Stanford Online High School's student run news site

OHS Observer

Stanford Online High School's student run news site

OHS Observer

Stanford Online High School's student run news site

OHS Observer

Ocean Vuong Has Influenced a Generation of Diasporic Poets. And For Good Reason.

Above are the covers of Vuong’s two poetry collections, Night Sky With Exit Wounds and Time Is a Mother. The yellowed page in the former features the young poet in the center, with his mother and aunt at a refugee camp. (Jonathan Cape)
Above are the covers of Vuong’s two poetry collections, Night Sky With Exit Wounds and Time Is a Mother. The yellowed page in the former features the young poet in the center, with his mother and aunt at a refugee camp. (Jonathan Cape)

If we make it to shore, he says, I will name our son after this water. I will learn to love a monster. He smiles. A white hyphen where his lips should be. There are seagulls above us. There are hands fluttering between the constellations, trying to hold on.”


Above are lines from “Immigrant Haibun,” a poem in the Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a sparkling, pithy collection of self-mythological writing. Through his poetry, Vuong asserts that “diasporic writing” is not a dead field of literature, thinning after generations. The diaspora is living, breathing — inexhaustibly poetic at his pen.


In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Vuong criticized the white gaze on writers of color. That diasporic writing is written for the white reader. Many of his collections center on generational trauma, the American War in Vietnam, and family history, in direct opposition to the claim of immigrant writing as “performing pain.” We see time and time again — there is more selfhood in his poems than performance.


Vuong asserts that it is too often that diasporic writing is typecast as tired, overdone. In his poetry, he leaves us fully convinced that there is life in the immigrant voice. And that breaking of expectation paves the way for new writers to follow in his footsteps. He remains influential for the new wave of Asian-American poets.


Born on a rice farm in Saigon, Vuong lived in a refugee camp before immigrating to the United States at age two, with no knowledge of English — his mother had only known three letters, “A, B, C.” At age 11, he learned to read the language.


In Night Sky, his piece “The Gift” reinterprets those three letters Vuong and his mother repeated like a hymn, “a b c a b c.” She does not know what letter comes next. For his mother, a young Vuong gives her the English language, syllables in olfaction, in her nail-salon fragrance. On her tongue, English “lived / with no sound. Like a word / I still hear it.”


Shortly after his 2016 poetry debut, he published an essay in The New Yorker about a similar scene from his childhood: the fourth-grade language arts teacher, accusing Vuong of plagiarizing his own poem. With tender autobiogaphy, we’re in the mind of a young Vuong, inspired by the books he read, writing his first-ever poem about a boy who could dream.


For Vuong, his fourth-grade piece wasn’t seen as original because he wasn’t seen as competent. In the classroom, he was perceived as an illiterate, English-inept boy from Vietnam. Framing immigrant poetry in the terms of dishonesty, he writes: “I have plagiarized my life to give you the best of me.”


Such first-generation stories are not unique to Vuong. In the Asian-American literary canon, our stories often have a unifying element: immigration as linguistic assimilation. Our poems, thus, are cultural translations in a promised world. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Meena Alexander, even more recent voices like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club are all notable contributors to this vision.


Vuong joins this class of writers, leaving his mark on the diasporic canon. When Night Sky With Exit Wounds came out, it was met with immediate acclaim, lauded for its strikingly human voice, its humanization of culture. It was anything but “exhausted” or tired like the then conception of diasporic writing. One piece that strongly defies those expectations is “Aubade with Burning City,” set in the following backdrop:


“South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.”


An intimate, war-torn setting for an equally intimate poem. With stanzas that skip and fall like snowflakes in the sky, we are placed in Vietnam: cold air biting on skin, the debris of war scattered on the ground. Lyrics from Berlin’s “White Christmas” dapple the piece, expressing battlefield tragedy in beautiful language. A recurring form in Vuong’s poetry is white space — there is so much of the page left untouched, unconquered.


Among young Asian-American writers, the inventiveness in Vuong’s writing has not gone unrecognized. In competitions like YoungArts and Scholastic, several poems written by high-school authors are “after” Vuong, reminiscent of his style or reinventing his work. Fiona Jin’s “someday I’ll throw fiona jin off a building,” for example, enjoins contrapuntal form with traces from Vuong’s New Yorker poem “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong.”


The speaker is “swallowed by this maw of a city,” the piece as much a body as its writer. With existential hooks skipping across the page, white space again envelops Jin’s words. She is self-watchful, self-consoling. There’s a slightly rhythmic undertone in Jin’s reinterpretation, each line effused with voice, the setting against the speaker, metallic absence and “thinning wind.”


“Fiona / I won’t throw you over the railing because I can’t & never could.” And suddenly, we’re met with the closeness of a first name, each line as tender as breath. In “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” there is warmth in each console, but Jin’s voice is icy, biting with each line. She writes: “Like a fighting chance: say / someday I’ll love Fiona Jin.


The National YoungArts Foundation recognizes youth poetry, many of which draw inspiration from Vuong-pioneered styles. Fiona Jin’s “someday I’ll throw fiona jin off a building” was recognized in the 2024 YoungArts Anthology.


Voices like Jin’s are original in their own way. And Vuong’s legacy strikes inspiration in writers beyond YoungArts. Even after Night Sky, his more recent collections show a remarkable transition in voice. Following his mother’s death, his sophomore collection Time Is a Mother centers grief, in all its angles.


In catalog/list-style, poems like “Amazon History of a Nail Salon Worker” scatter Vuong’s bereavement into a warm-blooded image of motherhood. The slow uphill of medicines, all the way up to the “Maximum Strength pain relief pads,” whittle a life into sparing words. We are left in grief’s throes, picturing a nail-salon-working mother, battling breast cancer while supporting her son. Even shopping history can be a record of life.


Near the poem’s end, the line reads “Birthday Card—’Son, We Will Always Be Together,’ Snoopy Design.” There’s so much life in that line. So much communicated in just a purchase. While Night Sky questions beginning, Time memorializes endings, aftershocks.


And more than anything, Time centers commuication. Between Vietnamese-Americans, between lovers, between Vuong and himself. The diaspora continues to breathe as its experiences are exchanged. As diasporic writers continue to immortalize their life into poetry.


Just a few weeks ago, Vuong announced his second novel’s completion, titled The Emperor of Gladness. Set to be published in June 2025, the book stars a young man in New England as the caretaker of an 82-year-old widow with dementia. If there’s anything we know about Vuong and his writing, it’s that he knows how to write relationships. How each line pulses with warmth.


There is so much intricacy in the diasporic experience, and Vuong makes the complex dazzlingly clear. We are watching him uncover more and more about what it means to be an immigrant. About what it means to immigrate into language. There’s no doubt he’ll influence the diasporic voice for generations to come.


Leave a Comment

Comments (0)

All OHS Observer Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *