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Poet Ocean Vuong sifts through the aftershock of grief in 'Time Is a Mother'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest today, Ocean Vuong, is the author of the critically acclaimed novel "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," based on his own experiences growing up in Connecticut, marginalized as a Vietnamese immigrant, poor and gay. The book became a bestseller in 2019, the year he also received a MacArthur grant, also known as the Genius Grant, and the year his mother died. He has a new collection of poems related to her death called "Time Is A Mother." He spoke with our guest, interviewer Tonya Mosley. Here's Tonya.

TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: What does it mean to write to a mother who will never read it? That's one of the central questions of Ocean Vuong's 2019 novel "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous." The book is a work of fiction and also autobiographical a letter to Vuong's mother, Rose, who never learned to read. Rose was an immigrant from Vietnam who worked at a nail salon for 25 years. She died in 2019 from breast cancer, the same year the novel was released. Vuong's newest book, "Time Is A Mother," is a searing book of poetry that he calls a search for life after the death of his mother. And Ocean Vuong joins us now. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

OCEAN VUONG: Thank you so much, Tonya. It's a deep pleasure to be here.

MOSLEY: Ocean, my condolences on the loss of your mother.

VUONG: Thank you. Thank you. It's the wound that I am told will never heal. And three years out, I don't expect it to heal anytime soon.

MOSLEY: The last time you were on a book tour, your mother was ill, but well enough to marvel in your success. How are you experiencing the release of this poetry collection with her absence?

VUONG: Oh, you know, you realize that grief is perhaps the last and final translation of love. And I think, you know, this is the last act of loving someone. And you realize that it will never end. You get to do this to translate this last act of love for the rest of your life. And so, you know, it's - really, her absence is felt every day. But because I'm becoming an author again in another book, it's doubly felt.

And ever since I lost her, I felt that my life has been lived in only two days, if that makes any sense. You know, there's the today, where she is not here, and then the vast and endless yesterday where she was, even though it's been three years since. How many months and days? But I only see it in - with one demarcation. Two days - today without my mother, and yesterday, when she was alive. That's all I see. That's how I see my life now.

MOSLEY: This is the only book you've written that you say you are proud of because you compromise nothing. Why?

VUONG: When I lost my mother, I thought, there's no point. Everything I have done, I'd done for her. I went to school for her. She gave me no pressure. You know, and it's important for me to say this because, you know, there's a stereotype of the Asian tiger mom. My mother was never such a mother. She said, whatever you want to do, as long as you're happy, you can do it. And worse comes to worst, she points to the desk. She works in a nail salon. She points to the desk beside her. There's always an empty desk in the salon. She says, you can sit down right here, and then we'll work together. So I had ultimate freedom to explore. And I think for me, you know, that freedom really was all to serve her. It was, how do I help my mother get out of the projects? Every immigrant has that dream.

And I realized that I was writing with various insecurities or fears, you know, even with all of my books. Every writer would tell you that they're writing what they want. But I think, you know, only when their mother passes away do they realize, oh, wait a minute. There's another level of freedom that I don't know. And the fork in the road for me was either I stopped doing it altogether or I start doing whatever I wanted. And I didn't know that I was writing for beyond myself or elsewhere until she passed and I started to see pleasure again.

You know, I became a child again. You lose your mother, and you lose your North Star, at least for me. And I became such a child. And like any child, I look at the blank page and I said, how do I play? Where do I locate pleasure? And the only place I could look to was the poems, because it was the only place I found linguistic pleasure.

MOSLEY: This latest collection - it is all about you. You are fully there. If those who have read your previous works think back, they can see this so clearly in reading "Time Is A Mother." Can I have you read an excerpt from the first page, "Beautiful Short Loser"?

