Many refugees have vivid memories of their home countries, having spent most of their life there and fleeing at an older age. Vietnamese American poet, Ocean Vuong, fled his home country, Vietnam, at the age of two, but his memories are no less vivid. And while the details of his departure remain foggy, distinct impressions and images from his childhood permeate his work with the utmost clarity.
Vuong’s mother was the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier, who were separated after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Vuong himself was born in Saigon in 1988, over a decade after the end of the Vietnam War. Fearing persecution for their multi-ethnic heritage, Vuong and his mother fled the country to a refugee camp in the Philippines, before gaining asylum in the United States. Shortly after their arrival, Vuong’s father left the family, leaving Vuong to be raised by his mother, aunt, and grandmother. He was two at the time.
Vuong grew up in the small town of Glastonbury, Connecticut, which by the time he reached high school, he desperately wanted to escape. Vuong became the first in his family to learn how to read at the age of 11, and came out to his mother as gay at the age of 18, before travelling to New York for business school. Vuong quickly realised that business school wasn’t for him, and studied English literature at Brooklyn College instead.
At college, Vuong began to write poetry at night, as it allowed him to “get the last word of the day”. In 2016, he published his first collection of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Despite only being two years old at the time, Vuong sought to recapture memories of his experience as a refugee – as well as his unique family heritage. In 2019, Vuong published his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a semi-autobiographical work dealing with his heritage and sexuality, written in the form of a letter to his mother.
Informed by his own distance from his refugee experience, Vuong’s style in both his poetry and prose is nonlinear. Rather than tracking events in chronological order, Vuong seeks to capture disassociated memories and loose sensations.
Loss is a prominent feature of his work too – specifically his lost childhood memories of Vietnam and his absent father. But this sense of loss is not necessarily a bad feeling. As a practising Zen Buddhist, Vuong views the contemplation of loss as a means to progress from it.