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21 October 2020

Ocean Vuong Q&A: “Batman is just a billionaire with a cool butler“

The author on Wright Morris’s About Fiction, not writing for an audience, and his ten-year-old cousin. 

By New Statesman

Ocean Vuong was born in Vietnam in 1988 and grew up in the US. He was the first member of his family to learn to read. In 2017 he won the TS Eliot Prize for his debut poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Eating sour belts on the curbside with my dead uncle in Hartford.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Batman, I think because he had no superpowers whatsoever, which appealed to me. Now, grown up, I realise Batman is just a billionaire with a cool butler who beats up people suffering from mental illness. I learned to stop using the lens of “hero” to hold and regard people. I think it’s unfair to the person to confine them to such mythical gazes. I have people I love, and they are full of flaws and are farthest from anything heroic, though they commit themselves to heroic acts. My cousin, for example, just went through treatment at a psychiatric hospital. That feels heroic to me.

What book last changed your thinking?

Wright Morris’s About Fiction. A sobering and spiritual approach to fiction that seems rare in its hopeful vision for form.

Which political figure do you look up to?

None. Living in America for 30 years, I’ve seen far too many politicians lose the best parts of themselves to gain the grains of the system.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to see a dinosaur, but only for 30 seconds.

What TV show could you not live without?

I’m not sure. I think if it comes to it, I can live fine without any TV. I’m rarely bored.

Who would paint your portrait?

My cousin Sara. She’s ten years old and a genius. She’s a quarter Vietnamese so she presents as this white girl with blonde hair, but she speaks fluent Vietnamese and is so smart. I have hope thinking about her. She came to our family much later, when we were more established here after emigrating from Vietnam – so it’s like seeing the possibilities in my own childhood actualise in her.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t understand this question.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“The audience” is only “real” after the work is finished. To write for/towards a presumed audience is to strip yourself away from your work and to cater only to fears. I follow it on good writing days, which are few and far between.

What’s currently bugging you?

I can’t get my wisteria plant to climb this metal thing in my backyard.

What single thing would make your life better?

A machine to erase a few terrible memories.

When were you happiest?

Riding my bike on a cool New England evening, burned firewood in the air, heading home.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I think I would make a great scout for a Napoleonic-era army.

Are we all doomed?

No. We have been here before. Storytelling, or rather false myths, get us in trouble – and it’s storytelling that will get us out. History has proven that we are capable of stories that sustain us. 

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, a novel by Ocean Vuong, is published by Vintage

This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic