Born in Saigon in 1988, poet and novelist Ocean Vuong‘s work is weighted with suffering: his family spent more than a year in a Phillipine refugee camp before relocating to post-industrial Connecticut, where he was raised during the rise of the opioid epidemic. The son of an American soldier and Viatnamese farmgirl, he advises his NYU students, “If you want to study literature, study war. For as long as there are soldiers there are poets.”

Vuong is the author of poetry collections Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which received the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and Time is a Mother, an examination of grief compiled in the aftershocks of his mother’s death. In 2019 he received a MacArthur Genius Grant and released his first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. An epistolary work written as a letter from a Vietnamese American son to his illiterate mother, it spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 37 languages.

Reflecting on the books that informed and enriched his writing of On Earth, Vuong told LitHub:

“The truth is no writer comes ‘out of nowhere’ and wunderkinds are only as real as our aversion to a more sobering—albeit less glamorous—reality: that a writer’s growth is often a slog, the slow burn of reading and trying and failing when, finally, by some luck or mercy, the book you’re reading turns into a torch in your hands. And with it you make a sentence so new and exacting to your desire that it startles you into a new vision, a new life, one that exists through the presence of elders before you, both here and gone and some nearly forgotten but never lost.”

Riddled with themes of desire, displacement, queer loneliness and violent loss, explore Vuong’s ten most influential reads below.

Ocean Vuong’s Reading List

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

“This book is one of the most radical approaches to the novel that I’ve read, one where time-honored narrative decrees for cohesion, fluidity, character development, plot and arc, are refused in order to privilege a necessary, orchestrated sense of disorientation as a method of enacting displacement, trauma, and national and private grief. The novel gave me courage to stop seeing historical trauma as something that has to be refurbished in order to achieve ‘fine art,’ and more so that fracture, even incomprehensibility, can be a powerful conscious mode of storytelling, one that interrogates colonialist gauges of successful art-making without forsaking its central thrust: to tend and hold close the bodies expelled by canonical narratives.” -OV

Beloved by Toni Morrison (also rec’d by Cornel WestElena Ferrante, Emma Watson, Julianne MooreLiz Phair & Margaret Atwood)

“There is not more I can say about Beloved that has not been said much more concisely and eloquently. When I first came to the book, I discovered something I did not expect coming in: that, along with the myriad things that Beloved is and does, it is also a refugee narrative. The novel positions survival as an act of creation, particularly how mothers who witnessed a generation of a horrific trauma acquire the power of protection through love—even if it means committing the ultimate act of rescue: death. It is a treatise wherein literary violence can—and is at times obligated to—match that of history, that nothing is ‘too much’ or ‘indulgent’ if it is true. I saw in Morrison’s characters the thinking and innovation of women in my family.” -OV

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (also rec’d by Laurie Anderson)

“This hybrid book (a novel in verse) taught me what can happen when a fictive story is contextualized through other texts, where it can collaborate, argue with, and celebrate the original while also gaining its own life. In Carson’s case, it was the recasting and expansion of the classical myth of Geryon. But what’s more, it uses Geryon’s anecdotal life in a larger male-dominated narrative as an epicenter, thereby decentralizing the Greek original into Carson’s contemporary vision of rural queer life, the isolation of art making and the brutal repercussions of favoring interiority in a patriarchal system.” -OV

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (also rec’d by Bob DylanBruce Springsteen, Hugh Laurie, John IrvingMorgan FreemanNorman MailerPatti SmithPenn JilletteRay BradburySteve JobsSusan Orlean & Tilda Swinton)

“I have always felt that Melville was the writer who enacted Whitman’s decree for American multiplicity in ways far richer and complex than Whitman did himself. A book that simply refuses to compromise, that employs the autobiographical gaze to suggest radical modes of queerness, polytheism as progressive self-knowledge, expansive meditations on whiteness, both in regards to the whale’s purity and to race, Moby-Dick forges the allegory of the hunt as a doomed American quest for self-knowledge. Reading it, I thought, What would happen if a queer Asian American decided, in Melville’s vein, to also not compromise? What would happen if all modes of voices, themes, threads, systems of knowledge and influence were potent in equal measure within the novel’s temporal investigation?” -OV

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (also rec’d by Angela DavisJoan Didion)

“The novel that Baldwin claims he ‘had to write if [he were] ever to write anything else’ is a masterclass on how potent and vital an autobiographical text can be for a writer of color. In a literary culture that often casts the debut as arriving out of a serendipitous phenomenon, the autobiographical novel, as evidenced by Baldwin, serves as a map of one’s journey towards art. It says, essentially, that a writer of color does not arrive at the literary table, as is often believed, in spite their geographical and cultural roots, but because of them, that those origins, complex and rich with joy and challenges, were foundations within their praxis—not shackles that denied them an imagination.” -OV

The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thị diễm thúy

“A truly innovative book that centralizes oscillation and destabilization as a mode of inquiry and storytelling. Moving through multiple points of view, voices and non-linear time, thúy builds a narrative that feels, at times, more like landscape art than writing—all to a tremendous embodied effect. This book was so important to my education as a novelist because it shows how easily writers of color can be relegated incomprehensible if they choose to enlist unconventional, non-canonical models to work from.” -OV

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (also rec’d by Alison Bechdel & Greta Gerwig)

“This book still feels anachronistically bold in its total recalibration of conventional plot-making as a means of privileging characters, people and ideas over ‘story,’ all of it a treatise for a woman’s interior life as a central motif for fiction. It’s subtly subversive but also starkly innovative in action—or inaction (the entire narrative can be summed up—with a touch of, but not much, hyperbole—as five people crossing a lawn while a woman tries to finish her painting). What’s so illuminating to me is Woolf’s insistence on the extended metaphor (near Homeric at times) as a means of destabilizing the temporal function of plot. What is real when the metaphor becomes just as felt, if not more so, than the narrated life, when it becomes a portal?” -OV

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz

“If a personal queer bible could be such a thing, this would be mine. The potent beauty in this collection of essays is evident in its wide swath of styles and range of diction and modes. Wojnarowicz oscillates between essayistic rages against the Reagan administration to deeply lyrical meditations on queer loneliness, illness, artmaking and the mourning of lovers and friends lost to the AIDS epidemic.” -OV

Crapalachia: A Biography of Place by Scott McClanahan

“Scott McClanahan is one of those rare writers who achieves Kafka’s credo that a book should be the axe that shatters the icy soul of our interior. Crapalachia, with its tongue-in-cheek title, is anything but refuse and detritus. In fact, it’s a broken and half-sung ode to place and people and history, a personal reclamation of falsehoods cast on rural communities in West Virginia. It shows that just because the place you live in has been written about by others ad infinitum, does not mean it was written with you or your folks in mind. This book gave me the courage and power to write about Hartford, a city both haunted and adored by the specters of literary giants like Wallace Steven, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.” -V

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

“A modern testament to the power of the vignette as a narrative strategy. This book collapses Sherwood Anderson’s story cycle novel into Marguerite Duras’s elliptical, episodic style to fashion something entirely its own. What ensues is a refreshed demand for the reader to participate in the novel’s arc, each gap, like stanza breaks in a poem, both asks and allows us to feel the emotional pressures made resonant through associative leaps. This strategy is incredibly difficult to pull off as it demands charged and complicated emotive renderings to carry into white space without thorough bridges and narrative connections.” -OV

(via LitHub)

Categories: Writers