Grieving His Mother’s Death, Ocean Vuong Learned to Write for Himself

13 minute read

In March 2019, three months before the publication of Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, he called his agent from the hallway of a Hartford, Conn., hospital. “There’s no way I can go on tour,” he said. “My mother has cancer. It’s over.”

The first time his mother, Hong, had gone to the emergency room with terrible back pain, he wasn’t with her. The hospital sent her home with an adhesive heat patch. Vuong, who lives in Northampton, Mass., with his partner Peter, went to see her and took her back to the ER; this time, doctors ran tests and returned with a diagnosis: Stage IV breast cancer. It was in her spine, the marrow of her bones.

“When she went herself, she got a heat pad. When I came, with English, she went to the oncology ward,” Vuong, 33, tells me. In his voice I hear pain, but no shock: he and his mother experienced many similar moments after arriving in the U.S. as refugees in 1990. “I thought, Here we are again: I have to speak for you. I have to speak for your pain. I have to verbalize your humanity. Because it’s not a given. Which is the central problem with how we value Asian American women.”

Even as a celebrated poet and author, Vuong knows he can rely on the privilege of being seen and heard only in certain settings. When he went to get his university ID at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, a white woman asked if he spoke English. “She could have looked in my file and seen that I’m an English professor,” he says, sounding almost amused. “But I’m not legible until my career makes me legible. When I walk into an event, I am Ocean Vuong doing a reading—I bypass some of the coded veils that Asian Americans are made invisible by, but only in that context. It’s an insulated privilege that doesn’t extend to other Asian Americans … to people like my mother, working in a nail salon.”

Vuong and his mother at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Conn., circa 1992
Vuong and his mother at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Conn., circa 1992Courtesy of Ocean Vuong

After his mother’s diagnosis, he says, “it all just fell away”: the tour, the publicity, what the novel would mean for his career. “Who’s Ocean Vuong? I don’t know. Nobody knows, in the hospital ward. None of the powerful sentences do anything when your mother is dying a few feet away from you.”

That June, with his mother’s cancer temporarily held at bay by hormone therapy, Vuong was able to tour after all. On Earth was an instant New York Times best seller. The writer Rebecca Solnit recalls a rapt crowd at an event they did together. “Afterward, a young Asian American woman said to me, ‘Until Ocean, no one was telling our story.’ He knew what the audience needed.”

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When Vuong was interviewed by Seth Meyers, his mother watched from home, calling him in tears afterward because he’d spoken in Vietnamese at the end. But by September, her cancer had spread, and she was having trouble breathing. She died on Nov. 2.

… stop writing

about your mother they said

but I can never take out

the rose it blooms back as my own

pink mouth …

Vuong worked on his new poetry collection Time Is a Mother while mourning, in a world consumed by the advancing pandemic—“I was grieving, the world was grieving, and the only thing I really had was to go back to poems.” The collection bears witness to love, loss, and trauma in a way that may feel especially resonant to readers right now; it reads as a search for meaning and truth in a life remade by grief. He tells me that it is the only book he’s written that he is proud of, because he compromised nothing. He thinks that has something to do with losing his mother.

“All the things I’d written, it was all to try to take care of her. I went to school for her, I worked for her—she was the source,” he says. “When that was taken away, I didn’t have anything else to answer to. And so I finally wrote for myself.”

Vuong was 2 when his family fled Vietnam; some of his earliest memories are from their back apartment in a townhouse on Franklin Avenue in Hartford. He can recall everything about those rooms, the sounds and the bodies that filled them, the bedroom he shared with six others. “We had so little,” he says, “but I felt safe back then, because I was always surrounded by Vietnamese voices.”

He began learning English when he went to kindergarten. In fourth grade, he wrote his first poem, which he was accused of plagiarizing—his teacher didn’t believe he could have written it. But after that, he noticed, the teacher began to pay attention to him, occasionally helping him type his assignments on the school computer. “I learned that putting the DNA of my mind on paper had garnered this white man’s respect,” he recalls. “I felt incredibly dangerous and powerful.”

… reader I’ve

plagiarized my life

to give you the best

of me …

Vuong tells me he became a writer because he is “full of limitations.” He proceeds to list them: he panics easily; he is dyslexic; he finds paperwork and “the minutiae of life” challenging; he struggled with drug addiction. He believes some of these are responses to trauma, lived and inherited. Another “limitation”? “I can’t fake it,” he laughs. That’s why he left the international marketing program at Pace University in New York City, where he had enrolled in the hope of earning money to help his mother—“a position so many immigrant children are in—we defer our dreams to do the practical thing.” He dropped out once he realized that he was learning “how to lie for corporations.” “If my heart isn’t in something, I can’t do it, you know? Maybe that’s why I don’t have many drafts—by the time I get to the blank page, my heart is already there. That’s a limitation, in a way, but that’s also how I got here.”

Poet Ocean Vuong photographed in New York on Feb 21.Jody Rogac for TIME

Ashamed to return home empty-handed, Vuong worked in a café, slept on friends’ couches, spent his free hours at the New York Public Library, and enrolled at Brooklyn College to study literature. Poems presented at open-mic nights found their way into early chapbooks. He landed prestigious fellowships and earned an MFA at New York University; published a critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds; won a Whiting Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Vuong calls his career “serendipitous at every turn,” but it’s also clear that there were many points when he could have given up on his writing and didn’t.

