Inside my head the war is everywhere,” writes the Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong in a line from his new poetry collection Time Is a Mother. “I hate to say it, but this is normal,” Vuong says from New York, when we speak during the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March. “Displacement and refugees crossing borders, mothers and fathers dragging their children along, these heartbreaking scenes, this is normal for our species.” As he tells his students at NYU, where he is a visiting professor: “If you want to study literature, study war. For as long as there are soldiers there are poets.”
To say that Vuong is a poet born of war is not merely a figure of speech. “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist,” as he puts it in one of his poems. He was born on a rice farm outside Saigon, but after more than a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines his mother fled to America when he was two. His novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which stretches from the paddy fields of Vietnam to the tobacco farms of New England, from napalm attacks to the opioid crisis in the US, is his account of growing up “a queer Asian American poor kid” in the aftermath of 9/11. It is written as a letter to his mother, who couldn’t read. Vuong himself couldn’t read until he was 11. But before he was 30, his first collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, had made him the starriest of a new generation of poets; critics compared him to Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins; and he won several major prizes and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”. “You’re so / lucky. You’re gay plus you get to write about war and stuff,” whined a white student in his creative writing class, recounted in one of the new poems. “I got nothing.”
Now 33, Vuong is “5ft 4in tall, 112 lbs”, as he writes in On Earth. “I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else.” All sunken cheeks and angular lines, there is something otherworldly about him (he doesn’t drive, has never used Uber, and Instagram is the only App on his phone). His voice is as gentle as the wind chimes in his poem Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong – listen to him read it and you will love Ocean Vuong a little bit too. Frankly, he had me with the title On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel of rare tenderness and lyricism. He is also a Zen Buddhist. “It’s kind of like anything else,” he says. “Sometimes I’m terrible, sometimes I’m good, but you always try to be the best you can.”
Behind him on the sofa in a spare, all-white New York rented studio, his shih tzu poodle, Tofu, as white as his surroundings, is doing his best to distract us from the seriousness of our conversation. An ex-police dog, even he has a background of violence, Vuong says. Tofu is joined by puppy Rosie, the youngest addition to the household, whom Vuong and his partner, Peter, got during lockdown. Peter, a lawyer, is a Lithuanian-Polish Jew, whose grandmother, the prose poem Nothing in the new collection tells us, narrowly escaped Auschwitz. They are all descendants of trauma.
Time Is a Mother is Vuong’s first book to be published since the death of his mother, Rose, in 2019. She died aged 51, almost certainly, he believes, from the toxic chemicals to which she was exposed through years spent working in nail salons. His poem Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker (inspired by William Carlos Williams’s credo “no ideas but in things”) itemises purchases from painkillers and Tampax, to a chemo headscarf and eventually an urn, recording the last months of her life with devastating economy. “I would never have been able to do that 10 years ago,” he says. “It takes a lot of confidence that you have to just earn as a writer, to let the objects speak for themselves.” He is a very slow worker, he says – Exit Wounds took eight years, On Earth five. For Time Is a Mother, he had already written most of the poems before her death. But when he looked back he realised how many dealt with loss: “Oh my goodness, I have been grieving for most of my life,” he says. “Whether it’s friends, it’s family, it’s collective grieving. I think most of us are grieving in some way, and the poem becomes a site where we can meet each other in that grief.” His mother was able to enjoy some of his success: even though she didn’t understand what was being said, she would come to his readings and sit facing the audience so she could see how they responded.
The collection’s twin poles are loss and addiction. As a teenager in bleak post-industrial Connecticut, Vuong saw many of his friends die – “little dots erased off the map” – as a result of the opioid epidemic. “We didn’t call it an epidemic,” he says of the early 2000s, when even his teachers were dying of drugs, without being given a funeral. “It was so shameful. How could a teacher be a junkie?” As his family’s great hope, Vuong was determined not to suffer the same fate. “I refuse to die,” he writes of his younger self in On Earth. While he might not have been shooting up heroin like some of his friends, he was addicted “to everything you could crush into a white powder and sprinkle over a blunt”, he admits now. In 2012, he spent two weeks in a government-funded clinic, hinted at in details in the new poems: “the McDonald’s arch, glimpsed from the 2am rehab / window”. He wanted “to express what it is really like living with addiction and recovering”. For him, addiction is “one of the most human things. It is the body and the mind deciding to find a way out. We have this desire to be OK, to feel better and that amplifies the horror all around us.”
Writing poetry taught him how to write an autobiographical novel. Part autofiction, part epistolary novel, part prose poem, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Vuong’s attempt to write the American coming-of-age story as a gay refugee. “Now that it is my turn, how do I take this project of questing towards identity forwards?” he asks. Instead of a journey towards self-improvement and discovery, the novel follows the east Asian narrative structure of kishōtenkets: no dramatic peak; no victims or villains; and, crucially for Vuong, no escape to another place. “These folks find joy where they are. That was so precious to me.”
