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.