-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.