Writers & Company

Ocean Vuong embraces life after loss in his new book of poems, Time Is a Mother

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the Vietnamese American poet and author spoke about coping with the death of his mother and writing poems with themes of addiction, hope and survival.
Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese American poet, essayist and novelist. (Mattias Lundblad)

WARNING: The audio interview contains strong language.

Survival is a creative act, says poet and novelist Ocean Vuong, whose family left Vietnam for the United States in 1990 when he was two years old. They settled in Hartford, Conn., where, as a teenager, Vuong would experience the destructive effects of the opioid crisis on the community. 

Vuong's highly anticipated new book of poems, Time Is a Mother, revisits themes of addiction and displacement that have preoccupied his work, while also exploring a different kind of survival — finding hope and a way forward after the loss of his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2019.   

Vuong drew on his family's story for both his bestselling novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, as well as his astonishing first collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds — winner of a Whiting Award, the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Its phenomenal success catapulted him to literary stardom.       

For this Canadian exclusive interview, Ocean Vuong spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York City.

The duality of loss

"I'm still three years into losing my mother. I guess I haven't decided — maybe I will never decide — whether it was a horrific tragedy or some sort of gift. I think often it falls in between the two. Nobody wants their mother to die. But after the fact, I realize I started to see things so differently, particularly people. 

"Her death launched me deeper into the world. I looked at everyone, and depending on where they were in their lives, I would say to myself, 'You've lost your mother, too. There's a sort of kinship we have now.' Or, 'You will lose your mother. You're on your way there.' It makes me so much more patient and closer to the people around me. 

"I guess that's the 'silver lining,' but it doesn't erase the horrors of it. I think Time Is a Mother is in there — it hints at the other word that we don't want to say: 'Time is a mother—'.

Her death launched me deeper into the world.

"And also, it's a mother in the sense that it's capacious. It holds all. I think it's more so a mother than what it's often presented as, which is a father. 'Father Time waits for no one.' But I do think that it's more motherly in that every moment is possible through the capacious mothering of time. We are literally pregnant with possibility."

History of violence

"For me, I had to normalize violence because that's what so many folks who come out of war have to do. Violence affects themselves, but also everyone around them. After a while, you become kind of numb to it.

"What does that do to the psyche, to the relationships with people? This is so ingrained into who they are. It's important to remember that Vietnam is not just the Vietnam War. Vietnam has been fighting invaders since the beginning of the millennia, and then beyond that — the Kublai Khan, the Japanese, the French, the Chinese on multiple occasions.

For me, I had to normalize violence because that's what so many folks who come out of war have to do.

"So you have two millennia of fighting and death and war. There's a lot of these ruptures deeply rooted in our culture. That's not to say that Vietnamese people are violent, but the effects of that war are severely charged, which is why we have something that's unspoken. A lot of Vietnamese refugees experience, in Canada and America and France, too, mental illness — depression, bipolar, schizophrenia. All of this is actually normal in our community.

"I think it was important for me to kind of frame that. This is not a special exotic story. This is a very normal story in the diaspora and Vietnamese communities across the globe. And that understanding helped me be so much more forgiving. It helped me to heal when looking at a lot of elders in my community who are often coming out of domestic violence or commit domestic violence with their partners and children."

Coming to America

The poet and novelist Ocean Vuong with his mother. (Submitted by Ocean Vuong/WordArts Inc.)

"We landed in a Black and Brown neighborhood in Hartford. We were embraced by the community because they realized that we were coming from a very ruptured place.

"But my family was also resilient. Hartford would go back and forth between having the seventh and eighth highest murder rates in the country in much of the '90s and the early '00s. So we would hear gunshots, but my grandmother and my mother would listen and they'd say, 'We came from war. This is only two or three shots. Calm down and eat your dinner.'

"The strength and the power of these women informed how I see the world. I think so much of my work comes from watching them go about their lives. These women, who have very little tools to function well and to thrive in America, really did the best they could and achieved a great amount. 

"The artist's task is to look at the dark and the light with equal measure — and to build, through language in my case, an architecture in which to think and feel it fully. I think I learned that by watching these women live so defiantly against so many odds."

Survival as art

"Nobody survives by accident. Survival is a creative act. I would argue that our elders, by making it here, the journey of fleeing from one country to another when the country is being destroyed by imperial war, which we see now in Ukraine, that's a creative act.

Nobody survives by accident. Survival is a creative act.

"Every plan, every scheme, what you pack, where you sew your money on your jackets, what you hide under your bra, in your underwear — those are innovative, I would argue, artistic acts of life-saving value. And so for me, it's a way to position my elders as artists. I call them survival artists."

First writing teacher

"My grandmother didn't speak much of anything really, Vietnamese or English. But when she told stories, something else happened to her. This electricity came into her. I didn't realize it then, but what I was watching, as she was telling stories, as she was pausing for dramatic effect, was pride in one's craft. I always give her credit for being one of my first writing teachers.

"You realize that, for so many immigrants, the body is a limited archive. What you remember, what you choose to remember matters, what stories to leave behind, what stories to carry forth, and every time you tell it, you get better at telling it. My grandmother would draft again and again. Every time was a little different, I noticed, and I realized, 'Oh, wait a minute, she's making stuff up.' And then I said, 'OK, this is all an open field.'

You realize that, for so many immigrants, the body is a limited archive.

"But what I saw was an embodiment of pride, power and joy, and it costs nothing. You didn't have to go to the store to get it. It comes right out of you.

"And in that sense, I try to channel that every time I do my own work."

Ocean Vuong's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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