Bestselling author Ocean Vuong delivers reading at UMass Fine Arts Center

‘Ultimately [we] decide what to carry forth as useful, and what to leave behind. But we won’t know that unless we read.’

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Bestselling author Ocean Vuong delivers reading at UMass Fine Arts Center

Kira Johnson/Daily Collegian

Kira Johnson/Daily Collegian

Kira Johnson/Daily Collegian

Kira Johnson/Daily Collegian

By Irina Costache, Assistant News Editor

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Students, faculty and members of the Amherst community piled into the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center on Thursday night to hear from local writer and professor Ocean Vuong as he read from his new novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.”

The talk, co-sponsored by MFA for Poets and Writers and UMass Libraries, is part of the MFA for Poets and Writers Visiting Writers Series, a 56-year tradition. Copies of Vuong’s novel were for sale throughout the event by Amherst Books.

Vuong, born in Saigon, Vietnam before immigrating to Hartford, now lives in Northampton and serves as an assistant professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass. According to the MFA website, he is a recipient of a 2019 MacArthur “Genius” Grant and his poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds was placed into the New York Times Top 10 Books of 2016.

As the evening begun, Jeff Parker, director of the Master of Fine Arts and Creative Writing Program, introduced Vuong as “one of the most soulful poets and novelists of our time, with urgent, critical, essential stories to share” and “a generous mentor and a thoughtful, good-humored spirit and force for good in literature and in the world.”

The Dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Julie Hayes, also took the stage, saying “as a reader, I have come to appreciate Ocean’s writing in which there is pleasure and pain, and much to learn.”

Peter Gizzi, a fellow poet and UMass professor in the English department, delivered Vuong’s formal introduction, recalling moments from Vuong’s 2016 campus interview for the position of assistant professor, saying the “first thing he said to us was that he believes the pessimist has no stake in innovation.

“Long hours of study, discipline, reading and a willingness to grow and expand both his art, and his definition of self, and to accept the original struggle the imagination, requires an education as a writer [that] must be claimed, not merely received.”

Vuong himself then took the stage, following cheers from the audience. After a few comments about how the semester is going with his students, Vuong told the audience that this week has been particularly difficult as it follows his mother’s passing, a great inspiration for his work.

“You feel great sadness and great grief, and even incredible amounts of anger. But I’ve always felt my most useful to my work when I operate in the aftermath of anger,” he reflected. “I’ve always felt that the aftermath of great sadness and anger is care.”

Janet MacFadyen, a Shutesbury resident and audience member, commented, “I’m at a loss for how he put himself out there tonight. To get up in front of that many people a week after his mother died and say that, rather than attempting to tough it out, I really appreciated that.”

Martha Favre, also from Shutesbury, added “I love the notion of when you sink that low, that’s when you learn, that’s when you turn to care. I thought that was beautiful.”

“That’s what I’m doing this week…I’m trying to get off the floor. And I thank you again for being the hand that’s pulling me up,” Vuong said.

The writer then moved on to read three of his new poems, titled “The Talk,” “Dear Peter” and “American Legend,” of which he later stated are still in the works.

Vuong finished by reading two passages from his newest book. Introducing the first scene, Vuong said, “In this scene, [the protagonist] is navigating through the mental and the trauma and the PTSD incurred and inherited by his elders,” a theme that also seemed to echo in the poems.

“I think the great opportunity of having a book in the first person is that you can turn that into a search,” he added.

The second passage Vuong shared follows two boys riding their bikes along the Connecticut river as the city of Hartford is lit up behind them. Vuong commented that he “wanted to show and depict the portions of the city that informed [his] creativity.”

The event then opened up to a question and answers portion, facilitated by Gizzi, who read questions the audience worte down earlier in the evening.

One of the questions posed to Vuong asked if he identifies more as a poet or novelist.

“Ultimately, I think I write sentences,” answered Vuong, with laughs from the audience. He continued that writing is “a way of asking the larger civic question[s], which is who are we, and how do we orchestrate this great quest of inquiry, using the sentence.”

In response to a question about how reading influences his writing, Vuong stated that he is as much a reader as he is a writer.

“The great opportunity is to read carefully, read thoroughly,” he said. “Let no one off the hook, not even yourself. And ultimately decide what to carry forth as useful, and what to leave behind. But we won’t know that unless we read.”

Another question inquired about what new writing projects Vuong has in store, to which he answered, “I don’t know if a career as a writer is a given [for me] … Although I hope there is. I see my career, if anything, as a teacher.

“It’s been a good life, it’s been a good journey to write two things…At age 31, I was able to do two books that I was very proud of, and if that’s it, that’s perfectly fine and I’m perfectly proud and happy to be a teacher.”

Irina Costache can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @irinaacostache.