Support for on being with Krista Tippett comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fatso's new study. What does spirituality mean to us? Reveals how spirituality informs our understanding of ourselves and each other and inspires us to take action for the common good. Explore these findings and more at spirituality study, Doug. I interviewed the wise and wonderful writer Ocean Vong on March 8th, 2020, in a joyful, crowded room full of podcasters in Brooklyn.
A state of emergency had just been declared in New York around a new virus. But none of us guessed that within a handful of days, such an event would become unimaginable.
So for me, this conversation has become a last memory before the world shifted on its axis. What's most stunning is how exquisitely this conversation speaks to the world. We have since come to inhabit its heartbreak, its poetry and its possibilities of both destroying and saving. I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. It's such an honor to be invited to be part of the honor fest and to do a show here. I'm really excited. I love this room and I love the energy in it that you all are bringing.
And, yeah, what an honor and a delight to be up here with Ocean Vong.
Who I want to describe as a writer and a wise person who at a young age has made a singular contribution to American letters as a writer of poetry and essays, and this novel that you may have heard of, the word gorgeous that occurs in the title on Earth were briefly gorgeous is a word that's also often used to describe your writing and your voice, your literary voice and also, you know, ocean. I want to say I am aware that when people write about you and introduce you and describe you, they are they often speak about how your work is shaped by themes of violence and survival in the context of the immigrant experience, in the context of life and displacement, in the aftermath of war, in the context of growing up Asian-American and queer in the society.
And and that is true. And we're going to talk about violence. But but I'd also say that the sweep of your work is about bearing witness to the other side of violence and the possibility of joy while taking nothing away and continuing to bear witness to the fullness of what has been carried and and what has been survived.
So let's start I didn't mention that you're a MacArthur genius, but I have no proof that you were born in Saigon.
And when you were two years old in 1990, your family came to the US. You know, I have this question that I ask at the beginning of most of my conversations, an inquiry about the religious or spiritual background of someone's childhood. However, they would define that.
Now, I just I wonder how you, um, if there are aspects of your childhood to which you would attach that language of spiritual.
Yeah, my my family is traditionally Buddhist, but they were also illiterate. And so they the extent of their Buddhism were rooted in rituals and care. And so, you know, every day before school, my mother would get me to the altar and we would start to name this sort of roll call the people in our family and try to bless them and and think about them and tend to them and to ourselves. And so spirituality began with care rooted in physical bodies, and it didn't extend beyond the household.
There was no mythical presence to it. It was very it was almost like this abracadabra that we did before we stepped out of the the house into the rest of the world and thereby the rest of America. And I think for me, it's to whatever my mother presented to me those early mornings in front of the altar is still true. And I think I embrace that in everything I do, writing, sitting with, you know, how do I do it with care.
And even in the temples, in many Asian-American households, when you enter the house, you take off your shoes. Now, we're not obsessed with cleanliness anymore than anyone else, but the act is an act of respect. I'm going to take off my shoes to enter something important. I'm going to give you my best self. And I think even cautiously, when I read or give lectures or when I teach, I lower my voice. I want to make my words deliberate.
I want to enter. I want to take off the shoes of my voice so that I can enter a place with care so that I can do the work that I need to do. Hmm. In a number of places. You told a story also about a Baptist church in your neighborhood that you would visit on Sundays partly because they had ice cream, but also that you became really taken with the story of Noah's Ark.
You in a way that that is really that says a lot about how you approach your heart and your life. Yeah, I think that MIF, you know, I would go to sleep over a friend's house. I grew up in Hartford, a predominantly black and brown neighborhood. And the next morning my friends would give me their clothes, their church clothes, and we would just go. So I would end up, you know, attending, you know, throughout my childhood, hundreds of church services in the Baptist Church.
And the preacher kept talking about Noah's Ark. And I was so infatuated, I think, embedded into my psyche in really everything that I do even. To this day, you know what? What an incredible mythos to work and live by, which is that when the apocalypse comes, what will you put into the vessel for the future?
It's also such an image of it's preparing for the apocalypse and getting beyond it, which is which is also an experience that that many people have even in our world right now. It's an immigrant experience, a migrant experience, as we've started to call it.
Getting ready to interview you made me ponder also the particular strangeness and singularity of what it is to be Vietnamese American. Your family and in your case, you know, your family was not just fleeing a war and in the aftermath of war and surviving that, but it was our war. Right. You are Vietnamese American. And both sides of that equation were at war and you were literally born because of that war. Yeah. Your mother was the daughter of an American an American soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese girl.
And then the whole family was blasted apart just as the country was blasted apart. Yeah, it's a strange epic, you know. Yeah. You wrote somewhere. No bombs equals no family equals no me. Yikes.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. You know, what do we do about. I think it's also a question integral to our species and you know, this this this Michigan farm boy, my grandfather went to Vietnam to play the the trumpet. You know, he was trying to escape his domineering father, who didn't allow him to go to music school. So a 19 year old kid thinking as teenagers do, well, I'll go to war and play a trumpet, you know?
And so when he met my grandmother, they married and he was going to stay there. Yeah. And he was going to stay in Vietnam and have a new life.
And then Saigon fell.
So I'm a product of war, but I think so much of American life is a product of war. Yeah. You know, we're standing on stolen ground.
It's just very literal in your story. Yeah. Yeah. I concentrated well, I'm the first generation. You know, I think this is why the work of Toni Morrison's beloved was so important to me, because I saw in Beloved a first generation testimony in the in the character set leaving the South and creating beloved her daughter it you know, to save her daughter.
And never before have I seen a parallel close enough to the story of my own mother who comes out of her own epicenter.
And I'm being her son, also my own beloved, to to see American literature hold the testimony of first generation survival to live on both sides of death and life in one, you know, short period of time.
Half of one's life felt so powerful to me and I learned so much from that book. I want to talk about about the power of words and language, which, you know, given the beginnings of your life, as you said, your your family was illiterate.
Your mother never spoke English. And and really only I think you said it could read and write Vietnamese that are about a fifth grade level. There's a lot of dyslexia in your family. You also struggled with that.
And how old were you when you actually learned to read a lot of the the magazines? You say 11.
Um, I mean, you don't wake up at all. Look at the sorry state that you don't wake up one morning and start reading books.
You know, it's a slow, arduous task. So I started you know, I went to ESL. I went through the American educational system for better, for worse.
Um, and I was I was able to read, but my fluid, you know, chapter book reading where I could just sit down and read a book didn't happen till I was 11, but I was able to pick out words here and there. It was much delayed.
Yeah. Was there a moment where you can look back and where you started to feel in your body, the power of words which you now work with right away? I mean, I, I was surrounded by storytellers, right? By survivors and storytellers. And so my grandmother and my mother and my aunts would tell stories to, you know, recalibrate their pasts to make sense of their past and that my route in in the narrative and literary techniques and embodiment begins way before I entered a classroom.
And when you think about how people tell stories, stories are carried in the body and it's edited each time the person tells it.
And so what you have, by the time someone tells the story, is a master class of form technique, concision, imagery, even how to pause, which you don't really get on the page. Right. Arguably you do in poetry with the Lambrick.
And this is what these women were giving me. I didn't know how valuable that gift was. I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, revisiting the extraordinary, prescient conversation I had with the writer Ocean Bong at On-Air Fest in Brooklyn on the cusp of the pandemic. It's also very moving and interesting to me the way you and your staff started talking about this, you write about how Vietnamese culture that you were that you were immersed in, how language is so embodied.
I mean, someplace you said a lot of love is communicated in Vietnamese culture through service. You know, you we cook, we Messias, we scratch each other's back. There's not a lot of saying I love you, but it's communicated in those ways.
Yeah, the body is the ultimate witness to love. And I learned that right away. You know, we don't say I love you. We do.