VUONG: (Reading) "Beautiful Short Loser." Stand back. I'm a loser on a winning streak. I got your wedding dress on backward, playing air guitar in the streets. I taste my mouth the most, and what a blessing. The most normal things about me are my shoulders. You've been warned. Where I'm from, it's only midnight for a second. And the trees look like grandfathers laughing in the rain. For as long as I can remember, I've had a preference for mediocre bodies, including this one. How come the past tense is always longer? Is the memory of a song the shadow of a sound, or is that too much? Sometimes when I can sleep, I imagine Van Gogh singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" into his cut ear and feeling peace.

MOSLEY: When you say that you feel like a child again, I'm thinking back to something that you said previously, that writing fully about yourself is both a death and a celebration. Is that what you mean? What do you mean exactly by that?

VUONG: You know, every book I've written around this time, I look at the pages, and I think, Oh, I could have done that better. I could have tightened that sentence. That comma should have been delayed. This chapter should have, you know, had a different speed to it. And that's a sign of growth. I tell my students this. I say, if you look at what you've written months ago or years ago and you're not happy with it, then congrats. You've grown. You shouldn't be sad. You should be happy. And I've always felt that with my other books.

And this one, for some reason, I didn't feel that. I didn't have the same regrets, the same editorial pesky mind in my head. And then I thought, oh, God, this must be a plateau. This must be a kind of death, you know. On the other hand, it's the celebration of finally putting all of my self in my work. You know, my friends say you're so funny, but your work is so sad. And so this book, this last book here, I see all of my humor, you know, my, mischievousness, my tongue-in-cheek expression, even amongst the great loss. I said, there he is. He's finally here. And maybe this is it for him, you know? So it's a double-edged sword, as they say.

MOSLEY: I want to talk with you more about the foundation of your understanding of language. But that humor, it definitely comes through in this book of poetry. And your dissection of language, there is one poem where you do this so well. You take on the ways language is used to reinforce toxic masculinity. Can I have you read a little of "Old Glory"?

VUONG: (Reading) "Old Glory." Knock them dead, big guy. Get in there guns blazing, buddy. You crushed at the show. No, it was a blow out. No, a massacre, total overkill. We tore them a new one. My son's a beast, a lady killer, straight shooter. He knocked her up - a bombshell blonde. You'll blow them away.

MOSLEY: Can you share the motivation for this poem, "Old Glory"?

VUONG: Yeah. It's one of the poems that I was most proud of in a sense because I don't think I would have been able to have written a poem like this as a novice poet. I would have been too uncertain, you know? And because this is a found poem, it's language that's not - it's in the social. And I've kind of took them out of their context and repositioned them into a relentless sonnet of - you know, they have their own propulsion.

And I wanted to show that, you know, the terms that we use, these violent terms - right? - bombshell blonde; blow them away; it was a massacre. These things that we use to celebrate each other - we use them all the time. But when you compress them, when you take out the context and the filler, you have something that kind of resembles weaponry - right? - the relentlessness of a machine gun burst, of - this kind of bombing of these terms. And it's no wonder that there is so much violence in our country and in our lexicon.

And I'm not exactly interested in policing how we speak in this term. I'm more interested in asking why 'cause I'm a product of America, too, and I use these terms sometimes without thinking myself. But I'm interested in saying, what is it about a culture that uses these terms as the only recognizable way to sort of celebrate each other? These terms prevail. It's not like we don't have more wholesome, you know, life-giving terms, but these are the ones that prevail through time.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, our guest is Ocean Vuong, author of the new poetry collection "Time Is A Mother." Vuong is a New York Times bestselling author of "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," which has been translated into 36 languages. He's also a recipient of the 2019 MacArthur Genius Grant. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HEART THE TICKER SONG, "SLIGHTLY UNDER WATER")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and our guest is Ocean Vuong, author of the new poetry collection "Time Is A Mother." Vuong is a New York Times bestselling author and recipient of the 2019 MacArthur Genius Grant.

Ocean, I want to go back to the foundation of your understanding of language. You and your family moved from Vietnam to Connecticut when you were 2 - Glastonbury, just outside of Hartford. And you write that you grew up around Vietnamese women - your mom and your grandmother - who used stories as portals. What did that storytelling look like in the day to day?

