Virtually flying over the Sacred Forest I got lost. I heard lots of voices. I thought I was going to drown in oceans of poetry …
“Reading and writing, like any other crafts, come to the mind slowly, in pieces. But for me, as an E.S.L. student from a family of illiterate rice farmers, who saw reading as snobby, or worse, the experience of working through a book, even one as simple as “Where the Wild Things Are,” was akin to standing in quicksand, your loved ones corralled at its safe edges, their arms folded in suspicion and doubt as you sink.
My family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1990, when I was two. We lived, all seven of us, in a one-bedroom apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, and I spent my first five years in America surrounded, inundated, by the Vietnamese language. When I entered kindergarten, I was, in a sense, immigrating all over again, except this time into English. Like any American child, I quickly learned my ABCs, thanks to the age-old melody (one I still sing rapidly to myself when I forget whether “M” comes before “N”). Within a few years, I had become fluent—but only in speech, not in the written word.
One early-spring afternoon, when I was in fourth grade, we got an assignment in language-arts class: we had two weeks to write a poem in honor of National Poetry Month. Normally, my poor writing abilities would excuse me from such assignments, and I would instead spend the class mindlessly copying out passages from books I’d retrieved from a blue plastic bin at the back of the room. The task allowed me to camouflage myself; as long as I looked as though I were doing something smart, my shame and failure were hidden. The trouble began when I decided to be dangerously ambitious. Which is to say, I decided to write a poem.
“Where is it?” the teacher asked. He held my poem up to the fluorescent classroom lights and squinted, the way one might examine counterfeit money. I could tell, by the slowly brightening room, that it had started to snow. I pointed to my work dangling from his fingers. “No, where is the poem you plagiarized? How did you even write something like this?” Then he tipped my desk toward me. The desk had a cubby attached to its underside, and I watched as the contents spilled from the cubby’s mouth: rectangular pink erasers, crayons, yellow pencils, wrinkled work sheets where dotted letters were filled in, a lime Dum Dum lollipop. But no poem. I stood before the rubble at my feet. Little moments of ice hurled themselves against the window as the boys and girls, my peers, stared, their faces as unconvinced as blank sheets of paper.
Weeks earlier, I’d been in the library. It was where I would hide during recess. Otherwise, because of my slight frame and soft voice, the boys would call me “pansy” and “fairy” and pull my shorts around my ankles in the middle of the schoolyard. I sat on the floor beside a tape player. From a box of cassettes, I chose one labelled “Great American Speeches.” I picked it because of the illustration, a microphone against a backdrop of the American flag. I picked it because the American flag was one of the few symbols I recognized.
Through the headset, a robust male voice surged forth, emptying into my body. The man’s inflections made me think of waves on a sea. Between his sentences, a crowd—I imagined thousands—roared and applauded. I imagined their heads shifting in an endless flow. His voice must possess the power of a moon, I thought, something beyond my grasp, my little life. Then a narrator named the man as a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I nodded, not knowing why a doctor was speaking like this. But maybe these people were ill, and he was trying to cure them. There must have been medicine in his words—can there be medicine in words? “I have a dream,” I mouthed to myself as the doctor spoke. It occurred to me that I had been mouthing my grandmother’s stories as well, the ones she had been telling me ever since I was born. Of course, not being able to read does not mean that one is empty of stories.
My poem was called “If a Boy Could Dream.” The phrases “promised land” and “mountaintop” sounded golden to me, and I saw an ochre-lit field, a lushness akin to a spring dusk. I imagined that the doctor was dreaming of springtime. So my poem was a sort of ode to spring. From the gardening shows my grandmother watched, I’d learned the words for flowers I had never seen in person: foxglove, lilac, lily, buttercup. “If a boy could dream of golden fields, full of lilacs, tulips, marigolds . . .”
I knew words like “if” and “boy,” but others I had to look up. I sounded out the words in my head, a dictionary in my lap, and searched the letters. After a few days, the poem appeared as gray graphite words. The paper a white flag. I had surrendered, had written.
Looking back, I can see my teacher’s problem. I was, after all, a poor student. “Where is it?” he said again.
“It’s right here,” I said, pointing to my poem pinched between his fingers.
I had read books that weren’t books, and I had read them using everything but my eyes. From that invisible “reading,” I had pressed my world onto paper. As such, I was a fraud in a field of language, which is to say, I was a writer. I have plagiarized my life to give you the best of me.“
Ocean Vuong, a poet and essayist, is the author of “Night Sky with Exit Wounds.”
[CHILDHOOD READING JUNE 6 & 13, 2016 ISSUE, read at www.newyorker.com ]