New York Times By the Book Interview With Ocean Vuong: “I bring books to lunch dates—just in case”

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Ocean Vuong Brings Books to Lunch Dates, ‘Just in Case'”:

“A Lesson Before Dying,” by Ernest J. Gaines, “Walking in Wonder,” by John O’Donohue (in conversation with John Quinn), “A Death in the Family,” by James Agee, “Afropessimism,” by Frank B. Wilderson, “We Think the World of You,” by J.R. Ackerley, “Jane Eyre,” by Charlotte Brontë, “Hot Milk,” by Deborah Levy, “Poetics of Relation,” by Édouard Glissant, “The Sign of Jonas,” by Thomas Merton.

“Teach Us to Outgrow our Madness,” by Kenzaburo Oe, and “The Melancholia of Class,” by Cynthia Cruz.

Bryan Washington, Jason Reynolds, Ilya Kaminsky, Tommy Orange, Morgan Parker, Fred Moten, Hoa Nguyen, Sara Ahmed, Scott McClanahan, Amy Hempel, Ottessa Moshfegh, Rosmarie Waldrop, Mahogany L. Browne, Ben Lerner, Celeste Ng, Rachel Kushner, Peter Gizzi, Jia Tolentino, Sally Wen Mao, Rebecca Solnit, Claudia Rankine, Tyree Daye, Benjamin Garcia, Aria Aber, Chen Chen, the late C.D. Wright (R.I.P.).

When I was in community college a couple of my friends were in punk rock bands and they introduced me to Arthur Rimbaud, who of course was and is highly influential to musicians, including Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, etc. One day, while they were practicing, I picked up a back-pocket-worn copy of his poems and read the poems “The Drunken Boat” and “Phrases” and I was just in awe. I thought, if a 17-year-old boy peasant in the 19th century could make something like this, there’s a chance I, too, might make something this propulsive, this illuminating and courageous.

The next day I raced to the tiny college library to look up all of his works. Of course, it was organized via the Dewey decimal system, which meant I was immediately in the French literature aisle. From there I found Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Camus, Barthes, Césaire, Glissant, and from there other parts of Europe to Lorca, Vallejo, Rilke, Benjamin, Arendt, Calvino. It was all quite coincidental via this arbitrary organizing principle, but because of this my education as a writer began with European writers. I would not read an American poet seriously until a year or two after, when I found Yusef Komunyakaa in the stacks.

It took me awhile to allow myself to engage deeply with Dickinson’s work. I say “allow” because I had this naïve and sophomoric view that, because she was taught so often and so widely in elementary schools, the work would already be spoken for, exhausted. This proved to be a gravely erroneous view as soon as I read her. In fact, part of her capacious power lies in her ability to use the universal possibility of the natural world — and even abstracted objects like a loaded gun, a funeral carriage — to create potent metaphoric interfaces from which syntax architects complicated philosophical and moral arguments, a mode that was perennial to the religious revivals of her 19th-century milieu. Rereading Dickinson with this in mind helped me see the potential inexhaustibility of a work when rendered via more nuanced historicizations. It ultimately helped me become a better teacher as well, which launched me into a deeper engagement with literary theory and hermeneutics.

Anne Carson, Quan Barry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Matsuo Basho, James Agee, Annie Dillard, Alejandro Zambra, James Baldwin, Fanny Howe, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, D.H. Lawrence, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Walker and Herman Melville — who, by the end of this life, wrote more lines of poetry than Whitman and Dickinson combined.

Thomas Merton’s “Seeds of Contemplation.” Other than that, I don’t really reread books, even ones I deeply admire. I’m such a slow reader that it’s more efficient for me to go to newer ones.

I approach my reading with a sense of obsession that at times nears the clinical. That is, I have this yet-to-be-understood compulsion to read everything within the genres I’m working in. Sadly, this means that, after over 13 years of writing, I am still deep in the reading of poetry, literary/critical theory and the novel — genres that have no end in sight. My study room is just full of books piled on the floor that I need to read, and they keep getting higher and higher! I would like to read thrillers or some genre fiction, even erotica, but that might have to wait until my next life — which is OK.