We say it in English as sort of, you know, really. That's so interesting. Yeah. Yeah. It's almost like a cultural thing, you know, just kind of we almost say in lieu of goodbye, we don't know how to say goodbye either. Right. It's just we don't we say bye bye. Right. And I think because what what happens is that through the body and through service, you articulated through paying attention. Nothing can say I love you more than feeling it from somebody.
And I think this this relationship is how I start to see words. You know, I look at them as if they were things I couldn't move and care for.
And I thought, yeah, the language of energy use a lot of energy, metaphors and imagery for how you work with words and how words work in us.
Yeah, yeah. I think it's as a species, as life on Earth, we've been dying for millennia, but I don't think energy dies. It's transformed. And when you're using language, you know, it's you can create it, use it to to divide people and build walls, or you can turn it into something where we can see each other more clearly as a bridge. And that that notion that you are a participant in the future of language is something I think our American education failed us.
Say some more about that.
You are a participant in the future of language, what we're taught you, particularly elementary school, to learn a standardized language. And when you ask why is it this way? Why is this the standard, you arrive at a very arbitrary answer and an answer which actually excludes, you know, often people of color.
Your English is wrong. This English is right. Right.
But in fact, language is always changing. And I think it's the poets, the writers and even the youth. They're using language to cast new meaning in the same way Chaucer just winged English spelling. There was no standardized spelling, right?
He was like a spring s p r y yuji. Sure. Let's try it out.
And and I think the way language exists is similar to, you know, when I was in Harvard, we were talking about these abandoned buildings, these old factories.
The Colt gun factory was in Hartford in a sold weapons to both sides during the Civil War. And we would go into these abandoned warehouses and just to play and explore.
And I remember seeing these old warped windows, the glass just melting and looking through at my city.
The city I thought I knew so well through this glass was so surreal.
Everything changed, everything was warped. And to me, that's what language is the glass. You think it's fixed, you think it's clear pane of glass, but in fact, through years it starts to drip and melt and change, right?
Yeah. Even that notion, that language is clear, even the this presumption that we walk around making that that what we mean when we use any word. Yeah. It transmits perfectly to another. It's always imperfect, which is also what makes art so exciting and. Right. Right.
We don't we often tell our our students the future's in your hands. Yeah. But I think the future is actually in your mouth. You have to you have to articulate the world you want to live in first. Yes. We pride ourselves as a country that's very technologically advanced. We have strong, good science, good schools, very advanced weaponry for sure. But I think we're still very primitive in the way we use language and speak. Particularly in how we celebrate ourselves, you know, you're killing it, right?
You're so you're so acute about how the violence of the American lexicon we have to ask. I'm not saying it's wrong for saying I use it to being a product of this country, but one has to wonder, what is it about a culture that can only value itself through the lexicon of death? Mm hmm. You know, I grew up in New England and I heard boys talk about pleasure as conquests. I bagged her, she's in the bag, I own it, I own that place, I knocked it out of the park, I went in there guns blazing, go knock em dead, drop dead gorgeous.
Clé, I laid them. I salute them. Yeah. What happens to our imagination right when we can only celebrate ourselves through our very vanishing.
I mean even you as a poet have said people say to you you're killing it. Yeah. Right, yeah. What does it do to the brain. We know that would be going to us. Yeah we know language matters. They did a control where you know they were trying to get these lab mice to move through a maze and they labeled the one mouse the smart, intelligent mouse in the other mouse. Was the control just a normal mouse? The reality was that they were both normal mice.
There was nothing special about them. But the one labeled the superior mouse always went through the maze faster. And that phenomenon is actually something that's still studied. But one theory is that it was the human beings who attended them, the ones that had the good label, the promising label work tended to with more care and more. And I suppose a lot of that was on was subconscious. Yeah, but it's in a way in which even the words we are thinking.