VUONG: What I learned - and I didn't realize then until - you know, what I realize now was that I was at the seat of master storytellers. I was receiving a master class, and it was in no institution. And what I mean by that is that when - in my case, these three women - when a woman decides to leave their country, something quite miraculous, in my opinion, happens in that they have to decide what to take out and leave behind in the archive of their self and what to salvage and carry forth because the memory is a limited archive.

And they've made decision - what stories do I leave behind? What stories do I carry across borders and trepidations in order to lend and gift to my children and grandchildren? And by the time I received these stories - and sometimes they're folklore. Sometimes they're personal stories. But all of them were already beautifully crafted through hundreds of retellings.

My grandmother knew when to pause, when to grow anticipation, what part of the scene to describe, what part to speed up through exposition. And we were all just enraptured by what she was able to do. And I think it made me understand then, you know, even more so, you know, what I would later come to know intellectually, which is that nobody survives by accident. Refugees and immigrants survive because they're innovative and creative. Survival is a creative act - you know, you stitching, you know, money in the insides of jackets - right? - I mean, all of these things.

We often see the refugee as a victim or a passive condition, you know, who is pleading for universal help and aid. But in fact, the refugee is an incredibly creative artist. I would even go as far as to say that my elders and many elders around the world who survive geopolitical violence are survival artists.

MOSLEY: This idea, Ocean, that a story is an inheritance, as you say. I'm thinking about, as you speak, how many immigrants and people of marginalized communities don't share specifically the horrors of being persecuted or made invisible. With their children, they don't share those stories. And so much of your writing about your mother is also what you observed. But did she ever talk in addition to those stories that you're talking about, about her childhood and her experiences as an Asian woman in America?

VUONG: Very rarely. When she told about her childhood, it was always whimsical. It was always to inform. And so much of her memory is based on education and pleasure and joy. And I knew her through the beautiful memories of Vietnam, and she hid the dark ones from me. And it was through my own research that I had to confront where she came from. And something quite devastating happens to the imagination when you are researching brutal histories, whether it's in the American South in this country or Vietnam and various wars, is that you start to see corpses, you know, and you're not prepared for that. And for me, I started to see corpses that look like myself and my family.

MOSLEY: What can you tell us about your mother's life in Vietnam and what led her to coming to the U.S.?

VUONG: You know, so much of her life is a mystery to me. And, you know, she didn't give me everything. And I think - which is why I wrote fiction, to kind of portray her to myself, but a different version of her. But I know the context was that, you know, she was a mixed race child. And, you know, there was Operation Second Chance brought forth by Senator John McCain to kind of bring back all of the children of veterans who were left there after the initial Operation Babylift. And so it was a way of bringing the remnants, if you will, to America. And, you know, she took advantage of that. And she, you know, because of that, all seven of us came over.

MOSLEY: Your mom could not read, but she taught you. She taught you to read other languages like body language and facial expressions. And she was delighted to see the faces of white people at your book tour events, watching you read poetry. What was it that she was delighting in?

VUONG: It was hard. It was a mixed - it was a very mixed feeling for me to see her and hear her say that because I told her, I said, Ma, that can't be be what winning looks like. This can't be the mountain top. You know, there must be more to this. And so that was me being the millennial, you know, the academic, you know, saying that there should be more to affirm what we do than a white audience, a white audience's approval. And the next day, I was with her. And I realized watching her work in the nail salon. And you watch her through the day, and you watched the other women at the pedicure chair. And you realize that their faces are never lifted - they can't. To do their work, they have to lower their face. And their clients are most likely older white women, sometimes, you know, white men, particularly in this neighborhood. It was predominantly white folks.

