Ocean Vuong Wrote His Debut Novel in a Closet


-You are known as a poet. This is your first novel,
and just debuted at number 6 on “The New York Times”
fiction list. Very exciting.
[ Cheers and applause ] -That’s what they say. -That all
sounds very glamorous now, and yet the book was not written in the most glamorous
circumstances. You had roommates at the time
you wrote this book. Tell everybody
where you wrote this book. -I had noisy roommates. They had kids, and I struggled. You know,
I was an adjunct at NYU, and I would go home,
working on this book. And I looked
at the corner of my room, and I said, “Where can I — the furthest place I can go
from these folks?” They were kind folks,
but they were so noisy. And it was the closet.
-Oh, wow. -The closet
was the furthest place away. And I know, for a gay writer,
the irony is not lost on me. [ Laughter, cheers, applause ] The irony is not lost.
-Yeah. -But I thought,
“I’m gonna go in there. I’m gonna reclaim that place.” [ Laughter and applause ] And, you know,
you know, it was beautiful. You go in there, and what
was once a prison for me, I turned it into a portal
to write this book. -That’s fantastic.
-And I went in there with a little lamp and my
laptop, and it was perfect. -And certainly,
the outcome is perfect. This is such a beautiful book. It is fiction,
but the main character, born in Vietnam like you,
grew up in Hartford. How much of it was taken
from your own life? And as you’re writing it,
when do you choose to make a fictional choice
versus something that’s more autobiographical? -Yeah, that was
a purposeful choice. I wanted to start with truth
and end with art. That was always my goal. I could have put these folks
in Mars and turned it sci-fi. I could have put them in ancient
Vietnam or medieval Europe. But I wanted to situate them
in Hartford, Connecticut, as Asian-American characters,
as a way of saying, “These bodies
are inspiring to me. They’re worthy of literature,
with a capital L,” something that these bodies
rarely got a chance to be. And here’s my chance to do it and contribute to American
letters in this way. I wanted to do it right. -It’s really — [ Cheers and applause ] It’s really well-executed. The main character is named,
referred to as Little Dog. And you talk about how — why it is that his mother
calls him that, which I found fascinating. And there’s truth
to that, as well, yes? -Yes.
In our village in Vietnam, the tradition
is to name the child, the weakest, smallest child, after the most
despicable things. And sometimes we call them
Little Dog, Pig Face, as a way to deter evil spirits
who come hunting for children. And, you know, they hear,
“Oh, that’s a little dog. I don’t want anything
to do with that.” So a name becomes a cloak,
becomes a shield. And particularly
with these women who have PTSD, who survived war,
they’re so powerless in America. They have very little agency. And their only one thing
they can do with their mouth is to rename the child
Little Dog to protect him. And it’s their power. -And then,
your mother named you Ocean. That was not
what she originally had in mind. What was she originally
thinking to name you? -Oh, Lord.
Okay. So my mother had me
when she was 19. This is ’88. And at that time, there’s
a person named Jackie Chan… [ Laughter ] …who was Asia’s, you know,
proudest export in the world. -Sure.
-And he was everywhere. And she liked — it was either
Michael Jackson or Jackie Chan. And she thought she really
wanted to go with Jackie. And luckily,
she stayed off, you know. And she came to Ocean.
-Yeah. -But that was her impulse,
was to go for Jackie Chan. -Yeah.
[ Laughter ] -My school bullies would’ve
had a field day, so I’m so — -Yeah, and I think it would be
very hard to sell a book by Michael Jackson Vuong
right now. [ Laughter and applause ] So, I think we dodged
a bullet there, as well. [ Cheers and applause ] You make a really
interesting observation about how,
in the English language, words of destruction
are used to define success, particularly
from the male perspective. Can you speak about that
for a minute? -In this culture,
we celebrate boys through the lexicon of violence.
“You’re killing it.” “You’re making a killing.”
“Smash them.” “Blow them up.” “You went into that game
guns blazing.” And I think it’s worth it
to ask the question, what happens to our men and boys when the only way they can
valuate themselves is through the lexicon
of death and destruction? And I think when they see
themselves only worthwhile when they are capable
of destroying things, it’s inevitable that we arrive
at a masculinity that is toxic. You, uh —
[ Cheers and applause ] -Your — This book is written
from the perspective of a writer who is writing to his mother,
knowing that she will not be able to read it
because she cannot read English. Your mother — That is true
of your mother, as well? -Yeah.
-But yet she has come out. She has come to your readings. She must be very proud of you.
-Very proud. -And what’s it like when
she comes to your readings? -Oh, my Lord.
The first time she went, you know, I read,
and it was lovely. Folks, you know, as they do,
they stand up and they clap. And I walk back to check on her,
and she’s crying. You know, she’s sobbing.
And I thought, I said, “Mom, what’s wrong? You didn’t hear anything,
you know? I didn’t do anything wrong,
did I?” You know, you being the son,
you make sure, “Did I do anything bad?”
She said, “No, no, no. I never thought I would live to
see all these old white people clapping for my son.” [ Cheers and applause ] -I’m very happy.
I’m very happy for you. -I never saw it that way,
you know? But she taught me how to rethink what success was for her
is to see the effect. As a writer, I’m always
interested in the language, and I’m obsessed with language. But she helped me think
that it matters what you do in the world, how your words
affects the world, what it does. She was looking at that,
and she really taught me how to look
at where my language ends up. -Well, she sounds like
a very impressive woman. Do you think
she’ll be watching this? -Yes.
-Okay, that’s good. Do you to want to say anything
to her that she’d understand? -Can I?
-Yeah, please. -Yeah, yeah. [ Speaking Vietnamese ] [ Cheers and applause ] -What a delight having you. Congratulations on the book.
-Thank you. -Just an honor.