Yeah. Is shaping the way we're interacting. Yeah, absolutely. On a subconscious level. And so I think what happens if we we alter our language where. Yeah. Our, our future be, where will we grow towards it? We start to think differently about how the world is, you know, is a battleground state, right?
Oh, it goes on and on. I thought the civil war was over. Yeah. Yeah. But we're in battleground states, right. Target audience. Something I started to notice after 9/11 was this language of hunting down, hunting down terrorists. That that's language you use for animals. Yeah. And that corson's us. Yeah. I grew up right in the shadow of 9/11. It created something very interesting because we were essentially the last generation to play outside thoroughly.
Yeah, right. Things like Tag and Man Hunt, you know, those things were gone overnight. I saw it with my own eyes. Our nation became a nation that dictated fear through colors. Today's read tomorrow's orange yellow alert. So you mentioned the the Buddhist practice that was part of your childhood, that you then kind of rediscover and make your own as an adult feels to me like this space you inhabit, what you see so clearly and insisting on holding the complexity of that seems to me that you do have ways.
And I think also the implications of what you're saying is what you're saying is that these are this is a rigor of how we use our words and how we understand the power we have to move through time and through ordinary experiences of our day that we all have it in ourselves to claim right now. But you have ways of making that more possible in yourself. I mean, I read. Is it true? Do you still do you live across from a cemetery?
Yes, I do. And I you that you perform this Zen Buddhist death meditation.
Yeah. I go out and I walk along the cemetery and even without it, I sit down and I do a meditation and it's it sounds very morbid, but the practice is actually supposed to bring yourself into the inevitable.
The conditions of our lives will be vanquished through death.
And then and then all the pettiness, you know, to the little angers, you know, that you have with those you love, those you don't love. And your neighbor, the little things, you know, falls away. It's so small when the ultimate lasting reality is, is death. And I think it goes back to Noah's Ark, too. Okay. Noah was also doing tough meditation. You know, he was a Zen Buddhist without knowing it.
I think so. He didn't know he was Jewish. Yeah, yeah, I think so. But I think this all religions have this, you know, outside of all of the the orthodoxy or in the rigor of ceremonies at the center of it is trying to remind us that we will die. And how do we live a life worthwhile of our breath?
And I think thinking about death and thinking about what we do towards it around it helps me center myself in this such a chaotic space. And I do think it's part of my own nurturing of my own mental health.
After a short break, more with Ocean Bong. I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being Today, a conversation with the wonderful writer Ocean Vong that happened right before the world changed and speaks so vividly and healthily to the realities we have since come to inhabit. There's so much I want to talk to you about it, so it's beautiful, actually what's emerging here and it does it feels like, you know, you've described how your your method of of creating is that you walk a lot.
Right. Again, it's embodied practice and you walk and you walk in and things build up in you. And there's a way in which I feel like words and meaning kind of flow out of you, which is also an experience one has enjoyed in reading your work. And as we're hearing, it's consonant with the way you understand reality and help other people understand reality. It's it's not always that smooth.
No, I'm sure. I mean, there's a lot of I'm sure it's not just kind of like, you know, a lot of things flow, but not all of them are good, you know.
So sometimes I got a rant about, yeah, OK.
Yeah, I didn't want to go, but I you know, there was I just wanted to note there's there's the picture. On the cover of Night Sky with exit wounds, it looks like such a happy picture of a little boy and two women who love them, you imagine one of them is his mother. And yeah, in fact, you guys were in a refugee camp in the Philippines and you had to someone took that picture and you paid them for that picture.
Yeah. Three cups of rice for that photo when we were in a refugee camp and we got rations and each day each family got three cups of rice. And there was a photographer who went around, you know, even in a refugee camp, you know, it's a microcosm of the world.
Everybody is going to try to, course make a business.
And, you know, I was thinking about the cover for my first book.
That was my first book. And, yeah, we had some ideas. But I think part of my education with the history of Vietnam in America's involvement in it became something very different from what was given to me in the textbooks.