And it made sense to me. thwen. I said, oh, my God. What she does is artful. It takes aesthetic skill and technique, and no one has ever clapped for her. How many pedicures have she done? You know, in ways - to me takes so much more skilled than a poem. But nobody has ever stood up and clapped for her. Sorry. And so just to see her, I felt so foolish for questioning her victory. But that's also what it's like, you know, to be from one generation to another. It's like, you know, I regretted questioning what she saw as victory because I had a different scale. And her scale was that she never knew what it's like to be applauded.

And they were applauding for her. You know, they looked at her, and they said, you made this poet. You made something that we value. You're an artist, too. And I think what I learned that day was that we were always two artists. You know, it's just that the culture valued one more so than the other. But when, after that day, everything was equal to me, everything collapsed. And I looked at my mother, and I said, I come from a family of artists.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with Ocean Vuong. His new collection of poems is called "Time Is A Mother." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And Ken Tucker will review the new album by the duo he describes as indie rock's newest obsession. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with Ocean Vuong. He has a new poetry collection written in the aftershocks of the death of his mother, Rose, a Vietnamese immigrant who raised Vuong as a single mother working in a nail salon for 25 years. The collection is called "Time Is A Mother." Vuong's bestselling semi-autobiographical novel, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," was published in 2019, the year he received a MacArthur Grant and the year his mother died.

MOSLEY: You know, I want to go back to your mother's profession as a nail salon worker. I get my nails done on a regular basis. And so you talking about being able to look into the eyes of those who are doing our nails and seeing their humanity, there's this poem in the collection called "Amazon History Of A Nail Salon Worker." It's four pages, and it chronicles the items purchased on Amazon each month. Can you read a little bit of it? And it's page 52 - maybe the first two months' passages because they're broken up into months.

VUONG: (Reading) "Amazon History Of A Former Nail Salon Worker." March - Advil ibuprofen, four-pack. Sally Hansen pink nail polish, six-pack. Clorox bleach, industrial size. Diane hairpins, four-pack. Seafoam handheld mirror. I love New York T-shirt, white, small. April - Nongshim ramen noodle bowl, 24-pack. Cotton balls, 100 count. Thank you for your loyalty cards, 30 count. Toluene, POR 15 40404, solvent, one quart. UV LED nail lamp. Cuticle oil, value pack. Clear acrylic nail tips, 500 count.

MOSLEY: What does that Amazon cart tell us about your mom's existence?

VUONG: I wanted to track, you know, the debris of living because I think sometimes the object speaks more clearly even than language itself. And I believe in William Carlos Williams' credo. No ideas but in things, he says, you know, while being part of this nascent images and movement of the early 20th century. And I wanted to track the debris of this nail salon worker's life.

And as the months goes on, you notice that her Advil purchases goes up to maximum strength. She starts buying Salonpas heat patches. And somewhere along the seventh, eighth month mark, there's a walker and, after that, chemo scarves and chemo caps, a windowsill garden, you know, and eventually an urn, a memorial plaque. And finally, in the last month, a pair of wool socks, gray, extra small.

And I think, for me, what struck me was that there's an aspirational quality and an evidentiary quality to buying something for yourself and your family. There's a hope there, right? We buy because we hope. And there's a lot to say about the critique of capitalism and how destructive it is in our culture. But also at the root of it, this acquisition of objects is also a DNA, the declaration of a selfhood. And I felt that my mother, at times, is more - made more clear in what she curated around her, you know, the objects of her livelihood and the objects of her pleasure often literally in one, quote, unquote, "Amazon shopping cart."

And sometimes, I look at, you know, her cart whether she's at a store or online, and I say, wow, this is - oh, this is definitely my mother. Here she is, you know? And so much of it is buying things for her family. And I wanted to honor that as we progress and map our way towards the end of this specific nail salon worker's life.

MOSLEY: You mentioned that she said to you, you could have a chair right next to me at this nail salon. You don't have to go on to college or those types of things. Did you ever work with her in the salon?

