Biography of Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong (born Vinh Quoc Vuong) is a Vietnamese-American poet and novelist, born on a farm outside Saigon in 1988.

His maternal grandfather was an American soldier in Vietnam, and his grandmother was—as relayed in the poem "Notebook Fragments"—a local "Vietnamese farmgirl." When Saigon fell in 1975, however, his grandfather was in the United States visiting family, and his grandmother feared that she and her children would be targeted as collaborators. As a result, she separated her three children—Ocean's mother among them—and placed them in separate orphanages so that they would not be evacuated from Vietnam or exploited by dissidents looking to leave the country with "family." Ocean's mother remained separated from her family into her adulthood. When she was 18 years old, Ocean was born. Later, however, while she was working in a salon in Saigon, a police officer discovered that Ocean's mother was mixed race and thus working illegally under the country's laws. As a result, Ocean's family evacuated to the Philippines while waiting for their asylum request to be processed in the United States.

After waiting for 8 months, Ocean and six family members emigrated to America as refugees, settling in Hartford, Connecticut. At the time, Ocean was 2 years old. Shortly after arriving in America, however, Ocean's father was arrested for domestic violence against his mother. His father had earlier spent time in a Communist prison in Vietnam. Later, his parents would divorce and his father would essentially disappear, leaving Ocean to be raised by his mother, his grandmother, and his aunt. This absence of a father figure, as well as the importance of motherly figures, eventually comes to be a major force at play in Ocean's work. Moreover, it was after his father vanished that Ocean's mother decided to rename him. One day, while Ocean's mother was working at a nail salon as a manicurist, she was telling a customer about how much she wanted to go to the beach. When the customer pointed out that her pronunciation of "beach" sounded more like "bitch," however, the customer offered a substitute: Ocean's mother could say she was planning to go to the ocean. Upon finding that an "ocean" is a large body of water that links multiple countries, Ocean's mother appreciated the metaphorical idea that her son could be the link between America and Vietnam, and renamed him from Vinh to Ocean.

When Ocean was 11, he learned to read, the first person in his family to be able to do so. At 13, Ocean and his family moved to Glastonbury, where he attended a prestigious public school but struggled in the face of racial prejudice, homophobia, suspected dyslexia, and classroom politics that Ocean later claims "literally erased" him and his identity. Moreover, as an adolescent, Ocean's life was defined by a series of low-paying jobs and drug issues, and Ocean knew many people who overdosed or similarly struggled during Connecticut's burgeoning opioid crisis. At the same time, however, Ocean sought the advice of a guidance counselor and used his school's library to access Buddhist resources, which helped him make positive changes in his life. He is still a practitioner of Zen Buddhism to this day. After graduating from high school, Ocean was expected to follow his mother into nail salon work, but enrolled in a community college and eventually made it to Pace University in New York, where he studied marketing for just a few weeks before dropping out. It was also during his time at business school that he met his current and long-time partner, Peter.

After a period of hardship in the city, he earned a place at Brooklyn College, where he received his bachelor's degree in English literature. There, he met and studied under poet Ben Lerner, who had a major influence on Ocean and his work. Also during his time at Brooklyn College, his grandmother died of cancer and was buried in Vietnam. Upon returning to Vietnam for the funeral, Ocean said that he was surprised by the almost family-like resemblance between him and the others present.

Later, Ocean earned a MFA in poetry from New York University. He published his first works, two chapbooks called Burnings and No, in 2011 and 2013 respectively. However, a major change came in Ocean's life with the publication of Night Sky with Exit Wounds in 2016. The collection received critical and commercial acclaim, and catapulted Ocean into literary stardom. In the time since, he has also written a novel—On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous—published in 2019. Currently, Ocean lives in Northampton and is an assistant professor in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is a recipient of the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award for Poetry, a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, and a Kundiman fellowship. His debut novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, and the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel award, among other prizes.


Study Guides on Works by Ocean Vuong

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is the debut full-length poetry collection by Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong. Vuong initially wrote the poems in the collection and assembled them for an open contest that claimed each rejection would be...

Published in June 2019, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong's debut novel. Written in the style of an epistolary novel—a letter from a young Vietnamese-American man (Little Dog) to his older, illiterate mother (Rose)—the novel explores...