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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Ocean Vuong: The Waterstones Interview

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Ocean, welcome to Waterstones first of all.

Thank you, deep pleasure being here.

I attended an event of yours where I heard you reading your poetry and now

we're here to talk about your debut novel. I want to talk about the form of

it first of all because I find that quite interesting. It's written in the

form of a letter. Little Dog is writing to his mother but there is something

particular with that which is that he knows that she will not be able to read

this letter. Could you tell us a bit about why you chose that form?

Yeah I think I was thinking - I saw you have Melville here - I was thinking of Moby-Dick

I live in New England, I teach there. And one of the fascinating things about

that book is that it was uncompromising in the way it followed its curiosities.

In a way it's an essay, it's a travelogue, it's a thriller, it's a

meditation on theology. In other words it was everything Melville wanted to

pursue. He said no to nothing. And I thought what will be a good form to

allow for the detour, the essayistic detour, and that's the letter. So when

you're writing a letter the plot is the dialogue. You can easily

retract to it and it seems comically futile to write a letter to a mother

who won't read it but that was exactly why I was excited about this project

because then the pressure falls on language itself. In this particular case

the English language. Is it enough? Is the sentence a formidable architecture to

inquire about life and death? And so I think ultimately it's a book about language

I'm really pleased to hear you say that actually because I wanted

to talk to you about the language. There are two things really I suppose that

felt pretty important to me. One, as a poet, it does feel that you have taken

the time to find exactly the right language to describe certain scenes or

characters or feelings and I wondered whether that was a painstaking process

for you. But also that language is really important in terms of translation

because Little Dog has to act as a translator for his mother because she

doesn't speak English and so everything in the book between them

is sort of translated isn't it?

Yeah it was it was a crossing of certain borders;

cultural, linguistic borders and the fact

that you know there's this precarious dialogue between the two

charges the language to be pushed beyond itself and I think that was my query.

I think at the heart of this book is the essay, in its etymological sense from the

French, essayer, which is 'to try'. The book is an attempt or a series of attempts to

see if language can hold this inquiry between mother and son. And I think, was it

challenging? Yeah it was definitely a challenge but I learned a

lot putting together a collection of poems. And one thing you learn as a poet

writing a collection of poems is that every poem is a chance to recalibrate language

for yourself whether you're writing a persona poem. Every poem is a mask so

you get to start over in your linguistic endeavors and I didn't want to have much

cohesion. I wanted every scene to have oscillations. So you have New England

vernacular, you have essayistic, journalistic writing on butterflies and

opioid facts. And I wanted it all. I didn't want to blend them or have

cohesion or evenness. I wanted all of them to be a sort of chorus sitting together.

You mentioned there about the the opioid - I'll call it a crisis because

that's often the word that is put together with opioid to talk about the

situation in America. And it's very much part of the plot of On Earth We're

Briefly Gorgeous. Why did you want to write about that because it seems to tap

into something very much about modern America which is being talked about but

not so much in fiction.

Yeah I grew up after 9/11 and it was a precarious time

to come of age because we were the last generation to play outside. And we

were in the midst of all that, you know, overnight childhood ended

for us, around age 12/13. The towers went down and everybody... the playground

the next day was a ghost town. And right after that kids

started to experiment with drugs. If you can't do much, if fear becomes a national

identity then you start to have internalized recreation and that has to

do with drugs. And so I saw my friends dropping left and right and it happened

at a time before the term opioid crisis. It was just what was happening to us.

They were called addicts or junkies and it was still quite shameful and

I wanted to uncover that because I saw a parallel between the drug deaths, which

is its own kind of slaughter. You know, borderless, you know, colourless

slaughter; it took everybody. In the same way that I saw the parallels of war and

in coming from an epicenter of war in Vietnam is that these bodies were just

being decimated around you and how do you build a life within that and out of

that? What is it to mean as a person living in the aftermath?

The opioid problem I suppose is most clearly demonstrated with Little Dog loses a

friend and lover and I wanted to talk a very briefly about the sexuality in

the novel. When it was mentioned to me by Max Porter who his quote is on the back

of your book he said it's just got some great, full-on, beautifully described gay

sex in it! He said this with such relish. And it really does. There's amazing

descriptions of the sort of physical relationship but it's quite complicated

as well because it's about power as well as it is about sort of the tenderness

and discovery. Tell us a little bit about writing that because writing sex is hard

and writing good sex is really hard.

Yeah I think what my desire was to

make it relentless and to have it return. Often sex, gay or otherwise, is

seen as a plot point. You build these characters towards it and then

there's this almost tension that's relieved and then you move on. Maybe you get

married or what have you. Or you graduate school. But I wanted, it felt

more faithful to me to return to it. That it's not a threshold. Because for queer

bodies you know we never got the conversation about the birds and the

bees. We have to fail into pleasure and that failure builds upon itself towards

self-knowledge. That every time you fail you learn something about yourself. And

to find and harvest pleasure from one another. And so I wanted that internal

crisis and that drama to be opened and for the desire to be felt as weather

in the book. And so sex returns again and again, not as something that they get

over with but something that they use to discover and learn about each other.

The novel is filled with I thought what I'll describe as a sort of specificity.

There's lots of very specific locations and characters and ideas and themes. And

sometimes it is the very specificity about things that can allow a book to have

a universal appeal. So despite the fact this is very much about Vietnamese

American experience and family and a nail bar and things like that I wondered

what you thought readers in the UK for example or what you hope they might take

from reading a book about that.

Yeah I always felt that William Carlos Williams

credo of 'No ideas but in things', that modernist credo of the imagistic truth

was quite potent. And Warhol was obsessed with Coca-Cola. He says well finally we

have something where the king of Spain and the Joe Schmo down the

street can experience the exact same thing. He saw it as this democratic

utopia, despite its brutal capitalistic toxicity.

And I thought you know for me I feel the same way, that through the

specificities we build and actualise a world in which we can live in. And so if

you decorate the book with specifics you curate an experience

that everyone goes through. And I think that's what it is; the book is kind

of like a room. And and the more you put into it, the more a reader, regardless of

where they are - in the UK or America or in India - can experience that on their own terms.

It was a delightful reading experience despite all the pain and

trauma that's contained within it, Ocean, so thank you so much for writing it.

Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here, thank you so much for your questions.

The Description of Ocean Vuong: The Waterstones Interview