In “On Earth,” there’s a scene where Vuong’s point-of-view stand-in, Little Dog, is served jasmine tea over rice. “True peasant food,” his grandmother says. “This is our fast food, Little Dog. This is our McDonald’s!” In the novel, being poor is portrayed not by its tragedy but by its rare moments of delight. Whereas poverty is often used in fiction as a plot mechanism, Vuong writes it as a texture, a fact of life.
Envisioning ‘a new gaze’
Vuong, 30, lives in a handsome single-story home in Northampton, Mass., where he teaches creative writing at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. When I visit, I am first greeted by his dog, a Shih Tzu-poodle mix named Tofu. We sit at a reclaimed wood dining table, where Vuong has laid out “Beloved,” “Gilead,” “Moby Dick” and other books that have inspired him. On the wall, there is an LP of Frank Ocean’s “Blonde.”
Vuong likes the quiet, domestic rhythms of living in Northampton. Before, he was living on Long Island, commuting two-and-a-half hours each way to teach poetry at New York University. He lived among roommates with kids. It was a noisy home, so Vuong would write in his bedroom closet. (As a queer author, he says, “The irony is not lost on me.”) It was a refuge: a laptop, lamp and Vuong with his headphones on, likely listening to Frank Ocean.
Throughout the many revisions, the conceit was always clear: the novel would be a letter addressed to Vuong’s mother, who is illiterate. It uses a narrative structure called kishōtenketsu, commonly seen in the work of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, a form that refuses to deploy conflict as a means of progressing the story.
“It insists that a narrative structure can survive and thrive on proximity alone,” Vuong says. “Proximity builds tension.”
There are no villains, no victims, and no clear arcs. His goal: to create “a new gaze, a new attribution to American identity,” he says.