VUONG: I did. I tried my hand at working on the nails, but I found - I discovered my greatest flaw as a artist. I had no patience (laughter). I realized patience was a skill I did not possess. And I think that's why I became a writer. Because when you're a writer, within a single sentence, a city can rise or fall. It could be daylight or nighttime. And if you write it, it's true. A couple seconds later, there it is.

But working in the salon takes meticulous patience. Your hand has to be steady. It takes your whole body. Your whole coiled body is wrapped in the attention of beauty. And I think that poem was so fascinating to me. And I didn't see this when I wrote it. But towards the end, I realized that through the final months of this woman's purchase, she turned from someone who served beauty for others to someone who brought beauty onto herself, buying even, you know, sunset pink - a chemo scarf, that the beauty started to turn towards the self, sadly, towards the end of her life. But it's still there nonetheless.

MOSLEY: Before your mother's cancer diagnosis, she went to the hospital complaining of pain, and they gave her an ice pack. It was only after you intervened that she was diagnosed with cancer. This is horrifying, but not surprising, especially for many people of color. But do you ever get angry about it?

VUONG: Oh, how can you not, you know? I get angry, and I get guilty because so many folks don't have a son who's a professor who can come and posture that, right? And I learned that, you know, as soon as I enter the room, how I speak, how I move about, the diction that I use - people's posture change. They look at me differently, and then they look at my mother differently, right? The nurses, those who attend her - you know, if I didn't come, they would just come in and start injecting medications into her because she wouldn't know. She wouldn't know any better. And I would - until I say, excuse me, what is that? There's a startle - they would be startled and say, oh, oh, you know? And there's this sort of corrective. And we see this all the time that we have to make, you know, our family legible.

We have to advocate and verbalize their pain and thereby verbalize their humanity, something especially in the medical field that should be a given. We are tending to humans, after all. The hospital is definitely not a veterinarian, right? It's not a vet clinic. And yet I learned that I had to shadow her everywhere she went. Every time they wheeled her away, I had to shadow her and verbalize her needs and her desires in order to gain something as simple as respect. And it's no wonder that so many people of color, both who can speak English and not, are wary of hospitals because they're no longer seen as people. They're seen as conditions. And they lose so much of their humanity in the process of trying to heal and be human.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, our guest is Ocean Vuong, author of the new poetry collection "Time Is A Mother." Vuong is a New York Times bestselling author of "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," which has been translated into 36 languages. He's also a recipient of the 2019 MacArthur Genius Grant. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And our guest is Ocean Vuong, author of the new poetry collection "Time Is A Mother." Vuong is a New York Times bestselling author and recipient of the 2019 MacArthur Genius Grant.

You've spoken quite a bit about this invisibility that Asian people experience in this country. How do you reconcile, though, that over the years - and really, as you lay out for us throughout your life, you are visible and you've - people recognize you. How does it feel as an individual to be seen?

VUONG: It's challenging for me because I'm an introvert. And I didn't want to be known in this way. I thought that writing a book, your book would live in the world and you get to hide. One of my heroes is Emily Dickinson, and I love her work. But I also - what I love about her is her kind of sort of disobedience to the world that demanded her to be seen. And she chose, you know, her own privacy and her own dignity. And it's not something I've been able to do. You know, so much of being a writer in the modern world is publicity and being out in the open. And it's OK. I've made peace with it to a certain extent, but it's not something I ever envisioned.

And it's hard because, you know, on one hand, you're very visible. And on another, you know, you're only visible in context. So I'm Ocean Vuong when there's a stage, when there's an event, an interview. But when I'm out, you know, in the world, I'm another Asian person. You know, when I get to - when I go sign up to get my ID at the school I work at, you know, the woman asked me if I spoke English, right? And so all of a sudden, this big idea of this, quote, unquote, "famous writer" collapses in an instant. And you're just on your knees again. And you're back standing with your mother as a child, you know, in the convenience store or the mall, you know, at Nordstrom.

