Ocean Vuong, Surrendering

A summary of — and a response to — Ocean Vuong’s Surrendering.


Vuong describes how he became a writer, and how he started drawing on his own life experiences to churn out stories. He came from a family of illiterate Vietnamese farmers, and immigrated to the US when he was two. There he remained largely unexposed to the English language for about 5 years. Going to kindergarten was like immigrating again, only this time into a language instead of a country. He managed to speak English fluently, but the craft of writing fluently eluded him.

In school, he managed to avoid writing by copying passages from books instead. This continued till one afternoon in grade 4, when he turned in a poem that he had written in honour of the National Poetry Month. His teacher assumed — wrongfully — that he had plagiarised the poem, and demanded to know where it had been copied from. The teacher went so far as to tip Vuong’s desk to empty the contents of the attached cubby. There Vuong stood — alone, a poemless island in the middle of the emptied rubble — as his teacher and classmates looked on, unconvinced.

He was bullied at school, which is why he used to hide in the library during recess. There he found a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he mistook for a medical practitioner, and was immediately hooked and impressed. Vuong could hear the recorded sound of a huge crowd applauding MLK, and felt insignificant in front of the great man. He wondered if words could cure people. He realised he had been narrating his grandmother’s stories all his life and, in that moment, also realised that we don’t only stumble into stories when we read.

So he wrote a poem about spring, using exotic names for flowers that he had picked up from the gardening shows his grandmother watched. Using a dictionary and a piece of white paper, which he describes as a white flag, he brought his poem into existence. He calls it an act of surrender, adding that he plagiarised his own life to offer his audience the best of himself.


I find the idea of writing as surrender very interesting. Frantz Fanon said, “[…] to speak is to exist absolutely for the other” and one could, by extension, say the same thing for writing. What Fanon means is that language is a social fact, not a faculty of the individual. So when one speaks one inevitably assumes the presence of an Other to perceive it. So writing is a form of interaction with the world outside the Self, a very specific form of interaction with its own history and social implications.

When we don’t have a community’s language, we’re alienated from them in a profound way. That was a major site of alienation for Vuong. I think he wrote both to make sense of his personal and collective history, as well as to connect with the community he felt alienated from. In many ways, our lives are structured by the social formations we’re interpellated into. Vuong’s class position meant that he did not always have access to proper education. He immigrated to a new country and a new language, and perhaps writing for an Other (who spoke the new language and belonged to the new country) was his way of trying to bring his own history — both personal and collective — closer to his new surroundings: an act of surrender, then, and of raising the white flag, instead of fighting the alien environment he found himself in.

in response to a quote by Marilynne Robinson

Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious and interesting.

— Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books


let’s try to move away from the human and the linguistic. let’s move to the place where the words ‘insignificant’ and ‘precious’ mean nothing — there are no words here, no meanings. i rather like it here.

i don’t always approve of the way we try to attach meaning to everything. i hate the way we sometimes desperately try to tease beauty out of the ordinary, the unusual, and the chaotic. we exist and, sometimes, that’s all there’s to it.

in response to a quote by Arthur Rimbaud

Avant je pensais que ce que je faisais aurais de l’importance. Que ça changerait le monde. Que rien ne serait plus comme avant… Mais c’est inutile. Le monde est trop vieux, il n’y a rien de noeuf. Tout a été dit.

Arthur Rimbaud, Eclipse Totale (1995)


Not everything, no. I am starting to believe it is the way you say things — perhaps more than any other component of content — that shifts something inside of other people. They may not realise it at the time, but they notice it later when they are alone and trying to gather themselves. That is when they see parts of you that have decided to stick to them permanently. And all your words go rushing back to them.

Nothing will ever be as it was before.

I do not think it is possible to establish a global equilibrium. As long as people are all different, everything you say could be important. Which is why we still read books and engage in dialogue. That is also why someone like Kundera can give you shelter and soothe you with his sentences when no one else in the world can.

in response to: Raising a boy in times of rape

This blog post gives me hope, but patriarchy takes it away.

I do not have children so it would be easy for me to dismiss this problem, citing my lack of progeny, but I won’t. Violence against women is a systemic problem, which we need to understand discursively. That’s the only way to figure how to raise children (not just boys) in these times.

The main motive of these crimes — both sexual and otherwise — is the victim’s gender and the meanings we associate with it. For centuries men have had very fixed ideas about women and how they ought to behave. Their protective/violent behaviour towards us is a means of reinforcing said ideas. Which is why we see men desperately trying to protect their women, trying their best to subjugate the inferior subspecies. Rape is an act of domination. Violence is an act of domination. Protective behaviour is an act of domination.

Women are expected to be weak, docile. Any deviation from this behaviour is seen as an act of transgression. What are we to do, then? We abolish discriminatory practices: we treat people the same, regardless of whether they have a penis or a vagina or neither. We stop celebrating rakshabandhan: it’s a fucked up concept. Then we take it further and kill the protectionist attitude that’s so deeply ingrained in our society. And then perhaps some day men will stop assuming ownership over the women in their lives, and start to treat them like real people. What next? We could then try to stop worshipping women and bring them back to the sphere of the human. When the woman is a complete human again — not a goddess or an object — we could try to let her live her own life as she sees fit. This basic freedom should be every human’s undeniable right, and not just a privilege reserved for men.

So how are we to raise children? I think that now, more than, ever, kids need to be raised to be gender-blind. Educate them about sex — as early in their lives as possible — and tell them what it means to be raped. Tell them that people can be hurt in other ways too, and teach them not to discriminate.