100 Replies to “Ocean Vuong Wrote His Debut Novel in a Closet

  1. not too into books and literature but i clicked on this video because his name was too unique and interesting. but this interview freaking captivated me. he's so interesting and of course as a writer, he speaks so colorfully and uses words that really visualize like a majestic world -idk how to describe it, prob why im not a writer, but he is mesmerizing when he speaks. like when he described the closet. what a breath of fresh air to watch interviews like this on late talk shows as mainstream as this

  2. He has such a lyrical voice. I was impressed by a poem of his on The New Yorker and I can’t wait to read more!

  3. Deep words coming from a young man. He's so expressive and earnest. It's lovely to see someone who thinks outside the box. Wonderful!

  4. This is the best interview I’ve seen on late night TV!!!!!!!! WOW thank you for having him. And thank you for such amazing words, Ocean.

  5. I've read his poetry and it's incredible. So excited to read the novel, and so excited that he's getting this level of recognition

  6. I was going to read the book then he came up with "toxic masculinity" and defined speech. Another delusional writer who thinks in silencing speech is good. 🙄

  7. So excited to read his book!! The Vietnamese representation makes me insanely happy and proud 💗💗

  8. His poetry is fantastic, very moving. I met him once during a reading of his work and he signed his book for me. He’s personable and interesting.

  9. As a Vietnamese, I’m so proud to see this. It’s my first time hearing about this guy, and I already wanna know more about him and seek out his book to read. He speaks so eloquently and is so soft-spoken–it’s beautiful. A true poet.

  10. His body language remind me of………. Reply if u know the answer 🙂

    His speech is beautiful btw 🙂

  11. so eloquent and thoughtful…
    it truly is a breath of fresh air seeing an artist other than a mainstream celebrity showing up on a big show like this.
    thankyou seth meyers for giving other artists a platform!! I need to see more episodes like this!!

  12. So happy to see a fellow Vietnamese represented respectfully and cordially in popular American media! Asian Americans are being seen and heard more and more in leading movies, tv, music, dance, and books, and I love it. Keep up the great work.