And the woman comes to my mother, picks up the, you know, the perfume from my mother's hand and says, ma'am, did you check the price? You know, and it's just like - and my mother just put it down and walks away. You know, she - we ran out of there, you know. And so all of a sudden, it's kind of like that. And I realize in moments like that, I haven't gone very far at all, haven't I?

MOSLEY: You know, Ocean, though you've - through your work, you've also made not only other Asian American people who identify as such feel seen, but you've made queer people feel seen. And I'm just thinking about that foundational experience of being othered. It often stays with us for the rest of our lives. In any way, though, do you feel full from the accolades and people telling you that they feel seen through you?

VUONG: I feel very blessed that I could participate in the tradition of oppositional work as a means of self-preservation for people who have been maligned politically and socially. And I have to thank and owe my tradition to Black artists and thinkers in this way because it was the Black artists and thinkers who came before us in this country that laid the foundation. And so I work in their shadow always.

And I think one of the drawbacks of diversity as an agenda is that it tokenizes us or it can tokenize us into slots, in individual traditions - right? - like Asian American, Latinx, Native American, Black writers. But, in fact, all of these traditions are woven in the shadow of Black thought - right? - from the Frederick Douglasses to the Phillis Wheatley, the Baldwins. That oppositional work of self-determination and self dignity - Toni Morrison - it goes on and on. We've come in in the middle of that project. Asian American writers come in in the middle. And so it's important for me at every stage to say I'm here because of these other folks, right? These are also my elders. They've made room for me to work.

MOSLEY: You mentioned Emily Dickinson. A lot of folks have compared you to the likes of Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. How do these comparisons square with how you see yourself? It sounds like you want to make certain that we understand that you are following a long tradition.

VUONG: Yeah, I have no problem with that. I love those writers, and the beauty of being an artist in the present is that we can loiter in history and pick up whatever gold that's useful to us. So, you know, I read Hopkins' sprung rhythm. I read Dickinson's, you know, capitalizing the D in death, as she should, her dashes. I read, you know, Frederick Douglass, Amiri Baraka, Maxine Hong Kingston and also Chaucer, Milton, Homer. You know, we can go all the way back. You know, literature is time travel. And what I tell my students is that the beauty of this is that you get to be a junkyard artist. You get to go back and take the rusted tools of the epochs before you and bring them into the present to make something absolutely new.

MOSLEY: Ocean, children of immigrants and marginalized communities often hold this weight of wanting to share our parents' stories. At the start of this conversation, I introduced you by posing this question that you've asked so many times in relation to your mother and your writing. And that is, what does it mean to write for someone who will never read it? What does it mean? Have you found the answer to that question?

VUONG: I think I was interested in that aporia, that paradox, because, very quickly, the pressure falls on language itself. Does it matter to speak if no one listens? If the intended recipient is not there or cannot hear it, does my vote count? Do I have a voice? Does my voice matter? These are the perennial American questions, perhaps global questions. And I think, why not create the set-up in the novel to really put language to the test? Does it matter? Does it do anything for us if we are just using it, you know, in this cyclical way?

You know, in a way, language is a wheel. It comes back to us. And what if we closed off the possibilities of being heard? Would it matter? You know, do we throw the message in a bottle into the sea? And if we put everything that we wanted into it, do we reaffirm something in ourselves? And of course, I knew the answer was yes, but I had to prove it to myself. I had to see how. And, like, so much of literature is seeing the how. We read the backs of books, and we get the story, but we want to know how. And I think in this way, the sentence is a technology of expanding the world around us. We all know what happens in the world, but the how, the deep interiority, is what makes it memorable.

MOSLEY: Ocean Vuong, thank you so much.

VUONG: Thank you, Tonya. It's been a incredible, incredible experience. And thank you for your capacious questions and your deep respect for the subject.

GROSS: Ocean Vuong spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley. Vuong's new poetry collection is called "Time Is A Mother." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by the two women known as the duo Wet Leg. Ken describes them as indie rock's latest obsession. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "REMEMBER ME AS A TIME OF DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.