The textbook says, well, here's first of all, here's five chapters on George Washington, what he ate, what kind of teeth he had, what kind of tree he chopped down.
Yeah. And by the way, you know, somebody chopped down a fruit tree as a red flag for me.
Nobody has a white right to chop down a fruit tree. And so but the myth I realized the myth of America was so strong. Yeah, and it's very interesting because when we got to the Vietnam War, it was like two pages. Is a photo of Kennedy then is a photo of Nixon. Right. Right. Something bad happened over there. Anyway, it's over. Then we went on to the Gulf War when we were heroes. Yeah, right.
So I thought by by time I was in college as I got to figure this out. Yeah. So I started to do my own research and I realized right away that one's research with the Vietnam War, something I was not prepared for, was to see upwards of hundreds of dead bodies, Asian bodies, bodies that look like me. So when you are most recognizable in your research as a corpse, it does something to you, right? Sometimes the bodies were so mangled you didn't know where it one begin and it ended.
Yeah. And so I wanted for my first book to have Vietnamese bodies on the cover that were living. Mm hmm. And so that photo, you know, was a was a moment of salvaging and preserving bodies in transit. Yeah. What was it about these women? I thought that would surrender their very sustenance in order to preserve their image.
Right, and even when you came here, I read somewhere that you said that, you know, you had to pay for that picture, you had to pay to be seen. And even what you're saying about how even in that moment in and I was a child, but, you know, the fact of being able to see those bodies was what became is actually what ended the war. Yeah. And then after that, we never saw bodies come home from war again.
Yeah, they learned.
Yeah, they learned that you even when you came here and this is about the immigrant experience, but it's also about being Vietnamese. Your mother would say to you, remember, child, don't get noticed. You're already Vietnamese.
Mm hmm. Yeah. It's interesting that wisdom often arrives as a warning. You know, I think it's often something that those in the center, those in power never know that before you leave the house in order to. Achieve yourself, right? One sends one's children to school in order to fulfill their dreams and in order to do that, you had to be warned that there is a strike against you, by the way. So sinkin. Fade away.
Right, and I think that's the great crisis of the first and second generation, the first generation made it here and to live at all is such a privilege that they're happy and even encouraged you to put your head down, work, fade away, get your meals and live a quiet life. I think the second generation, the the great conundrum there, the great paradox is that they want to be seen. They want to make something right. And what a better way to make something and fill yourself with agency than to be an artist.
You know, so, so many of us immigrant children end up betraying our parents.
In order to subversively achieve our parents dreams, right? Right. Your mother was worked in a nail salon all of your life and her life and you worked there and members of your family worked there, and I love it that you were able to you were eventually able to buy her house.
And she always wanted to garden. Yeah, because you you are now seen. Yeah. She watched you. There's a story. I love the story. I wonder if you could tell it about. The experience she had when she came when she first came to hear you read and of course, she couldn't understand the English, but her reaction to, you know, the first time I was reading at the Mark Twain house, of all places in Hartford, and it was nearby.
So I asked her to come in first time she saw me read. And of course, she doesn't understand the English, but she was so proud to just see her son up there, you know, in a spotlight. Yeah, a small spotlight. And I went back to her after I read people clap and they stood and it was lovely. And I went back to her and she was sobbing and being the the dutiful son, I said, well, what did I do?
What happened? You OK? And she said, No, I just never thought I'd live to see all these old white people clapping for my son.
And and, you know, I thought it was it was interesting because I said I I try to understand what that means. Yeah. What it means or what kind of validation is that?
You know, it's not necessarily one that I share myself, you know. So I almost had this this arrogant gaze to it. I said. I don't that doesn't seem like victory to me just because a bunch of white folks, you know, declare victory is something else to me, something more.
And then until the next day, I was at the salon again with her her makeup off and she put a nice dress away. She wore the readings, took her earrings off and right out the gate. In the early morning. I saw her and watched her kneel at the pedicure chair before one old white woman after another.
