Trespassing With Ocean Vuong

by Cassie Blair

On September 29, I joined 243 others on Crowdcast to hear Ocean Vuong read from his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and from his newest collection, Time is a Mother (he read two poems: “Beautiful Short Loser” and “Reasons for Staying”). I expected that the reading would be beautiful and inspiring (isn’t that what we hope for, with these events?) and it was. But I didn’t expect to feel so changed by the conversation that followed.

After Vuong read, Camille Bromley joined him to talk about immigrant mothers and myths of identity; the quest of language; the pleasure of discovery; the work of the writer. I was struck as much by what Vuong said as by how he said it. Poetic and professorial at once, he interrogated the premise of each question as he engaged with it. When asked about his identity as a Vietnamese writer, for example, he expressed suspicion about the project of representation insofar as it treats identities as fixed and closed categories. Vuong suggested that instead of writing in order to render an experience as legible to others, he writes at the center of his own work through his experiences, and in doing so contributes to the constellation of written work that is fundamentally representative of the world as it actually is. A world of unmanageable categories. Unfixed identities. Complex experiences. Discovery.

Throughout the evening, Vuong returned to the language of discovery. Sentences becoming doors. Writing toward possibility. Quests. Trespassing. For Vuong – in addition to being a trespasser in language and academia – to write is to trespass. “To breach new ground. To go into the junkyard of the literary traditions and to make something new of the wasted refuse cast away by other generations.” I keep thinking about this point, returning to it in the recording (at about the one hour mark, if you want to find it too). Vuong reminded us that what has been held up in the dominant culture of western thought as is not all there is, not even close. How vast the junkyard is, how much more there is to rifle through. What else is possible in the center of the page? What other doors can a sentence open?

Vuong’s ability to shift the bounds of discussion was, throughout the night, exemplary of his understanding of the potential of language as a medium that takes the familiar and transforms it into the unknown. I didn’t realize how much I was needing the familiarity of writing to become unfamiliar again, at least for an hour. Perhaps others in the audience had a similar experience. I needed the invitation to write at the center of my own page. I needed to hear again that language is a kind of magic, that it allows real contexts and interests and lived experiences to be portals to something else, something unfamiliar, something that reveals what else is possible.