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Writer Ocean Vuong Gets A MacArthur 'Genius' Grant

Writer Ocean Vuong, 30, who teaches at UMass Amherst and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, is among the two dozen recipients of the 2019 MacArthur "genius" awards.

The MacArthur Foundation described Vuong, who grew up in Hartford and teaches at UMass Amherst, as a vital new literary voice "...addressing the complexities of identity and desire."

Vuong's poetry and ficiton writing connects themes of loss, survival and language, writing from the experience of living in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam.

The fellowship is a no-strings-attached $625,000 award. Vuong said it will allow him to take more risks with his work.

"You can push the form and the genre to the limit and see what happens. That is the ultimate gift," Vuong said. "And that will change, hopefully for the better, the way I write and think."

Vuong said he poured much of his and his mother's life story into the 2016 poetry collection "Night Sky with Exit Wounds," and this year's novel, "On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous."

When he told his mother — who he said is largely illiterate in her native language, and in English — about the MacArthur award, she asked if it was a good thing. Vuong assured her it was.

Also this week, UMass Amherst announced it acquired the papers of Daniel Ellsberg, a high-level military strategist turned whistleblower who leaked a secret study of the war in Vietnam to The New York Times. The documents exposed decades of deceit by U.S. policymakers. 

Vuong said he's tentative about seeing what is "the absolute ignoring of human life documented in a state decree," but it's his responsibility and work to go through the documents. 

"It's a great privilege to be able to explore and investigate, and turn them in to something else," he said. "That's what I mean when I say literature is movement, in the sense that literature is also transformation. We take the primary source and then we transform it into something tangible." 

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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