It was so humble because, right.
Finally, finally, you know, she was below their eye level for so many years and for one brief moment in Mark Twain's house, that they saw her face to face as an equal.
And that's when I understood that is Victor.
I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being Today with the writer Ocean Bong, recorded at On-Air Fest in Brooklyn in March 2020. We also took some questions from the last live audience any of us would be in for some time. I have to say that probably I've been listening to Krastev for as long as I can remember, and this has to be one of the most moving tender beyond words, conversations I've heard. And so and I'm so glad that I got to see the embodiment of your language.
So along those lines, I was interested to know about some of the body practices that you do. I, I completely hear what you're saying about the potential for language and the care that each word uttered.
There also is some proprietary practices that come with that responsibility. And I was wondering if you could share any thoughts on that.
You know, I do think it does begin and end and the body language is something we carry around for a long time in our species. We have been caring and reading is very fairly new, even the Library of Alexandria. People read aloud in it. So you go in a library, it's just a hum of voices.
And I think being able to articulate and talk to each other face to face like this, having the sonic reality to see how your words land in somebody's body, it's so important, you know, and ironically, I learned this through having a pet, a dog. I could be saying anything, but in my tone changes my little dog, tofu.
You know, he knows he's he's listening to the pressures and the sonics of my voice, even more so, of course, than the words themselves. I could be saying, you know, Merry Christmas or Merry Christmas.
And all of a sudden he knows the difference. And so I think I always bring this back to my students as well. I said, you're working on a poem or story. You know, when you're hitting a dead end, when it's not going, take it with you. Get away from the desk, turn away from it means something is not happening. It doesn't mean you're blocked. I don't think writer's block is real. I think it's the mythos of capitalism, right.
That you're always supposed to be producing this this anxiety of being productive in quantifying your self-worth through page counts and word counts. So I said, you're working, but you have to work differently now. Now you have to work with your body. Maybe there's questions you're not asking. Maybe had to recite this poem and walk with it. And so to me, this is actually more available to us as a species. This is what we've always been doing.
We've we've been telling stories as we walked. We've been telling stories as we work side by side that this idea, that language is a private, isolated act is so new that I think we still haven't figured out if it's useful or not. And so I think it's valuable to open up that debate again and not to say that it has to be like this or like that for anybody, but to say if it's not working, we can do something different, an alternative route.
And in this sense, having the words in the air, I feel like the voice in the air is like a second page, you know, the way you can. Kanata the pauses, the cadences I learned mostly from watching Whitney Houston. If you listen to Whitney Houston's song, they start like a whisper.
And then how do we get to the Pinnacles? Right.
The brightly lit room of her, you know, peaks, but the power in the mastery in her performance is the oscillation and the respect of how a world which is static on the page can be lifted and amplified through using the whole range of human emotion in the voice. So I'm an apprentice of that. You know, I. I would not have traded the experience of being with you physically, but I really love most of my interviews are remote and I'm in a studio.
Somebody is coming in through my headphones, kind of basically. But I there's there's often an assumption in people who don't work in this medium that that makes it less intimate. But to have the human voice to work with and and to get everything, everything about the human voice carries.
I mean, it is the body is really. Magical to really be able to completely focus on that. Speaking of the body and walking and movement, I want to close you. You wrote this beautiful essay in The Rumpus in 2014 called The Weight of Our Living on Hope, Fire Escapes and Visible Desperation. It was part of the context of that piece. Was your uncle's death by suicide? He was three years older than you and you'd grown up together and that wove into you reflecting on these walks you do through New York City on fire escapes.
Yeah, I want to read a little bit of just and then I want you to say where, you know, all that richness and drama sealed away in a fortress whose walls echoed with communication of elemental and exquisite language. If you're looking at all the buildings and yet only the fire escape, a clinging extremity inanimate and often rusting, spoke in its hardened exile's silence with the most visible human honesty. We are capable of disaster and we are scared. Yeah, yeah, I it was such a blow, anyone who has lost anybody to suicide, um, I lost my uncle, I lost a few friends, you know, um, and it's the great mystery in the great violence of taking oneself out of the picture.
