Ocean Vuong
Credit: Tom Hines

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Ocean Vuong at Sixth and I

Grief is a motherfucker, and Ocean Vuong has plumbed the infinite depths of that particular sorrow before. His debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, considers his family’s war-ravaged country, a father’s darkness, and the trauma of a people forced to flee. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, his 2019 New York Times-bestselling novel, is written as a letter from a son to his mother and speaks to abuse, poverty, addiction, and the isolation of its protagonist, a young gay immigrant and Vuong’s fictional surrogate. With Time Is a Mother, Vuong returns to poetry in order to write his mother’s death from cancer and, most significantly, its echoes, sparring with the memories that now make up her ghost. (It’s a process with which his conversation partner Kat Chow, of NPR Code Switch fame, is profoundly familiar—her 2021 memoir Seeing Ghosts reckons with her own mother’s death and the estrangement and necessity of grief.) Recently, in a “love letter” on the event of the January passing of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thầy), Vuong shared an anecdote from his mother’s deathbed in which she asked him to metabolize their pain into knowledge to help others. “I think it is helpful to see sadness, too, as energy,” Vuong writes. “May we let the sadness come and teach us how to live. Let it be the mud for the lotus, as Thầy says. Let us sit with it and let it pass through us so that it might be transformed to something like love. My mother, having learned from Thầy, knew that pain can be recycled into knowledge. Isn’t that what language is?” Vuong and Chow’s conversation starts at 7 p.m. on April 7 at Sixth and I, 600 I St., NW. sixthandi.org. $12-$35. In person and virtual. Proof of vax and mask required.