Acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” made a massive splash with its 2019 release. Not just because of its unique format — the book is written in the form of a fictional letter from a son, Little Dog, to his illiterate mother — but because the book doesn’t fit into a single category. It’s a coming-of-age novel, an immigrant’s tale, an LGBTQ+ story (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum) and a fictionalized memoir that together examines the intersection of complex themes, including race, class, masculinity and family.
It’s the type of book you want to sit with, take your time with and deeply experience. Which, oddly enough, is how Vuong is now choosing to interact with literature.
“Now I spend so much longer, two or three weeks sometimes, even a month, with a book, reading it a little bit every day,” he said in a recent phone interview. “That has been really wonderful because the reading experience is now informed by a prolonged living.”
Ahead of Vuong’s virtual Seattle Arts & Lectures event June 9, which will be moderated by musician Perfume Genius, the author spoke with The Seattle Times about reading deeply, adapting during the pandemic and xenophobia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Seattle Times: How has the past year been for you? Did you find the pandemic to be a creative stimulant or depressant?
Ocean Vuong: You know, a little bit of both. I’m naturally an introvert, so it was at first this mercy in disguise as horror. I wish it came under better circumstances, but the ability to stay in for long periods of time seems to be what I always wanted to do, and all of a sudden, I didn’t have to make any excuses for it. But then I started to teach on Zoom and I realized that life is just as busy, just as hectic. [Vuong is an associate professor in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.] The drain on the mental health of my students really affected me. They don’t vanish when you turn off the screen. They stay with you and their struggles stay with you, so I carried a lot of that weight as a teacher. Then the helplessness because I literally can’t even be near them. So I hear them and see them articulate their hurt on the screen. And I can’t do anything about it, so that was quite rough. I’m looking forward to inching our way back, which we should be next fall, all in person.
How did you deal with that weight and mental drain?
I’m not the best self-care person. I’m not even sure I have the healthiest process as a writer. I get haunted by things, ideas, and then I kind of bend to their will. Taking long walks, working in the garden, these things that we take for granted, I had to reorient myself in these tasks. Kind of just sitting there and letting it be unbearable was important. I think one of my best techniques for before, during and after the pandemic, if we ever get there, is to just lay in the room and shut off all the lights and just lay on the floor and be in the body. To not have to do anything, to not have any tasks and just let the mind wander. Turning the room into a weighted blanket, if you will.
Personally, I found myself indulging in books a lot more when things got too heavy. Did you make more time for reading?
I’ve been reading a lot slower, but more continuously. Which is actually the way I should be reading forever. Before I would be very impatient with books. Fifty, 100 pages, if it doesn’t start kicking, I’d put it aside.
[When you take your time with reading] what you see, what you do, the news of the world, conversations with friends, now filter into a book. Which before, it was like one week, one book out, next book coming in. It becomes an assembly line. A factory of reading. Now it’s more like a life of reading. A more collaborative endeavor.
You mentioned that reading is informed by the news, the media and what’s going on around you. As the paperback edition of your novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” comes out in June, it will be coinciding with Pride and the recent spotlight on America’s longstanding xenophobia. Do you feel like your novel will take on a new meaning?
I don’t know, because it’s hard to guess it, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of being naïve about what a novel can do. There’s brilliant novels written out of, against and informed by various forms of xenophobia, going all the way back to “The Iliad,” which is a story that comes out war. It’s the central motif, war displacement. But I don’t know how far we’ve gone. I try not to think too often of my work. I think that the consciousness that’s been raised through social media, and media in general, has now put more focus on these issues. But particularly the Asian American body has always been in trouble in this country. When the Chinese American men built the railroads, when they died, they couldn’t be buried in the very dirt in which they laid the railroad tracks. Their bones had to be shipped back to China. And that’s kind of a metaphor of Asian American contribution. But also Asian American loss. It’s just wiped away. Only the progress remains. But the bodies are vanished. So I wonder if my own books will have any standing in years to come. But I feel still very genuinely hopeful. Not in a glib way or an arbitrary way.
When I was growing up as a young child during 9/11, I was 10 or 11, we were told that we were growing up in a post-racial world. The first presidential election that I participated in was [Barack] Obama’s election. Yet, I never felt that to be true. And now we’re having these conversations on a national level. And I never dreamed it. Honestly, I would always have to tiptoe around these conversations before. And now we have a lexicon for everyone. Everyone can participate in a critical analysis of where we want to be as a country. And where we have gone. The past is also very important. So much of our thinking is amnesia-based, but if we remember well, we can curate a way forward that’s worthy of the knowledge that we have now.
Speaking of conversations, what can those attending your virtual Seattle Arts & Lectures event expect?
It’s so neat because I get to talk to Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius. An artist who I listened to and engaged with while writing the book. I’ve been following Mike’s work since he was posting on Myspace. I found great kinship in how he navigates vulnerability. And articulating vulnerability. There’s a great kinship in our work. There’s an etheric, atmospheric, potent charge of feeling. That feeling too is also intelligence. I see a lot of that in his work and his writing. It’ll be wonderful to see these two worlds sit side by side together.