The novel comprises two love stories, both heartbreaking: the first between a mother and her son, known only as Little Dog; the second between Little Dog and a white teenager called Trevor. He wanted to write a book about “rural queerness”, in which “fleeing to the metropolis was not the final act. There’s a lot of suspicion and doubt about that, the metropolis being the only place we can go. Some of us can’t afford to go there,” he says. “I wanted to keep these two boys in the rural space so that they are protecting a tiny flame between each other, with no models.”
Despite this intimacy, Vuong is clear that On Earth is not autobiography: he has a brother 10 years younger than him, for a start, but to include him would have detracted from the intensity between the mother and son. He follows Emily Dickinson’s maxim: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Vuong is not Little Dog: “He is much better than I am. He got 12 drafts. Ocean gets one draft and he often fucks up.” But this is his world: he looks for outliers and outcasts, like Trevor (“a composite” of many boys Vuong knew growing up), and places them centre stage, “because that’s who I am. I come from the working class. You rarely see these lives amplified and rendered with dignity.”
The cliche of being “saved by books” is true in his case. He remembers entering a library one afternoon when he was 15. “I didn’t see anybody that I knew in there. It felt immediately like trespassing.” But he started pulling books about Buddhism off the shelf, “because I needed medicine,” he says. “It was like: ‘Welcome to suffering! You’ve already been in it, so here are some remedies to find a way.’” The library became his refuge, and he was soon transported by all the other titles he found there. “Queer imagination comes out of the need to escape, to create something safe,” he says.
Today, he still roams across the canon, picking and choosing whatever he can to refashion into something new. “Why shouldn’t you use it all?” he asks. “As an outsider I had that freedom to go back into the junkyard and say: ‘Just because white men were finished with these tools doesn’t mean they are garbage to me, I’m going to reuse them.’” He is suspicious of the minimalist, macho aesthetics laid down by Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, preferring the Romantics with their big ideas and unrestrained lyricism. “For me it is like performing literary drag. I’ve returned to the 19th century, taken the subordinate clause and reused it to over-exertion with earnestness.” Moby-Dick is the unlikely model for On Earth: he was drawn to the scale of Herman Melville’s ambition and his fondness for essayistic detours. “To me that was actually quite queer. No subject is off limits.”
Like novelist Marilynne Robinson, Vuong is unafraid of moral seriousness (the adjective “earnest” crops up often in reviews). This sincerity is perhaps one reason why he appeals so strongly to a youthful audience. “Young people want to be spoken to directly. They want to speak to each other directly,” he says of the recent poetry revival. “When we are in trouble collectively we don’t want context and plot. A poem makes the most sense because there is no fluff. It goes right in and gets to what we are all feeling. I think young people especially are so tired of these contexts and these frames.”
He has no time for the irony or cynicism that have become bywords for contemporary American fiction. He doesn’t hang out with other writers, because it inevitably leads to gossip “and that withers my soul”. For him this “Brooklyn fear of feeling” is a limitation of white masculinity. “You can only say ‘this sucks’ for so long, before it becomes lazy,” he says. “A lot of men have been saying that for a long time. OK, we get it. It sucks. So now what?”
This is a question he always asks himself as a writer. He is at his best “when the world has kind of knocked me down and I’ve decided, maybe after weeping in the dark, finally to get up off the ground and ask – now what?” Despite having more than his share of anger and sadness to draw on, he is at his most creative in their aftermath. “When I get off of the floor, metaphorically – the anger has come and gone, the sadness has come and gone – and I say: ‘What do I do with it?’ Sometimes we just go and make dinner, we go and do the dishes, and sometimes we start to write.”
Writing still feels “like stealing time” for him. He often writes at night, a habit from his days working in cafes as an undergraduate; parts of On Earth were written – literally – in a closet, as it was the quietest place he could find. He always writes the first draft in longhand because it takes 10 or 15 seconds longer to finish a sentence. “If you multiply this through the space of a book you spend hours more inside your book than you would have writing on the computer,” he explains, holding up his notebook with neat handwritten pages. “Halfway through that sentence something is revealed to you. It is an act of sustained meditation.” Having spent so long immersed in what he calls his “parallel universe”, he is looking forward to going “back into the world to see what the air is like”. He and Peter are in the early stages of considering adoption: “I was like, let me finish one more book.”
Time Is a Mother is his most “complete” book, he says, the one of which he is most proud in terms of craft. “There’s always a bit of shame involved at this juncture. And it hasn’t happened this time.” Tofu pads towards the door like a big cotton ball. “But even if people love your books, what comes out in publication is only close to what you had in your imagination, if you are really lucky,” Vuong says. “And I think that is such a beautiful thing. To be a writer is to traffic in failure.”
• Time Is a Mother is published by Jonathan Cape. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.