You know, I've been grappling with that for so long. And I think one of the things that lead us to that is that we you start to feel that you are always out of the picture. This loneliness, that language does not allow us to access, you know, the way we say hello to each other, you know? Hi, how are you? Oh, good, good, good, good, good. So how are you now defunct.
It doesn't access it. It fills it's fluff. Right. And so what happens to our language does great advanced technology that we've had when it starts to fail at its function and it starts to obscure rather than open. And I think the crisis that my uncle went through and a lot of my friends was the crisis of communication. They couldn't say I'm hurt. And looking at, you know, I would go I remember when I heard of his suicide, I was a student at Brooklyn College in New York and I went for the longest walk and I kept seeing these fires kept.
And I said, what happens if we had that? What is the linguistic existence of a fire escape? That we can allow give ourselves permission to say. Are you really OK? I know we're talking, but you want to step out on the fire escape. And you can tell me the truth, and I think we're so we built shame into vulnerability and we've sealed it off in our culture and not at the table, not a dinner table.
Don't say this. Don't say that. They don't talk about this. Right. This is not cocktail conversation. What have we police access to ourselves? And the great loss is that we can move through our whole lives picking up phones and talking to our most beloved and yet still not know who they are.
Or how are you? Has failed us. And we have to find something else and and I thought about that, what if literature, my participation in it and that's my field, if you will, what if the poem, the story, the novel at its best can serve as a fire escape? Because on the page you don't have the awkward reality of a body bumping into someone in the supermarket. You don't have to say, how about them patriots?
You know how to talk about the weather. You can go right in there.
And I really have been it changed the way I thought about writing and literature in that if we have the fire escape as a reality in our buildings, what does it look like in the reality of our communication? Yeah, in our language. What does that look like? I'm still figuring that out. I'm still every book, every poem, I think is my attempt at articulating a fire escape. Um, but I think it was a great reckoning for me because here I am supposedly a writer, you know, and then my uncle dies and I've lost so much.
We talk all the time. We say all these things. And yet I never knew what was happening. And if that's the case language, just feel that I chose this thing that I feel so much hope for failed me. And it was a reckoning, I think, existentially with with myself as an artist. I wonder if to close this incredible time together, if you would read it, just copy it out. A paragraph from the end of this essay from 2014, The Weight of Our Living.
The poem, like the fire escape, as feeble and thin as it is, has become my most concentrated architecture of resistance, a place where I can be as honest as I need to because the fire has already begun in my home, swallowing my most valuable possessions and even my loved ones. My uncle is gone. I will never know exactly why, but I still have my body. And with these words hammered into a structure just wide enough to hold the weight of my living, I want to use it to talk about my obsessions and fears, my odd and idiosyncratic joys.
I want to leave the party through the window and find my uncle standing on a piece of iron shaped into visible desperation, which must also be how can it not the beginning of visible hope. I want to stay there until the building burns down. I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often that despite being so human and so terrified here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night, we can live and we will.
Oshin Wong, thank you so much. Ocean Bong is an associate professor of English in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He's the author of the poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which won the Elliott Prize and the Whiting Award and a novel on Earth where briefly gorgeous he was. A 2013 MacArthur Fellow special thanks this week to Jemma Brown, Scott Neuman, Sam Baer and all of the wonderful staff at On Air Fest, the great gathering of podcasts and audio makers.
Beyond Being Project is located on Dakotah Land, our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn on being as an independent non-profit production of the NBN project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created the show at American Public Media. Are funding partners include the Fetzer Institute helping to build the Spiritual Foundation for a Loving World. Find them at Fetzer Dawg Calliope, a foundation dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture and spirituality, supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth.
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