It’s 1975. Saigon has fallen to the North Vietnamese. The end of the war is the beginning of a global humanitarian crisis.
Fifteen years later, the poet Ocean Vuong and his refugee family arrive in Hartford. He is two years old. The first place they stay is in a hotel.
“Then we ended up in a one bedroom apartment. Then a tenement on New Britain Avenue,” Vuong said. And then the family separated and started to live with other relatives.
The moving didn’t stop there. “We went to Glastonbury, East Hartford,” said Vuong, who is now 28 years old. “Anywhere someone could get a nice place, everyone would just go there.”
Vuong is now at a very different point in life. His poetry has received great recognition and awards; it’s been featured in The New Yorker and reviewed in The New York Times. He’s published several collections, the most recent is Night Sky With Exit Wounds.
Vuong writes about dislocation and about the idea that without political violence, he wouldn’t be alive. His grandfather (his mother’s father) is an American who fought in Vietnam. This connection was an integral piece of growing up, Vuong said, particularly because of how the timeline of war was taught. He described history as slippery and wondered aloud, when does war truly end? Whether Vietnam, the Middle East and — in particular, right now — Syria.
“It’s strange to me that we call it a crisis. Like, what do we expect?” Vuong said, noting a cease-fire does not end the trauma.
Historic Timelines Incomplete
In grade school, Vuong said the timeline on Vietnam was brief. Reading about it was like, something bad happened in an Asian country and then a couple of pages later, it was on to the Gulf war.
It was Vuong’s grandmother (who died in 2008), and his mother and her sisters who taught him about the war, and what life was like before the bloody conflict between North and South Vietnam. Vuong’s family came from a long line of rice farmers.
“They just worked on their fields [during the war],” he said. “A lot of the Vietnamese, even the soldiers who fought did not know know the politics behind what they were doing.”
Vuong said his family and others went through utter chaos.
As he got older, Vuong began to write down lyrics from the songs his grandmother taught him and family stories about their fields lighting on fire during the war. He always wanted to know more, he said, but his elders resisted going too far.
“So when I asked, ‘Why? Why?’ I would suddenly become the precious child in the family. It was all of a sudden like, ‘Stop! We don’t want to unravel pain,” Vuong said, because they had already survived.
Vuong’s younger brother was born in the U.S. He described the 18-year-old as a typical American teenager who likes girls and has a job at the supermarket. He lived a safer, more stable American childhood than Vuong, who is relieved by that.
“It made me happy to see that ultimately one of us … lived without fear of displacement, without uncertainty, without navigating through not being able to speak. For a long time, my family was mute in society,” Vuong said.
And there was such shame in being an outsider.
“Before going to school every morning my mother would say, ‘Be careful — you’re already Vietnamese.’ And I always had this sense I was this perpetual trespasser, a guest,” Vuong said, and in a way he was.
Despite the turmoil of coming to a new country, and the trauma they lived through in Vietnam, Vuong said most family members are “living very American lives, full of drama and hope.”
For a brief time, Vuong thought his was to be in corporate America. He became a business major in college; it lasted about three weeks. Then, at Manchester Community College in suburban Hartford, an English professor introduced him and the rest of the class — several Bosnian refugees among them — to some serious literature and philosophy from Michel Foucault to Annie Dillard.
At Brooklyn College, the reading continued. At first he didn’t know he could major in English; he didn’t know he could become a poet. Vuong thought poets were appointed by the government. The more he read, Vuong said, the more he began to see the inheritance of war he owned in Greek literature, in Homer’s Odyssey. He saw it in the writings of poet Paul Celan, a holocaust survivor, whose work and life story has been a major influence, Vuong said.
But even before the big ideas, it was the simplest of books, among the first he was ever able to read.
“This is so important,” he said, standing up to get the book from a nearby shelf.
Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco is his totem, Vuong said, and he keeps it close by when he writes.
The story, about a young girl and her Russian grandmother (who lived through World War II) making a cake with the coming of a storm, was so bizarre to Vuong, when he was a child, and yet he said it also made perfect sense. Because, what do you do when your life is in danger but make something that sustains life?
“Perhaps Patricia Polacco never dreamed that a Vietnamese boy in Hartford would read her book and see himself, and yet it happened,” Vuong said. “It reminds us that storytelling can make this happen, where we can recognize one another.”
The American Dream
In college, Vuong read something else that stayed with him: a 1915 speech by President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s Philadelphia address to 3000 new American citizens made Vuong realize that the American Dream was actually malleable.
“If I have in any degree forgotten what America was intended for,” Wilson said, and Vuong read, “I will thank God if you will remind me. I was born in America. You dreamed dreams of what America was to be, and I hope you brought the dreams with you.”
Vuong found the tone surprising when he first read it. He had never heard a president of the United States empowering immigrants.
“Usually we always are asked to prove ourselves,” he said. “But here is the most powerful man in the country saying, ‘Here’s a blank slate, write on it what you want, add your dream.'”
Vuong’s American Dream, it seems, is in the possibility that he has agency, that he can make a life.
He recently bought a little house in Western Massachusetts. He’s coming back to the area because he said he realized, not only is he American, he’s a New Englander. It happened on a train ride, heading north out of New York. Looking out the window — seeing the fields, the marshes, the mist, rising over them — Vuong remembered saying to himself, “Wait a minute! I know that! I never saw that in New York And that mist was home for me.”
With his partner they will for now split their time between the house and Brooklyn, where Vuong continues to study and teach. He plans to someday, when she’s ready, have his mother live with them in the house. Then he can grant her American Dream, a garden. Ocean Vuong said he never imagined he could ever feel so at home.
This report is part of a series called “Facing Change.” It comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
You can hear Ocean Vuong read some of his poetry here.
He read the poem Telemachus on the PBS NewsHour in April 2016.
Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair
through sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyond the shore is no longer
where he left it. Because the bombed
cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far
I might sink. Do you know who I am,
ba? But the answer never comes. The answer
is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think
he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear
at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch
his ears. No use. The neck’s
bruising. I turn him over. To face
The cathedral in his sea-black eyes.
The face not mine but one I will wear
to kiss all my lovers goodnight:
the way I seal my father’s lips
with my own and begin
the faithful work of drowning.