His work could sometimes be “a touchy subject” with his family, who couldn’t fully grasp his life as a poet. He suspects that his mother, who was illiterate, didn’t try to read because the struggle might make the distance between herself and her son more explicit. But when he would visit her and read—not his own poems, just a magazine he’d brought with him—she would tell everyone to hush: “Ocean’s reading.”

“It felt like sorcery, a portal to another world—to success, power—that she didn’t understand,” he says. “She didn’t ask me about it, but she was like, OK, good: Do this, read your books, forever. As long as you’re sustaining yourself. You’re the first to be able to do this.”

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When she attended his readings, she would never look at him; she would position her chair so that she could watch the audience watching her son. “She read them while I was reading my work, and then she would say, ‘I understand now. I don’t know what you’re saying, but I can see how their faces change when you speak. I can feel how it’s landing in the world.’” His voice takes on a hint of the wonder his mother must have felt. “I realized this is something she taught me. As a woman of color, an Asian woman, in the world, she taught me how to be vigilant. How people’s faces, posture, tone, could be read. She taught me how to make everything legible when language was not.”

Vuong began writing the poem he calls “the spine” of Time Is a Mother, “Dear Rose,” after finishing the third draft of his novel, partly because it felt important to him to return to poetry. “I thought: What would happen if I tried to rewrite the novel as a poem? I’ve never believed that you write a book and then you’re done. I’ve always felt that our themes are inexhaustible, and our work is to keep building architectures for these obsessions. Who’s to say that one novel, or 35 poems in Night Sky, could exhaust these big questions about love, trauma, migration, American identity, American grief, American history?”

A version of “Dear Rose”—his mother’s name means pink or rose—appeared in Harper’s in 2017, two years before her death. In Time Is a Mother, it lives again, with different opening lines:

Let me begin again now

that you’re gone Ma

if you’re reading this then you survived

your life into this one …

At one point, I share that I also recently lost my mother to cancer, and I know it cannot be easy for him to talk with me about this. He immediately offers his sympathy, noting that we are both “immigrants in this new land of grief.” To his mind, death is “the closest thing we have to a universal,” and so our love for those we’ve lost is also a form of common ground.

Time Is A Mother book cover by Ocean Vuong

He isn’t new to grief—before his mother died, he lost friends to the opioid epidemic; he lost his uncle to suicide; he lost his grandmother. Writing about “the private deaths,” as he calls them, is an extension of the work he’s always done: considering the aftermath of trauma, war, displacement, mass death. “As an Asian American coming out of diasporas, you know this: when you look at Vietnamese conflicts, Korean conflicts, you see a lot of corpses that look like yourself,” he tells me. “The negotiation with death as self-knowledge is something a lot of Asian writers and writers of color encounter. And so grief might actually be the mode in which I write—not all my poems are mournful, but they’re haunted by the inevitability of death, and so the urgency and even the joys that come out of them are through the knowledge of our own end. On good days, that’s also how I live,” he adds with a small smile, “though sometimes I forget that.”

“He’s willing to write about difficult things with vulnerability, and with attention to not only expressing what a thing is—whether it’s grief or loss or addiction or displacement—but how it feels, and also what a way forward can look like,” says author Bryan Washington. “As a queer author of color, I can speak to how difficult that is to do, and how in many ways there is incentive not to do that.”

The author Tommy Orange is likewise an admirer. “The beauty of what Ocean does with language is what gets me first,” he says, “the marriage of his use of language with the reckoning of an American identity … the wisdom and compassion in his work matches his craft, and I think that’s rare.”

Vuong tells me that he is proud of this book because he wrote it freely, expansively, honoring all his curiosities and ambitions. “There’s more humor, more witticism. There are more registers,” he says. “This book is all of me—I’m fully here. That feels kind of like a death in itself, as well as a celebration … Have I stopped growing? Is this my plateau?”

But soon we’re talking about his teaching, his writing practice, new things he wants to try. He’s showing me his favorite Japanese notebook and explaining why he writes by hand: “If you want to write a sentence, you’ll arrive much faster with a computer. With the hand, by the time you get to the end of a sentence, or maybe somewhere in the middle, you find yourself hovering—and now there are detours; other ideas come to you. Where else can you go? There’s much more you can discover.” I suggest that his growth probably hasn’t plateaued if he’s still pushing, pursuing new discoveries in every sentence, and he nods: “That’s the hope.”

After he won the Whiting, he thought: I’m going to buy my mother a house. Though he can no longer make a physical home for her, he’s always thinking about family, chosen and otherwise, and what it means to build a life around them. He tells me that he and Peter just bought a house in Massachusetts, with room for a crowd: “My brother can move in. When he has kids, they can live there. When my aunt gets old, she can live there. Our friends—most of whom are artists, queer folks of color—can come and just recover.” It strikes me as a kind of callback to the community that let him couch-surf when he was a broke young poet, but it’s clear he’s thinking back further than that, to his early childhood surrounded by family, including his mother, speaking in his mother tongue. “I think I still hope for that in some way,” he says. “What do I want my family to look like? What do I want to build in my life with the resources I have? I’d like to build places where people I love can be comfortable and OK. This is what my life has taught me.”

Chung is the author of memoir All You Can Ever Know

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