A Life Worthy of Our Breath
Ocean vuong with krista Tipet
We’d all heard of the Coronavirus by then. But none of us would have guessed that within a handful of days such an event would become unimaginable. So for me this conversation feels like a last memory before the world shifted on its axis. And what’s more stunning is how exquisitely this conversation speaking to the world we have now entered — its heartbreak, its poetry, and its possibilities of both destroying and saving.
Ambivalence between life and death. Between war and peace
I’m aware that when people write about you and introduce you and describe you, they often speak about how your work is shaped by themes of violence and survival in the context of the immigrant experience; in the context of life and displacement in the aftermath of war; in the context of growing up Asian American and queer in this society
Take off your shoes
when you enter the house, you take off your shoes. Now, we’re not obsessed with cleanliness any more than anyone else. But the act is an act of respect: I’m going to take off my shoes to enter something important; I’m going to give you my best self. And I think, even consciously, when I read or give lectures or when I teach, I lower my voice. I want to make my words deliberate; I want to enter; I want to take off the shoes of my voice so that I can enter a place with care so that I can do the work that I need to do.
Being the war Product
Getting ready to interview you made me ponder, also, the particular strangeness and singularity of what it is to be Vietnamese American. You are Vietnamese American, and both sides of that equation were at war. And you were literally born because of that war.
Was there a moment where you can look back and where you started to feel in your body, the power of words, which you now work with?
Right away. I was surrounded by storytellers, by survivors and storytellers. And when you think about how people tell stories, stories are carried in the body, and it’s edited each time the person tells it. And so what you have, by the time someone tells a story, is a masterclass of form, technique, concision, imagery — even how to pause, which you don’t really get on the page — arguably, you do, in poetry, with the line break.
And to me, that’s what language is: the glass. You think it’s fixed. You think it’s a clear pane of glass. But, in fact, through years it starts to drip and melt and change.
in fact, language is always changing. And I think it’s the poets, the writers, and even the youth — they’re using language to cast new meaning, in the same way Chaucer just winged English spelling. There was Right.
We often tell our students, “The future’s in your hands.” But I think the future is actually in your mouth.
You have to articulate the world you want to live in first. We pride ourselves, as a country that’s very technologically advanced — we have strong, good sciences, good schools; very advanced weaponry, for sure — but I think we’re still very primitive in the way we use language and speak, particularly in how we celebrate ourselves. “You’re killing it.”
Love this specific part about writer’s block
It doesn’t mean you’re blocked. I don’t think writer’s block is real. I think it’s the mythos of capitalism — that you’re always supposed to be producing; this anxiety of being productive and quantifying your self-worth through page counts and word counts. So I said, “You’re working, but you have to work differently now. Now you have to work with your body. Maybe there’s questions you’re not asking
Lack of communication and suicide
It was such a blow. Anyone who has lost anybody to suicide — I lost my uncle; I lost a few friends. And the great mystery and the great violence of taking oneself out of the picture — I’ve been grappling with that for so long. And I think one of the things that lead us to that is that you start to feel that you are always out of the picture, this loneliness that language does not allow us to access. The way we say hello to each other — “Hi, how are you?” “Oh, good, good, good, good, good.” So the “how are you” is now defunct. It doesn’t access. It fills. It’s fluff.
And so what happens to our language, this great, advanced technology that we’ve had, when it starts to fail at its function and it starts to obscure, rather than open. And I think the crisis my uncle went through, and a lot of my friends, was a crisis of communication — that they couldn’t say, “I’m hurt.”
I’m still figuring that out. I’m still — every book, every poem, I think, is my attempt at articulating a fire escape.
But I think it was a great reckoning for me, because here I am, supposedly a writer, and then my uncle dies, and I’ve lost so much. We talk all the time. We say all these things, and yet, I never knew what was happening.
And if that’s the case, language, this field that I chose, this thing that I feel so much hope for, failed me. And it was a reckoning, I think, existentially, with myself as an artist.
The poem, like the fire escape, as feeble and thin as it is, has become my most concentrated architecture of resistance. A place where I can be as honest as I need to — because the fire has already begun in my home, swallowing my most valuable possessions — and even my loved ones. My uncle is gone.
I will never know exactly why. But I still have my body and with it these words, hammered into a structure just wide enough to hold the weight of my living. I want to use it to talk about my obsessions and fears, my odd and idiosyncratic joys. I want to leave the party through the window and find my uncle standing on a piece of iron shaped into visible desperation, which must also be (how can it not?) the beginning of visible hope. I want to stay there until the building burns down. I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often: That despite being so human and so terrified, here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night — we can live. And we will.”