or poet? Tell me some more about what you’re doing.
I am a poet, or at least I write poems. Right now I am an undergraduate English major at Brooklyn College. I hope to go on to an MFA when I am done. I have a poem in the Summer 09 issue of the Kartika which was nominated by them for a Pushcart, it is my first ever nomination, I don’t expect it to go beyond that but it is enough to keep me motivated. When I write, I often have self-doubts and am a bit hard on myself so to know something is paying off is nice. And to think I started off as a Business major, bleh!
I look forward to reading your work as well and will look up your books through the CUNY library system soon.
His name is unforgettable, and so I never forgot him after that, and have watched with amazement as he has, in the years since, arrived at what he calls “the poetry table” in grand style. Ocean has now published one of the most acclaimed books of 2016, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press), a darkly beautiful book of poems that won him a prestigious Whiting Award [worth $50,000, the literary awards are given annually to promising writers], and for which he has received extraordinary reviews, including a rave from Michiko Kakutani, who reviewed it for The New York Times, something that almost never happens for a book of poetry. She compared him favourably to both Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, before describing Vuong’s own specific powers: “There is a powerful emotional undertow to these poems that springs from Mr Vuong’s sincerity and candor, and from his ability to capture specific moments in time with both photographic clarity and a sense of the evanescence of all earthly things.”
“I am a poet, or at least I write poems.”
This collection was a huge event for me personally. I read Night Sky with a kind of electric hunger for it, one that increased poem by poem. The poems felt like they were resuscitating me, making me care more deeply again, more deeply than I had in years, about writing, poetry, literature. But, also, Ocean’s book appears just as we’ve lost the late Justin Chin, another queer Asian poet who I started out with, and so he is the more precious to me. I feel some irrational need to protect him from all harm, which I know is ludicrous but there it is. There are so few of us. Children of Asian immigrants still rarely have the chance to make art as a career. Even more rarely, should we get to do so, do we have the privilege of being openly, publicly queer, and so a public queer Asian American artist, while increasingly common, is still all too rare.
We met up recently in Brooklyn, to speak in person at last. This is a conversation between Amerasian queer writers who both began writing as poets, separated by a generation, and the conversation ranged widely. Only a small part of it is here. We began with discussing the Whiting Awards, as we are both recipients. The experience of it is life-changing, though perhaps the newest, best gift of it came when I learned Ocean had heard he won also, and I wrote to congratulate him. He wrote back, saying, “What a joy and pleasure to walk in your footsteps in the Whiting. Thank you for making a path for us. Thank you for letting us be seen.”
I realised I had never imagined being thanked this way.
Alexander Chee The day I was told I won the Whiting I was teaching at Wesleyan as a visiting writer, and I was there to get a salary advance – where they release a certain amount of your money to you in advance, which is then subtracted from your paycheck. At the time I had just lost a great deal of money to the bankruptcy of my hardcover publisher. I went into the office and checked my email and there was this message that I was to win almost exactly what I had lost. It felt like being rescued.
I in no way expected it, was in no way prepared. In just about every way it was amazing. The director at the time, Bobbie Bristol, didn’t remember this, but I had met her as a college student back when she was an editor at Knopf, and she had read a story of mine, one that would become a part of Edinburgh [Chee’s debut novel, published in 2001 to great acclaim] and she had said, “If you can turn this into a novella, I’ll buy it. I want to publish it.” So that was an uncanny piece of it also, to get an email from this woman who had encouraged me so much.
Ocean Voung Do you consider Edinburgh a novella?
Alexander No. A novella is usually shorter, and lacks a subplot. And there’s often a surprising twist at the end, the plot driving in a single direction until near the end, at which point the story heads in a very different direction. I know what it is now – I just remember that when she said that to me, I didn’t know at all. I thought, I don’t know what a novella is, I don’t know how to write one. And I was so embarrassed not to know, I didn’t ask anyone. I was at Wesleyan at the time, I could have, easily. But I wasn’t that kind of student.
Ocean Me neither. I’m always amazed by students who come up and say, “Why did I get a B?” I just think, wow, I could never bring myself to say that. Even now, in graduate school, I rarely speak, I never know what to say.
Alexander What was winning the Whiting like for you?
Ocean No writer is foolish enough to assume he will ever make any money, especially a poet. When they called me, I was in my apartment. I had to hold onto the wall. I just listened to Courtney Hodell, one of the directors at the Whiting Foundation, telling me I got the award and I said, “You don’t know what this means.” Because now I can buy my mother a house. That was my goal all along.
Alexander That’s beautiful.
Ocean In 2008, I got a scholarship to go to business school at Pace. My little fantasy was to go into corporate America, take care of my mother, and then be a poet. It didn’t work out. I didn’t even sign out, I just left the building. All I could see when I won was my mother’s face, my little brother’s. I knew that now I could make a down payment on a house. My mother always wanted a garden, so… To do that with words was the closest thing I could imagine to magic. I can’t even explain it to her.
Alexander Yes, exactly. Magic.
Ocean When I told her, she said, “Where’s the check, you have to go to the bank now and cash the check.” I said, “Oh my god, Mom, it’s OK, calm down, they’re going to mail it to me,” and she said, “Are you sure? You have to be sure!”
And then she said, “When you were reading and writing in your notebook, this was what did it?” And I said, “Yes,” but I couldn’t explain how, exactly. I didn’t know how to make it tangible to her – because she can’t read herself. When I’m reading she’ll say, “Oh, it looks like ants. What do you get out of it? It looks like a bunch of dead ants.” And I try to tell her: “It looks like a movie, mom. Except you create it as it goes along.” And she’s, like, “OK, all right…”
It was just surreal that I could finally support my family with this. I always thought that would be the sacrifice, that I wouldn’t be able do it. I would have to live with that shame of being the oldest child, unable to support my mother, her working in that nail salon with those chemicals, that was always in my head, every time I got something nice, a publication, I would think, still, what does this mean? I used to work at Panera Bread before I was a writer, and I would think, I could go back, be a district manager, at least just go hardcore and do that. And you know, you can make like $50k a year. I thought I could go do that, maybe two or three years, and then I could help my mother, and that would work. I flirted with that for a while. So when the Whiting came, so many things happened. It was like: I could get my mother a house, and I could keep doing this. I wouldn’t have to doubt that any more. It freed me to do different work. I’m writing prose now, essays. Novels. All of a sudden the genres were no longer chapels, they were wide open fields.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but when I was reading Edinburgh, it felt very much like poetry to me, in the way that you are able to take very rich scenes and emotions through very deft and spare brushstrokes that work the way poetry works, inviting the reader’s participation in creating the work. And the frequent paragraph or section breaks offer a moment where I, as a reader, have to continually make up space, fill in the narrative. It feels like the progression of poetry. Whereas I think a lot of other novelists, especially with first novels, pour themselves into those spaces, overwriting them, perhaps based on a notion that the reader won’t get it. There’s a great trust in your reader in Edinburgh.
Alexander (Laughs) That is a wonderful way to put it. I did begin as a poet.
Ocean I can see that now.
My mother always wanted a garden, so… To do that with words was the closest thing I could imagine to magic. I can’t even explain it to her.
Alexander I never published a poetry collection. But I do remember one of the funniest reviews I got early on for Edinburgh, from a reader who was angry that I wasn’t writing poems any more, as he saw it. He imagined that a novel from me meant I had given up poetry. It was bizarre. Anyway, he wrote it as a tirade against publishing, accusing me of selling out, even though I only got a $6,000 advance…
Ocean (Laughs) Of course, for a poet, that is still a lot of money…
Ocean I was in Iceland last year, interviewing Vietnamese refugees from the war, and was just inundated with the Icelandic culture, particularly the literary culture – they are huge readers there. They have a really interesting progression for writers, where writers are expected to introduce themselves as poets first, then progress to longer work. Of course, some do remain poets. It’s a lovely concept. So when reading your work, or the work of other poets turned novelists, I can appreciate all levels, all registers of the musicality of the language.
Alexander Would you say, then, that being in Iceland maybe even gave you a model for the kind of approach you wanted to take to your own work?
Ocean It was certainly on my mind. I don’t know if this is a POC [person of colour] complex, or an immigrant complex, but I had been thinking, oh, I am so happy to finally be sitting at the poetry table, I won’t ask for anything else. Maybe novels are for another lifetime. And that is how I had been thinking for a long time. But, of course, my mentor at Brooklyn College, Ben Lerner [acclaimed novelist and poet, author of 10:04, and winner of a 2015 MacArthur fellowship], started writing novels when I was working with him, and immediately he shook that fear of mine. He said, “You can sit at any table. In fact, there are no tables.” So I have been reading more keenly, and I think there is great value to learning how a poem works, how the compression of syntax can torque a line when it is confronting its own break, and bringing that tension into prose. Because then the caesuras [a pause near the middle of a line] are felt. Especially in your book, I can see the line breaks there even when they are not. I think that is deeply rewarding for a reader. And so I think all novelists should start out, at least, as poets.
