Brooklyn, N.Y.—There is irony in the title of creative writing major Ocean Vuong’s recently released collection of poems, Burnings, given that he is named after a body of water. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Vuong immigrated to the United States with his family in 1990, but his homeland remains a source of fond memories, searing pain and artistic musings.
The critically acclaimed Burnings weaves together generations of cultural tragedy with abbreviated moments of joy to reveal how tyranny strips oppressors of their humanity and moral authority. Nowhere is this more keenly observed than in “The Photo,” a poem that explores the seen and unseen racial politics of Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam photo, and “Echo,” which exposes the hypocrisy of anti-gay sentiment.
“I started writing poems in high school, but my urge to create came a lot earlier than that,” he says. “I grew up below the poverty line. There were no toys in my family, so I used my imagination. Sometimes, when you close your eyes and go back into your mind, the world you find there is more beautiful, more tolerable than the one your body lives in.”
Recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, among other prestigious honors, Vuong says that it was at Brooklyn College where he honed his skill and received the mentoring, creative support and confidence he needed to publish.
“I came to BC out of financial practicality, but what I discovered was a haven, and how powerful and important this art can be. For the first time in my life, I was appreciated for my writing. I was funded and received scholarships for poetry. Poetry? Yes. I couldn’t believe it!”
BC faculty are just as appreciative of Vuong and his talents as he is of the college.
“When I first heard Ocean read at the English Majors’ Open Mic, I was stunned,” says English Professor Roni Natov, who, with a select group of English majors, organizes the biannual event. “His work was so moving, so mature, and he read so beautifully. I immediately contacted him and he sent me some poems — one of which I read at a Passover Seder. It drew gasps and sighs from all.”
On the basis on his talent, Natov invited Vuong to intern in the English Majors’ Counseling Office. Starting this spring, he will provide other students much of the same mentoring and support that he received.