I admit I have never cried or laughed while reading a book. I think reading engages something different, perhaps even fuller, in me than experiencing emotion in temporal material living, wherein it becomes (when it’s good) almost too effective to visibly weep or laugh at. There are moments, I think, that are more heartbreaking or absurd in reading, which I respond to by simply putting the book down, something I think is the ultimate testament to a text’s power: when it ends the very endeavor it was meant to achieve and launches us back to ourselves, somehow altered — for better or worse. For me, those moments are so full of astonishment that there is no room even for their expression. It is said that the brain stem encounters “pain” before we “feel it” through our nerves. I think there is something akin to this in how I engage emotions while reading. Maybe there’s just something wrong with me in that I cry and laugh at life — but often end up in muted awe and wonder of words.

“Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” a quite popular text on the craft of fiction. I read this at the recommendation of friends and teachers when I first started writing fiction. The result was weeks of depression. At one point, I opened a chapter that had an upside down “check mark,” which was supposed to represent the shape of effective plot structure — and something in me just wilted. At the time, I didn’t know any better and just felt so wrong and stupid for thinking, in my gut, that there must be another way that was less manipulative, less contrived.

It took months before I realized that something so prescriptive could be challenged, and that, as a poet, I’d already been trained and steeped in the practice of alterity. The quest for other forms, other meters, voices and mediums was already familiar to me. Variegation, I learned, is a principal pleasure in making any art, let alone narrative ones. But this initial depression eventually helped me be a better educator, mainly because all students eventually arrive at this cliff where they realize what they’ve dreaming to make doesn’t exist in the models placed before them. I’ve seen many beautiful and potent creative lives end right there on the cliff. While others, either by conviction or luck, find alternatives, which are abundant when a more myriad and global approach is sought.

For a much more diverse thinking to fiction craft, I’d recommend “Meander, Spiral, Explode,” by Jane Alison, and “Living by Fiction,” by Annie Dillard, who is also a poet.

In “Poetics of Relation,” Glissant posits that the epic narrative tends toward a dangerous “filial legitimacy” when adhering to linear origin stories. That is, if a myth solidifies the thesis that we’ve originated from one source in time, then we might be led to defend that lineage at all costs by excluding others who don’t share or fit into its biological or philosophical genealogies. This might be one reason we are led to war with each other, because the myth legitimizes discreet geneses, which must be rallied around and protected. The national myth is then a means toward ontological fixedness, which is conducive to a hegemonic “us.” The theory sheds a different light on how we’ve tended to patriarchal myths like “Gilgamesh,” the “Iliad,” Adam and Eve, the “Founding Fathers,” etc. But it also offers alternative considerations on how stories are told in general — and which ones, as a species, we’ve allowed to prevail.

Toni Morrison’s “Sula.”

I suppose they can — because there are and should be as many books as there are ideas. But I for one have no interest in writing toward morality, mostly because I don’t know my own morals clearly enough myself, which also shift and change as the world changes, as knowledge is amplified or revised. But if we consider that morality might include the absolute terror of being alive via wondrous doubt, and that the crafting of literature is the effort of making felt a linguistic architecture in which that doubt might be shared and experienced among others across time and space, as a kind of “goodness” or even a material “good,” then — yes — books serve a moral function.

Arthur Rimbaud, Thomas Merton and Murasaki Shikibu. Of course, there would need to be a translator involved. And since I don’t have any social skills, I’d rather just set up a camera and watch them talk from my upstairs bedroom, curled up and wrapped in huge, thick blankets. Wouldn’t that be amazing? A young trailblazer of modernism, a Trappist monk who challenged ideas of orthodoxy in order to privilege a wider curiosity of inter-philosophies, the first person — a woman, it so happens — to write and realize the novel, over half a millennium before “Don Quixote.” I would like to cook for them, though. I can make exactly one dish from memory: a vegan chana masala with stewed tomatoes and coconut milk, served with clove-steamed rice and cilantro. They would love it.

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