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Ocean Vuong

Poet and author of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Reading and Conversation with Ocean Vuong | Harvard Radcliffe Institute
  • About Ocean Vuong

    Ocean Vuong’s striking body of work contains timeless themes of class, queerness, and identity. His New York Times-bestselling novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is an evocative coming-of-age epistolary and lyrical work of self-discovery and diaspora. Framed as a letter from a son to his mother, this shattering portrait of family, first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling asks how to survive, how to find joy in darkness, and the meaning of American identity—questions that power the most important debut novel of many years.

    Vuong erupted on to the literary scene in 2016 with his first poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, for which he became only the second debut poet to win the T.S. Eliot Prize. In his moving talks, he asks audiences to consider the value of silence in the creative process and the unique power of marginalized voices.

    A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, Vuong’s honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize. He is also the winner of the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. In 2019 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the youngest recipient of the grant in that years class.

    Ocean Vuong’s writing has been featured in The Atlantic, Harpers, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and the American Poetry Review. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a 2016 “Leading Global Thinker,” alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Justin Trudeau, Vuong was also named an “Essential Asian American Writer” by Buzzfeed Books and has been profiled by NPR’s “All Things Considered,” PBS’s NewsHour, Teen Vogue, Vice, The Fantastic Man, and The New Yorker.

    Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong was raised in Hartford, CT and now lives in Northampton, MA, where he serves as an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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  • Speaking Topics

    An Evening with Ocean Vuong

    Join the author of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous for a reading and conversation about his writing process, his influences, and the themes behind his groundbreaking debut novel.

    Major Innovations from the Margins

    Marginalized voices can be sites of power and new thinking if they are properly served and amplified. In this talk, Vuong highlights major innovations in literature created by writers on the margins.

    Quiet as Creative Force

    In this talk, Vuong urges audiences to reframe writer’s block as a necessary part of the process instead of an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. On the contrary, he explains, silence can nurture creative agency.

  • Video

  • Praise for Ocean Vuong

    Praise for Time Is a Mother

    Aesthetically complex yet emotionally accessible, Time is a Mother at once innovates and affirms the existing poetic tradition. . . . Vuong’s portrait of Hồng is both intimate and iconic.

    Vuong’s powerful follow-up to Night Sky with Exit Wounds does more than demonstrate poetic growth: it deepens and extends an overarching project with 27 new poems that reckon with loss and impermanence . . . This fantastic book will reward fans while winning this distinctive poet new ones.

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    Tender and heartbreaking . . . this collection of poems thoughtfully considers grief, both as an emotion and a sacred act, revisiting the history he shared with his mother and the understanding of family they forged together. Delving back into the visceral themes that made his 2019 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous a revelation, Vuong traverses the intensely personal and the broadly political with grace and courage.


    These poems glisten and rattle, and they deftly mine a host of diverse topics—sex, privilege, beauty, art, poverty, death—to offer us a fresh way of evaluating and understanding our world. Vuong expertly unwraps clichés and rewraps them in fresh packaging so we can perceive their meanings anew. On each page he demonstrates that untranslatable is a meaningless word. His poems say, We’re all humans having human experiences. Let’s figure this all out together.


    Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother is haunting, inconsolable, and at the same time a playful, generous in spirit, tender, inimitable book. The poet’s late mother is these pages’ muse and guardian spirit, as poem after poem Vuong redefines our idea of what an elegy can do it, what it is for. But from all of this intersection of tragedy and tenderness, true wisdom comes: Vuong teaches us not just how to grieve, but how to live.

    Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic and Dancing in Odessa

    Praise for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

    Vuong writes about the yearning for connection that afflicts immigrants. But ‘ocean’ also describes the distinctive way Vuong writes: His words are liquid, flowing, rolling, teasing, mighty and overpowering. When Vuong’s mother gave him the oh-so-apt name of Ocean, she inadvertently called into being a writer whose language some of us readers could happily drown in…Like so many immigrant writers before him, Vuong has taken the English he acquired with difficulty and not only made it his own — he’s made it better.

    Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

    In order to survive, Little Dog has to receive and reject another kind of violence, too: he must see his mother through the American eyes that scan her for weakness and incompetence and, at best, disregard her, the way that evil spirits might ignore a child named for a little dog. There is a staggering tenderness in the way that Little Dog holds all of this within himself, absorbing it and refusing to pass it on. Reading ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ can feel like watching an act of endurance art, or a slow, strange piece of magic in which bones become sonatas, to borrow one of Vuong’s metaphors.

    Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker

    Ocean Vuong’s devastatingly beautiful first novel, as evocative as its title, is a painful but extraordinary coming-of-age story about surviving the aftermath of trauma…Vuong’s language soars as he writes of beauty, survival, and freedom, which sometimes isn’t freedom at all, but ‘simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there’… The title says it: Gorgeous.

    Heller McAlpin,

    A riot of feeling and sensation…delirious and star-bright…Vuong is pushing the boundaries of the novel form, reshaping the definition to fit the contours of his restless poetic exploration, using language to capture consciousness and being. The text spasms with memory like synapses firing in the dark…To read this book is to fill your whole life with it, albeit not briefly. Vuong’s is poetry that lingers in the blood long after the words have run out.

    Barbara VanDenburgh, USA Today

    Vuong is masterly at creating indelible, impressionistic images…Vuong beautifully evokes [Trevor’s] seductive power over Little Dog: This is some of the most moving writing I’ve read about two boys experimenting together…The book is brilliant in the way it pays attention not to what our thoughts make us feel, but to what our feelings make us think. To what kinds of truth does feeling lead? Oscar Wilde famously quipped that sentimentalism is wanting to have an emotion without paying for it, but Little Dog has paid and paid, and the truths arrived at in this book are valuable precisely because they are steeped in feeling.

    Justin Torres, The New York Times Book Review

    Vuong as a writer is daring. He goes where the hurt is, creating a novel saturated with yearning and ache…He transforms the emotional, the visceral, the individual into the political in an unforgettable–indeed, gorgeous–novel, a book that seeks to affect its readers as profoundly as Little Dog is affected, not only by his lover but also by the person who brought him into the world.

    Viet Thanh Nguyen, TIME

    The novel is expansive and introspective, fragmented and dreamlike, a coming of age tale conveyed in images and anecdotes and explorations…Just as he fuels his prose with his poetry, Vuong takes what he needs from lived experience to animate his storytelling with visceral beauty and a strain of what feels like uncut truth…For the duration of this marvelous novel, Vuong holds our gaze and fills it with what he wills — the migration of butterflies, love in a tobacco barn, purple flowers gathered on a highway.

    Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times

    [Vuong is] a remarkable storyteller… Depictions of poverty, queerness, and the immigrant experience are vivid, exacting, and humane… This book is no ordinary novel. This thing feels alive.

    David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

    The novel’s overarching structure is an ingenious representation of our failure — as members of families and communities, as fellow citizens — to understand one another…[This is] a distinctive, intimate novel that is also a reckoning with the Vietnam War’s long shadow…Vuong is a skillful, daring writer, and his first novel is a powerful one.

    Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle

    A bildungsroman that vacillates between moments of piercing tenderness and savage brutality, set against quixotic hopes of the American Dream and the devastation of the opioid crisis. Vuong’s deeply felt work might just be the first great fiction of this modern, homegrown travesty, but it’s also a story that is enriched by both the beautiful and the ugly currents of American history.

    Chloe Schama,

    A diary of life on the margins of American society…For all that Vuong has to say about history, queerness, and American culture, everything about his book feels specific and personal.

    Boris Kachka, Vulture

    Lyrical…With this book, [Vuong] is creating an account of lives that are at once overlooked and thoroughly American. These days, this feels like a political act.

    Wall Street Journal

    Stunningly lyrical…We are witnessing something necessary and powerful with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which asks us to search what is human in us and ask what it really means to be alive, to seek truth within the mess that is life.

    Philadelphia Inquirer

    [A] raw, fearless debut…In prose as radiant and assured as his poetry, Vuong explores the ability of stories to heal generational wounds, and asks how we can rescue and transform one another in the wake of unimaginable loss.

    [On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous] captures a peculiar kind of American immigrant experience with all of its cultural ambiguity and heartbreak intact. For all of its pain, it never loses sight of the privilege of being alive.

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    A candid meditation on masculinity, art, and the inescapable pull of opioids…Vuong peels apart phrases and reconfigures them into new, surprising ideas.


