Ocean Vuong smiles shyly as he takes a seat in a hotel room in Berlin. Ever since the 30-year-old Vietnamese American writer published his debut novel "On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous" (Penguin Press), he has been seen as something of a literary wunderkind. In Berlin, he gave a reading at the International Literature Festival. On this Friday in late September, he wears a blue shirt, a pink cap and a long, golden earring in his right ear: a queer poet, who exudes an air of fragility and pride. His face lights up when he hears that the journalist’s parents are also from Vietnam. He seamlessly glides from English into Vietnamese before switching back to English again.
ZEIT ONLINE: You were only two years old when you left Vietnam. Do you have any memories of the time before?
Ocean Vuong: No, nothing. It’s strange, but my first memory is of America. But I have relatives in Vietnam and I go back. I buried my grandmother there in 2009. It was disorienting: There is a Vietnam in my head that my relatives told me about, but when I went back to Saigon it was like being in Times Square in New York City. It was like being in a different world. Even the culture had changed. The children were much more open and free, some would say rude. I had very strict traditional rules in my house, and when I saw the kids talking to their parents, I felt like an old lady.
ZEIT ONLINE: You grew up in a Vietnamese family in Hartford, Connecticut. What was that like?
Vuong: We were living in an apartment with one bedroom and seven people: My parents, my grandmother, my uncle, two aunts and me. They are former rice farmers, they didn’t have an education or a TV. When you went into the apartment, you walked back in time. But it was also so alive, like a little village. Something was always happening, Vietnamese was always spoken, there was no silence. For a kid who didn’t talk that much, it was wonderful. I could just close my eyes, listen and feel part of my family.
ZEIT ONLINE: What happened when you stepped outside the little village?
Vuong: We lived in the inner city, in a black and Latino community. We had no car, so we had to walk everywhere. I didn’t know America was white until years later when I would go to the mall and be like: Wait a minute! What’s that?! The myth is that America is a melting pot, but nothing is melting, everything is divided. Looking back, I think that moving through so many social layers allowed me to be a chameleon: I can adapt my mannerism and my speech to every room I’m in. And that’s the best thing for a writer: I can go into every character, every persona.
ZEIT ONLINE: Were there any other Vietnamese people in your neighborhood?
Vuong: There was a Chinese family, but they never went outside. There was an Oriental supermarket though. It was very small, but jammed from floor to ceiling with tea pots, chopsticks and those red Vietnamese blankets. My mother would shop slower so she could be in that space longer. She would point at things and say: "This is fish sauce. This is soy sauce. This is how you make pho." As a kid I just hated it, but now I look back and think that it was such a beautiful education.
Vuong speaks softly and pensively. He became a novelist by writing poetry. His poems have been published in the New Yorker and the New York Times, his poetry book "Night Sky with Exit Wounds" was awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize and will be published in a German-English version next spring by Hanser ("Nachthimmel mit Austrittswunden"). His novel "On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous" also has an unusual, lyrical structure: It is written as a letter that the first-person narrator addresses to his mother, a woman who can’t read.
In his novel, Vuong tells the fragmented story of a boy called Little Dog, who was also born in Saigon, but grows up in Hartford. He falls in love with a white boy, who ends up being addicted to drugs. His writing speaks of the pain of an outsider, who fights his way out of the war-torn past of his family, and the boundaries of his social background. Vuong says that all characters are based on real people. He did not, however, want to write a memoir or a non-fiction book: He wanted his characters to have their own voice.