June 20, 2019

Summer of Ocean

UMass Amherst writer Ocean Vuong’s first novel praised nationwide

It’s not often that a poet is a guest on a late-night talk show, and rare when his words are greeted with raucous cheers and applause. But that is what happened when UMass Amherst Associate Professor Ocean Vuong appeared on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” earlier this month to discuss his first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous  (Penguin Press).

It is the summer of Ocean Vuong, a faculty member in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers since 2016: His book debuted at number six on the New York Times bestseller list and received rhapsodic reviews in major publications such as Vanity Fair, O magazine, and Kirkus Reviews. Vuong was the subject of a five-page article in the New Yorker and was photographed in a Fendi turtleneck for Interview. He is in the midst of a 22-city book tour; last week he read in Nashville, Houston, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Minneapolis.

In the end, whether it be poetry or prose, I am a maker of sentences.

—Ocean Vuong

The book making Vuong a literary sensation is told in the form of a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. It’s an anecdotal, non-linear account of a Vietnamese immigrant family and their struggles—from the violence of the Vietnam War to trauma and troubles in Hartford, Conn. Vuong, who came to the U.S. from Ho Chi Minh City with his family at age 2, drew from his own experiences in his writing. Narrated in his poetic and gentle but piercing voice, the novel explores such topics as sexuality, mental illness, addiction, race, and physical abuse. Vuong has said the book “grapples with the pivotal notion of the American dream—or rather the failed pursuit of its impossible reality.”

Top critics called On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous “a marvel,” “an epistolary masterpiece,” “brilliant and remarkable,” and “enrapturing.” Vuong seems to be reacting to his progression from well-respected poet (his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, won the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize) to bestselling novelist with a little bit of amazement and a lot of characteristic introspection. He says, “I see myself simply as a writer. In the end, whether it be poetry or prose, I am a maker of sentences.”

On “Late Night” he charmed the audience and Seth Meyers with his soft voice and sincere demeanor. In relating how he used to write poetry in the closet of his noisy New York City apartment, he said: “For a gay writer the irony is not lost on me. What was once a prison for me I turned into a portal. . . . It was perfect.”