World Makers: Ocean Vuong & Rebecca Clarren

October 27th, 2019

 Award winning poet Ocean Vuong and journalist Rebecca Clarren turn a romantic and empiric lens on the art of fiction in their acclaimed debut novels, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Kickdown, both of which plunge new emotional depths of American experience on this episode of Open Stacks.

Acclaimed poet and author of the bestselling debut novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong (above) spoke in a packed Seminary Co-op on September 3, 2019, joined by poet Emily Jungmin Yoon. What follows is an excerpt from their conversation, in which Vuong discusses the unexpected and "untrendy" influence of the Western literary canon and 19th century-stye on his writing and abiltiy to situate himself as a queer, Asian-American writer in 2019. 

I’m still perplexed of why this book is doing well, I can’t tell you why, honestly, I’m still thinking about that, because I use very very untrendy styles in this book. I use—there’s a lot—it’s very metaphorical, it’s very poetic. There’s really no plot. The speaker interrupts themself often to have meanderings in philosophy, engaging in canonical and non-canonical influences, from Roland Barthes to 50-Cent, to Ralph Stanley, to Legends of Lady Chu — but I think I was really consciously curious about using 19th-century style to write about American life. The 19th-century American Transcendentalist decree was to use language as a means of self-knowledge. Right? Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson  the self will be illuminated, and complicated further using language. And metaphor became a means of the sublime, right? The metaphor in a sense is virtual reality. “This makes me think of that.” And so it disengages the reader, ultimately disrupting the reader. And I wanted to use this book as a heavily metaphorized style, in order to disengage the reader and disrupt what John Gardner, this late literary critic, calls “the fiction dream.” […] And so my attempt was to make this book a treatise of using old 19th-century style as a way of letting an Asian-American character find self-knowledge, using those old tools. It’s interesting, right? Because those tools were once — that style, that meandering, metaphor-rich, florid, overwrought style was once the pinnacle of masculinist achievement. Henry James, Melville. They were allergic — of the period! And that was patriarchal achievement, but when they — when literature, American literature arrived at World War One, it was suddenly ashamed. “How — the sublime??” Meanwhile the fields of Europe were littered with cattle, from the war, trench warfare, mustard gas. And so the Hemingways and the Gertrude Steins: Modernism, was the answer — the sobering antidote to Romanticism and Transcendentalism. Now, just because Whiteness was embarrassed of itself does not mean its tools had to apply to all other writers. And so it deemed the metaphor moot, as a means of propaganda, right? “Metaphor is childlike.” You know? “Florid, flowery.” It’s interesting though, because, what was once the male pinnacle had to be deemed feminine in order to be rendered defunct. So in order for literary taste-making to progress from Romanticism to Modernism, it had to deem its old tools woman-like. Florid, unrestrained, flowery, purple. All the tools of the old men were suddenly relegated to women. And I felt it was so powerful, as a queer Asian-American writer in 2019, to go back and take the old fabric that was deemed feminine, and to adorn my work with it. What else is that but drag? Right? And is drag not powerful? It is a testament to adorn yourself with something so extra? To extend the period beyond feasible? To reach for every metaphor, to destabilize the lyric temporality, as a way of saying “this is so much.” Drag is so beautiful because everything about it is exaggerated. The eyelashes, the hair. It uses the body and asks of it to stretch to its limits, in order to make more of itself. In order for it to be a site of power that you can’t turn away from. And if you can’t turn away from it, maybe you would orchestrate a world that will value it better.


In addition to the above mentioned authors, Vuong argues his Hartford (he grew up just outside Connecticut's capital city) is not that of Mark Twain, Wallace Stevens, or Harriet Beecher Stowe. You can read about Hartford's unparalleled place in American literary history here

Space is the place on this week’s Front Table with the Seminary Co-op's Colin and Alena looking up and down at a veritable galaxy of new books about our universe and multiverse.

Rebecca Clarren's debut novel, Kickdown, was shortlisted for the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction and has drawn comparisons to Kent Haruf's Plainsong and Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, for its threading of lives through the fabric of family and place, specifically the rural west, where Clarren has reported for more than 20 years. Learn more about Clarren's career in journalism, covering indigenous and rural communities, immigration, and the environment at, and browse all the books that came up in the stacks below.