  13. What I sometimes hate is the lack of POCs in layers night media and just broadcast journalism on general like om radio because I feel like often the connection and interest that the interviews have in the story is lost. I think Seth did very well looking interested but I feel like there was more to pull out of Ocean and his story which also be due to him not being an actor or singer.

  14. His poem, :Telemachus," is fantastic! Came to my college to perform it and was absolutely amazing.

  15. Wow!!! This was the most eloquent and gentle interview on a late night show I think I have ever seen! Please, continue to invite writers, poets, and just artists in general who can speak to areas of discussion that late night television does not often include!!

  16. As a Australian born Vietnamese I'm so fucking proud. I cried because I understood what he said at the end. Hearing those words on a mainstream, western platform has given me more strength and courage to speak out and stand up more. Thank you ❤️🙏

  17. “Masculinity that is toxic.” WOOOO! Ughh. Please world, end all of this ignorance and hate so that we can move beyond this ridiculous age of celebrated separatist identities. Gay poet?! I want to live in a world where individuals don’t need to identify beyond “poet”. What’s next? Then what? What a mess

  18. Delightful for this "old white person" to discover an excellent interview- both the guest and the host were BRILLIANT! More, please.

  19. Dear Seth, you are definitely doing a much better job hosting now…not sure what happened but these days, it's like you are exuding peace n happiness now. So much easier to watch u host these days! Awesome job! And kudos to Ocean…can't wait to read your book!

  20. I studied Vuong's poetry in my undergrad classes and have been in love ever since. So cool to see him getting mainstream coverage like this– that's so rare for us poets!

  21. More of this, please. Let’s value Authors, poets, and musicians the way we do actors. This was the most touching interview I’ve ever seen on a late night show. More more more!!

  22. Wow! Quite eloquent in both languages and great understanding of the cultures. Very proud to be VietNamese.

  23. I didn't take him seriously with a name like Ocean. But the way he speaks… I need to pick up his book.

  24. My poetry technique writing class read his poetry book "Night Sky with Exit Wounds," and it was truly one of the most beautiful pieces of work I had ever read. I'm so glad you decided to interview him.

  25. Thank you for having this young Vietnamese-American writer on your show. What a delightful interview. I know now to go look for his novel 😊.

  26. He is not just a Genius in what he’s doing, he’s a kind hearted boy. I’m so so happy that we have people like him in our world! ❤️❤️

  27. QUALITY CONTENT. Seth, Late Night, thank you for sharing this! How often is talk show time at this level, if just briefly, what a breath of fresh air. Loved it!

  28. Inspiring. I'm trying to write a book and am stuck. Will read this book for sure. Hope one day to be on Seth Meyers talking about my book. Thank you Ocean for your spirit. You made my day.

  29. It was so kind of Seth to give him a moment to say something to his mother like that. Lovely interview.

  30. I love you too Ocean Vuong ! As a Vietnamese father watched my children grow up in America. And I’m cried to hear you said to your mom…. You are amazing

  31. I hate this guy. Going around complaining about the English language? Saying there's something wrong with destroy or killed it? People like that have serious issues when you think you have the right to tell people what words they can and can't use.

  32. I’ve analysed his poetry in my university literature class and fell in love with the beauty and depth of his writing

  33. going to his alma mater, my english prof freshman year had us read an essay by him, and I still remember it. I didn't even know he had a book coming out so… guess I have to buy more books… rip my efficiency…

  34. Wonderful interview, the book is very beautifully written. More writers please!! I loved this and the Tommy Orange interview!!

  35. Journaling as therapy and a career. Instaed of paying a therapist $200 hour he wrote a semi-bio book, made money and became a celebrity.

  36. Ugh why are novelists so pretentious and serious? "These bodies"… "Worthy of literature with a capital L" "Contribute to American Letters"… for christ's sake, stop speaking to impress people.

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