Alexander (Laughs) Thank you.
Ocean But I’m biased, of course. I learned from poems that the reader will make those leaps. So much could be said in silences. [John] Ashbery gets a lot of flak for his non sequiturs, but they demand a lot of participation from the reader. I think of the poet Li-Young Lee, who says, “The real subject in poetry isn’t the voice. The real subject is silence. It’s like in architecture, where the medium is not really stone or metal, but space.” That’s what I felt in your book. In those section breaks, I don’t see a void, I see life. My life.
I wanted to ask you about the use of mythology in your book. I think it is such a brilliant political choice. As I read it, I was thinking, “Wow, he is bringing everything. An American life can consist of Korean mythology, these histories, the grandfather, the fox – and such mythologies can exist in this very New England space. For me, it was a great moment of resistance, but also freedom. I am thinking of Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior, where she goes into the story of Mulan. That insistence that we are more than our stories, at once entering the tradition of the American canon but also bringing with us the tradition of the Eastern lineage, as well, that you can have both at once, and that it could make the work even better – I thought it was a brilliant mode. How conscious of it were you?
Alexander Thank you. I was pretty conscious of it. I found the fox demon myth [a nine-tailed fox spirit known as gumiho in Korea and which is a common motif in Eastern Asian mythology] late in the writing process. But once I found it, it allowed me to slam all of this energy into a different place. The power of working with a myth is that it has its own limits, much like a sonnet – a myth and a sonnet are a lot alike in the way you’d work with them. There is so much room in both myths and sonnets for improvisation within those limits. It also allowed me to bring out another layer to the role-doubling plays inside of the novel, which was important.
I’m wondering, would you say Night Sky is a saga of a kind? I noticed it has a coherence, and collectively the poems build a resonant charge as you read through them. There’s a sense of narrative to it.
Ocean I would say so. I would hope so. I like the idea of seeing it as a map of violence – how one survives the survival, which I think is so seldom talked about. The inheritance of second-generation immigrants, [and how] the immigration itself is the end point, the survival…
Alexander Right. Now we are in the safe country…
Ocean Yes. And they turn to us, our parents, almost with bewilderment, when we want to ask about the past. Sometimes they feel a sense of betrayal. “I sacrificed everything for you to be happy, and now you’re interrogating pain – my pain. How dare you, what are you doing?” I think there’s a lot of shame and misunderstanding between the generations. But that is also my privilege. I enjoy the luxury of ruminating. I could see my life as a voyage of discovery, whereas for them, to be alive was a destination in and of itself, and I had to confront that.
Alexander And in a sense your life was the destination.
Ocean Yes. And so it was very difficult, but I wanted to acknowledge that. In the first section, then, is a nod to their survival. And the third section was a moment for me to bring that into the present. What does it mean to be mixed race? My mother is half white, her father was a veteran. To me it seems innately queer, also, to never be standing in one place – perhaps you can speak to this as well. I wanted it to be a map to show how things don’t end, really. Trauma and violence get inherited, even in the DNA. In that sense, it is saga-like, that we carry things to different countries, that immigration doesn’t mean safety.
Alexander What were some of the forms that interested you in the process of composing the book?
Ocean I was very interested in… I don’t know if this is the antithesis of form, but I wanted to pursue a restlessness of form.
Alexander A restless form?
Ocean Yes. Where every poem was trying on different clothes. There’s one poem in there, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, where every section is labelled “I”? So that it’s attempting itself over and over. What happens when the form doesn’t work? I was interested in seeing, experimenting, with these containers. Can a country contain a restless mind, a restless person, a different person, a queer person? Can a form contain a queer obsession? I guess that was what I was interested in. I didn’t want to be comfortable in one form or another.
Alexander I also like this idea of your poems assembling and disassembling place as you read them.
Ocean And what happens if the container is also ephemeral? What happens if one’s status is ephemeral? Vietnam, for refugees, was an ephemeral space. Korea, as a unified nation, also was. Vietnam of the past had different flags, different memories. When my mother went back after nearly 40 years away, she went back to her neighbourhood, she walked around for an hour – I was with her – and then she went back to the hotel and turned off all the lights. And she just said, “I don’t know where I am.”
It looks like Times Square now – there’s Coca-Cola, there are iPhones – and she just did not recognise anything. The street names had changed, because the revolution came in and changed the names to honour revolutionary generals – so you can’t even be 100 per cent sure where you grew up. The people you knew are either dead or missing. And therefore: “I don’t know where I am.” There are two different countries – one of the mind, one of the present.