    An epistolary ­masterpiece…Fearless, revelatory, extraordinary.

    Library Journal (starred review)

    Disarmingly frank, raw in subject matter but polished in style and language, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reveals the strengths and limitations of human connection and the importance of speaking your truth.


    [Vuong’s] first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sense—not merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence…The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel’s earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival. A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.

    Kirkus (starred review)

    Casting a truly literary spell, Vuong’s tale of language and origin, beauty and the power of story, is an enrapturing first novel.

    Booklist (starred review)

    Sometimes a writer comes along and stops your breath. I’m reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and there is so little air moving through my body as I read. When writing is this good, who needs air?

    Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone

    A bruised, breathtaking love letter never meant to be sent. A powerful testimony to magic and loss. A marvel.

    Marlon James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

    This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I always want my favorite poets to write novels and here it’s happened. Ocean Vuong is a master. This book a masterpiece. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an ode to loss and struggle, to being a Vietnamese American, to Hartford, Connecticut, and it’s a compassionate epistolary ode to a mother who may or may not know how to read. I dog-eared so many pages the book almost collapsed—I almost did.

    Tommy Orange, author of There There

    On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous will be described — rightly — as luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary. But the word I keep circling back to is raw: that’s how powerful the emotions here are, and how you’ll feel after reading it —scoured down to bone. With a poet’s precision, Ocean Vuong examines whether putting words to one’s experience can bridge wounds that span generations, and whether it’s ever possible to be truly heard by those we love most.

    Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere

    This book—gorgeous is right there in the title—finds incredible, aching beauty in the deep observation of love in many forms. Ocean Vuong’s debut novel contains all the power of his poetry, and I finished the book knowing that we are seeing only the very beginning of his truly magnificent talent.

    Emma Straub, author of Modern Lovers and The Vacationers

    Ocean Vuong runs up against the limits of language—this book is addressed to a mother who cannot read it—and expands our sense of what literature can make visible, thinkable, felt across borders and generations and genres. This is a courageous, embodied inquiry into the tangle of colonial and personal histories. It is also a gorgeous argument for astonishment over irony—for the transformative possibilities of love.

    Ben Lerner, author of Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04

    One is not often given the chance to apply words like “brilliant” and “remarkable” to any novels, certainly not first novels.  Thank you, Ocean Vuong, for this brilliant and remarkable first novel.

    Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours

    [On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous] is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read, a literary marvel and a work of extraordinary humanity. It is about who we are, and how we find ourselves in our bodies, in each other, in countries, on this earth: truly a masterpiece.

    Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers

    Praise for Night Sky With Exit Wounds

    Night Sky with Exit Wounds establishes Vuong as a fierce new talent to be reckoned with...This book is a masterpiece that captures, with elegance, the raw sorrows and joys of human existence.

    Buzzfeed's "Most Exciting New Books of 2016"

    This original, sprightly wordsmith tumbling pulsing phrases pushes poetry to a new level...A stunning introduction to a young poet who writes with both assurance and vulnerability. Visceral, tender and lyrical, fleet and agile, these poems unflinchingly face the legacies of violence and cultural displacement but they also assume a position of wonder before the world.

    2016 Whiting Award citation

    Night Sky with Exit Wounds is the kind of book that soon becomes worn with love. You will want to crease every page to come back to it, to underline every other line because each word resonates with power.


    Vuong's powerful voice explores passion, violence, history, identity—all with a tremendous humanity.


    In his impressive debut collection, Vuong, a 2014 Ruth Lilly fellow, writes beauty into—and culls from—individual, familial, and historical traumas. Vuong exists as both observer and observed throughout the book as he explores deeply personal themes such as poverty, depression, queer sexuality, domestic abuse, and the various forms of violence inflicted on his family during the Vietnam War. Poems float and strike in equal measure as the poet strives to transform pain into clarity. Managing this balance becomes the crux of the collection, as when he writes, ‘Your father is only your father/ until one of you forgets. Like how the spine/ won’t remember its wings/ no matter how many times our knees/ kiss the pavement.'

    Publishers Weekly

    What a treasure Ocean Vuong is to us. What a perfume he's crushed and rendered of his heart and soul. What a gift this book is.

    Li-Young Lee
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