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Vietnamese-American Poet Ocean Vuong Wins Prestigious Literary Award

On January 15, it was announced that Vietnamese-American poet and essayist Ocean Vuong’s debut poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds has won the prestigious 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize.

Vuong is the second debut poet to win the award, joining previous years' winners including Don Paterson, Ted Hughes, Sharon Olds, Carol Ann Duffy and Derek Walcott, Guardian reports.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds deals with themes of displacement, violence, sexuality, and transnational identities. It includes a retelling of the Vietnam War as seen through a lens and language that draws influence from works of classical literature.

The poems in Night Sky With Exit Wounds attempt torecast the history of the Vietnam War and the history of a queer body as mythology. Vuong reveals: “What that offers me was that I got to tell these stories that perhaps I have not witnessed myself through a poetical reimagination without claiming witness as my own.”

This approach of interacting with the Western canon also gives way to a reappropriation of classic texts, viewing the epic poems of Homer, Dante, or Milton not as "monolithic totems" but as spaces in which queer diasporic identities can be negotiated. 

Vuong’s family history, the absence of his father, and his gay identity are the main narrative elements connecting the book's poems. He begins his life story with his grandparents in 'Notebook Fragments': “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes.”

Born on a rice farm near Saigon in 1988, Vuong and his family spent one year living in poverty in a Philippines refugee camp before migrating to Hartford, Connecticut when Vuong was two years old. He was the first literate person in his family. 

The T.S. Eliot Prize was inaugurated in 1993 by the Poetry Book Society and is considered one of the world’s most prestigious poetry awards. Vuong's book was selected out of 10 shortlisted poets, of whom Vuong was the only person of color. The judges praised the collection as “a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice”.

[Photo via The Guardian]

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