In The Lines Of Ocean Vuong, Echoes Of His Family's Past In Vietnam Award-winning poet Ocean Vuong speaks about his new book Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which weaves growing up in America with his family's memories of a war-torn Vietnam.
NPR logo

In The Lines Of Ocean Vuong, Echoes Of His Family's Past In Vietnam

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/475511998/475511999" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In The Lines Of Ocean Vuong, Echoes Of His Family's Past In Vietnam

In The Lines Of Ocean Vuong, Echoes Of His Family's Past In Vietnam

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/475511998/475511999" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk poetry now. All this month, we've been observing National Poetry Month by hearing poems that you've sent us via Twitter. Now we thought we'd hear from a poet who's been making a big mark in a short period of time. His name is Ocean Vuong. And here he is reading some of his poem "My Father Writes From Prison."

OCEAN VUONG: (Speaking Vietnamese, reading).

(Reading) And there are things I can say only in the dark. How one spring I crushed a monarch midflight just to know how it felt to have something change in my hands.

MARTIN: If you thought you were hearing Vietnamese there, you are correct. In fact, Ocean Vuong was born in Vietnam, but his family moved to Connecticut when he was 2 years old. He tells us he didn't learn to read English until he was 11. But now at 27, Vuong is an award-winning poet, his work published in The New Yorker.

He's made a powerful impact on readers, weaving his personal story and family memories of life in Vietnam into a new book. It's called "Nigh Sky With Exit Wounds." I spoke to Ocean Vuong at his home in Queens, N.Y., and I started by asking him to tell him the story of how his mother happened to name him Ocean.

VUONG: She was working in a nail salon. And like many Vietnamese immigrants, she learned English just talking to customers. One summer day she said, it's so hot, I wish I was at the beach, except that she pronounced it in a word that resembled a derogatory term.

MARTIN: A word that the FCC would prefer we not say. How about we put it that way?

VUONG: But you can use your imagination.

MARTIN: Exactly.

VUONG: And so the customer suggested, why not ocean? And when she learned what that word was and what it meant, which is the body of water that touches both America and Vietnam, she decided to rename me Ocean. And I always say that I come from a line of poets, even though my family cannot read or write. As you can see, her mind was already a mind geared and keen towards the imagination.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of your name, what you just told us resonates in a poem called "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong." Would you mind reading a few lines...

VUONG: Yes.

MARTIN: ...From that?

VUONG: (Reading) Ocean, don't be afraid. The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother's shadow falls. Here's the house where childhood whittled down to a single red tripwire. Don't worry. Just call it horizon and you'll never reach it. Here's today - jump, I promise it's not a lifeboat.

MARTIN: You know, it's remarkable because Vietnam is never - is not far from your thoughts and is kind of intermingled throughout memories, kind of impressions. You left when you were 2, and yet there's - you portray these very vivid scenes of life there both during the war and after. Where did these stories come from?

VUONG: It feels quintessentially very American to me to be an inheritor of war. My life and my poems try to investigate that intersection of what it means to be an American body born out of violence, making sense out of violence. Because we immigrated, we were - I was raised in a one-bedroom apartment in Hartford. It was in a way a small village of Vietnamese women who raised me. And so Vietnam was preserved in this American city, the city of Mark Twain, Wallace Stevens, Harriet Beecher Stowe. And here we are, a group of seven Vietnamese people speaking only Vietnamese every day, eating Vietnamese food with a little bit of KFC (laughter) sprinkled in. In that sense, Vietnam was preserved for me for a very long time.

MARTIN: That's Ocean Vuong joining us from New York. His new book of poetry "Night Sky With Exit Wounds" is out now. Ocean Vuong, thanks so much for speaking with us.

VUONG: Thank you so much, Michel. What a joy and honor to celebrate poetry with you.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.