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TS Eliot Prize winner Ocean Vuong on his incredible journey from refugee to poetry superstar 

Ocean Vuong in London
Vuong is the youngest ever winner of the prestigious £25,000 prize Credit: Paul Grover

When Ocean Vuong speaks, it’s usually in a tone of hushed awe, barely above a whisper, as if afraid of waking from a beautiful dream.

It’s no wonder he’s reluctant to pinch himself. Last week, the Buddhist poet became the youngest ever winner of the TS Eliot Prize, following in the footsteps of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. He has previously scooped a Forward Prize and America’s prestigious Whiting Award. He's even been given his own Royal Mail postmark.

His extraordinary first book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, has made the 29-year-old perhaps the most garlanded poet of his generation. But its success has been “bittersweet,” he says; though his family are proud of the book, they can’t enjoy it themselves. None of them are able to read or write.

Born in Vietnam, Vuong spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines before arriving penniless, aged two, in America. His family of seven shared a single cramped room in Hartford, Connecticut, but were happy. “They felt they were living on borrowed time – time we very well could not have had,” he says. “They don’t manage money very well. They live life with a reckless abandon. Financially it’s tricky, but it taught me a lot about joy.”

Seven soon became six, however, when his father walked out, leaving Vuong to be raised by his mother, grandmother and two aunts (his uncle, only three years older, was more like a brother to him).

The cover of Vuong's book features a picture of himself as a child in a refugee camp, between his mother and aunt

Though his father disappeared from his life, he reappears throughout his writing. “A lot of it is invention, poetic licence,” says Vuong. Reading the Greek epics, he says, “gave me a lot of permission in inventing my own myths… So much of the time, as people come out of migration, history is lost. If you do not have a clear foundation of history, you have to invent it.”

One poem, “Immigrant Haibun”, reimagines the story behind his name. Lost at sea, having fled a burning city, a man tells his pregnant wife, “If we make it to shore… I will name our son after this water.”

He throws my name into the air. I watch the syllables crumble into pebbles across the deck'Immigrant Haibun'

In reality, his mother only renamed him “Ocean” after his father had left them. She first heard the word when someone tried to correct her pronunciation of “beach” (“b-tch”), and politely suggested it as an alternative. “My mother didn’t really know [what it meant], but then she saw that word a few weeks after, on a map at the welfare office. I remember her looking at the map, at Vietnam and the Pacific Ocean – she put her hand on the word 'Ocean', and she renamed me a few days after.

“In Vietnamese culture a lot of people are named after nature,” Vuong continues. “She just thought I would be one Ocean among many. It was pretty tough in the schoolyard; such a large name, for the smallest member of the class. They gave me a lot of trouble for that.”

Though he had a “full and loving childhood”, he was very aware of the many absent fathers around him. “Growing up in Hartford, a black community, my friends’ fathers were in prison,” he says. (Tellingly, one poem in his collection is an imagined letter from a father in jail.) “We grew up with this collective void, and filled it with this performance of hypermasculinity.”

Ocean Vuong: 'Reading with dyslexia, you see the world from a different angle' Credit: Paul Grover

It wasn’t a performance that Vuong – quiet, gay, and looking younger than his years – could pull off. “I was a poor chameleon. Because I couldn’t change my persona in life, I learnt to enter different personas in books,” he says. “The book became a refuge and shelter for me.”

He had planned to join his mother’s business, working 14-hour days in a nail salon, but instead was encouraged to study. “Having one child go off to college in an immigrant family is like throwing a message in a bottle into the sea,” he says. “They turned to me and said, ‘No pressure, but it’s all you now.’”

It’s been a slow journey. At school he battled severe dyslexia, and was 11 before he could read fluently. “It was hellish,” he sighs. “Even now it’s a struggle. Words flip. They say one thing, but I read them as something else.”

Over time, he’s come to see that as an advantage. “So many writers – Octavia Butler, F Scott Fitzgerald, even Flaubert – all struggled with dyslexia, or some kind of learning disability. When a sentence is not so easily received, the reader must break it apart. It becomes something to move, rearrange and handle. You look at the world and the text from a different angle.”

The first time he seriously read poetry, at around 19, was a revelation. “I went wherever the library took me,” he says. “When I encountered Rimbaud, I was like, ‘My god! He wrote this when he was 17?’ I went to find him in the Dewey decimal system, and landed in Europe. That’s where I ended up; Rimbaud, Lorca, Baudelaire... And then Milton and Chaucer. I was reading in an American library, but I didn’t make my way to the American poets for nearly a year. It was a roundabout method, but it was lovely.”

His career as a writer, he tells me, has been “one long accident”. At 18 he left home for business school in New York, with the dream of one day being able to buy a house for his mother. Once there, he fell in love with a law student called Peter (now his partner of more than 10 years) but hated the course, dropping out after just a few weeks.

Coming out to his family as gay had been surprisingly easy, but he couldn’t bear to tell his mother he was a drop-out. “I was so ashamed,” he recalls. After half a year living on his friends’ sofas in New York, scribbling poems for them on postcards, he enrolled at Brooklyn College (“It was cheap!”) to study poetry.

It may have felt like a dangerous decision at the time, but it paid off: “I got lucky with prizes and fellowships, and I saved all the money and put it into a down-payment for my mother’s house. It’s great! She has a garden – and somehow, miraculously, I did it with poetry.”

Vuong’s poems have been translated into Hindi, Russian, Korean and Vietnamese – though he wasn’t tempted to do the Vietnamese version himself. “I don’t have the mastery, the way I do in English,” he says. “I could learn more Vietnamese, but I made a conscious decision not to. The more Vietnamese I learn, the further away I get from my family.

“Their Vietnamese, which I inherited, is at about third-grade level, because their education was interrupted by the war. Because I am so removed from them in the English language, to remove myself further in the Vietnamese language was a distance I couldn’t bear.”

He has returned to Vietnam only once, as a teenager, to bury his grandmother. “It was like going to another planet, or like immigrating again. By then, Vietnam looked like Times Square. This was not the world that my grandmother gave me in her stories... I was searching for a mythology that no longer existed, and it was very tough.”

He is currently writing a semi-autobiographical novel, as a way to bring that mythology back. As its central question, the novel asks, “What does it mean to live in the contemporary world, without forgetting one’s history?”

Speaking in his publisher’s London offices Vuong says he is still “stunned” by his TS Eliot win. He’s feeling buoyant, but isn’t keen to discuss his own book (“by now, it’s fossilised”). Instead, he’d rather enthuse about his favourite British writers: “It’s an incredible, surging moment for British poets – people like Kayo Chingonyi, Jack Underwood, Emily Berry...”

They may not be household names in the UK, says Vuong, but these young writers have found an avid audience in America. “We all know them! While I’ve been here, I’ve had friends [back in the US] asking, ‘Can you bring back another copy of Andrew McMillan’s book?’ For a long time, there’s been a rift across the pond. But now, because of the internet, poems can be shared so rapidly. That wall is collapsing.”

Vuong believes the tumultuous political landscape is a good thing for poetry. “Every revolution has its poets, every disaster has its poets,” he says. “The power of poetry is that it cuts through the BS. You don’t have to talk about the weather, or sport – these things that we use to negotiate silences, all this verbiage.

“We all have private obsessions, fears, concerns, insecurities, and vulnerabilities that it’s hard to find a place for in the public domain. We don’t want to be that guy who brings everyone down! But when a collective collapse happens, we’re too tired of performing the persona of respectable, well-put-together citizen. The veil lifts – and underneath it, poetry was always there.”

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is published by Cape at £10. To order your copy, call or visit books.telegraph.co.uk