Failing Better: A Conversation with Ocean Vuong
By Viet Thanh NguyenJune 24, 2019
This interview includes an edited version of our conversation at the event, followed by a selection of audience questions from the ensuing Q-and-A.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” is one of my favorite poems of yours, and I thought, I could never write a poem like that because I could never actually put my own name into my work. Yet it seems to me that this poem typifies so much of your writing, because it seems very courageous to confront yourself directly like this, but also it contains so much of your own voice, with trademark stylistic, futuristic, beautiful images. Was it a hard poem for you to write?
OCEAN VUONG: It was hard but necessary. I think, as a writer, when you approach that feeling, when you cross this threshold where risk is inevitable, where everything you’ve lived through demands you move into that precarious space, it embodies its own momentum. So I don’t know if it was hard. Terrifying, yes, but I’m not sure if I’m courageous in that sense, only that my sense of urgency outpaces my terror. That’s how I get the work done, with the knowledge that so many people — queer, brown people — before me didn’t get a chance to speak, or whose actual bodies were erased because of speaking. So when I approach the poem, I feel like there’s this burning desire to get it through, to speak, and I think sometimes that desire surpasses the terror. I always feel like I’m writing to the terrified versions of myself, and I figured, if I’m going to do it, why don’t I just really do it here in this poem, really go in.
Well, I think that’s an impulse that gives such tremendous force and power to the poetry. I just want to read you one quotation from someone who wrote about you in The Rumpus magazine. This writer says that “[Ocean’s] gift is not for avocados and fresh laundry, but for shocking the most jaded of readers with devastating earnestness.” Do you like that description of yourself as a poet?
You know, I love it. I think, when I write a book, that I create my private town square, in a way, and readers, if I’m lucky to have them, meet there and do whatever they want. You build this space and a reader steps in, and whatever they see is part of their interaction with it. I can’t tell them that it’s wrong, or it’s off, because that’s how I, as a reader, feel most liberated: when I come to my own conclusions.
If Whitman came back from the dead and said, “‘Song of Myself’ is actually about baseball,” it wouldn’t make the text any less true. We would still have already taken what we needed from it, had this dialogue with the writer. I think, ultimately, reader and writer are always creating. And I think that, as long as we’re reading, we’re making spaces, we’re making the spaces in relation to ourselves. Like in your novel, The Sympathizer, you created a universe based on history, but you created this parallel space where we now move through history, we embody it. We’re pulling it through and we’re in the entire world of this person. We surrender so much to it. And yet we participate, “Well, how am I empathetic with this person whose life is so different from mine? Or, whose life is in a temporal space that I never got to live through?” I think that’s the power, because we’re always having a dialogue.
I think there’s certainly the sense that there is an Ocean Vuong in the book, as a persona, an Ocean Vuong the poet, a persona separate from you as an individual and as a writer. It’s a very seductive persona, at least for me, seeing you read, seeing you perform. The poems are exhilarating and your performance is very powerful and moving. I think that maybe one of the reasons why we resonate, because we’ve shared a lot of bonding time talking about how we’re Vietnamese-American writers and these identities are important to us. I think one of the things that we share, going back to this question of earnestness, and whether or not it’s really a completely accurate description of your entire work, is that I think we’re also both committed to what you have said in one of your poems, which is that your work is to say the unsayable.
Do you remember this? You brought up the issue of voice, about the opportunity to speak that other people don’t have, especially poets of color. To me, looking at your biography and what you’ve spoken about, it seems that this impulse to say the unsayable, this urgent drive toward honesty, this drive toward earnestness, if that describes one part of what you do, is rooted in some of your own biographical experiences. For a poet, you have a great origin story. You should fill in some of the blanks, but coming here at two years old, as a refugee, to Hartford, Connecticut, and with an illiterate family, and you didn’t learn how to read until you were 11.
Yeah, well, I didn’t learn how to read well until I was 11. I was in the school system, and I struggled. My family actually struggles with learning disabilities: my brother is dyslexic, and I think part of that forced me to slow down. I think it forces us to read in that participatory way that I spoke about, where we’re not reading to get these sort of pillaging answers, or theses, but we’re reading to be inhabited, to be inhabited by the text, the text as weather, as world, and I think I was forced to do that.
We think of origin stories, and I understand that in the literary context, in this privileged space of the literary world, my life is very “unique.” But I think the reality for myself is that our entire history as a species has been wrought with violence and displacement. So, in fact, it’s a very common trope, and yet, few of us get to be here to speak, people like you and me. And I think we share that urgency, at least what I feel in your work, but there are many people with much more interesting lives that just didn’t get to speak. The person with the next great book is washing dishes, bent over at a nail salon, rubbing people’s feet, working in a factory, and that’s where a lot of my family are from. I feel very privileged to be able to be here and have this book as a technology, as a vessel. And that’s what it is to me: a sort of vessel that we get to speak with. But I don’t know if it’s special or unique to me. I think there are so many more lives that are special that get lost without being articulated.
You and I share a common background in terms of being refugees, and being displaced, although your refugee experience is very different from mine. Even though I was a refugee and my parents were not educated — they didn’t go to college, for example — I was raised with all the benefits that would lead me to becoming a writer. A very good school, and all of this kind of stuff, whereas you, when I’m saying that you have a great origin story, you didn’t have those kinds of benefits. Even though you’re pointing to people who’d wash dishes and so on, you yourself didn’t come with these kinds of literal advantages.
I worked in a tobacco farm.
Yeah, you worked in a tobacco farm, and you worked in the nail salon a little bit with your mother as well, right? I think that the shared experience as refugees helped turn us into writers, certainly it did for me. I want to read a little bit more from your biography, how someone said about you, “He always wanted to know more, but his elders resisted going too far.” You were asking your parents, and your grandmother, about this history, and they didn’t want to talk about it, right?
Right, right. I think a lot of first- and second-generation immigrants and refugees experience this sort of sense of, when we look back and ask, and interrogate the survival of our elders, it is seen as an act of betrayal in many ways. “Why are you interrogating my pain when I moved here to make you happy, when I moved here for you to have a happy life? Why are you interrogating what I survived?” I think there’s a discrepancy there, a disconnect, a distance. I had to explain that to my family, that I’m doing this to preserve that act of survival. Maybe they’ll never understand, really, but that’s the confrontation.
My mother doesn’t speak English, and she went to one of my readings. This was in Hartford, and we’re in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center of all places, and the reading’s over, and I go back with her, and I see she’s crying. I said, “Mom? You didn’t understand, couldn’t understand. Why are you crying?” And she said, “I never thought I’d live to see all these old white people clapping for my son.” When I give a reading, I don’t think about that. It doesn’t come to my head, and that’s where we’re different, right? Then I remembered that here’s a woman who kneels down, lowers her head every day to old white people while she’s doing their pedicures, that’s her job, that’s part of her livelihood, and that act, although it’s a fair and equal exchange, is not nothing. There’s meaning in that act of supplication, this head lowered just to do the very practical act of giving a pedicure. I think for the first time they were also clapping for her.
There’s a moment in one of your essays where you talk about your uncle, who was only a few years older than you. He was also working in the nail salon, and he spoke English, but he was shy, he never said anything. The customers in the salon would talk about him as if he didn’t understand, and they were … What were they saying?
“What a shame, he would be … He’s so young, what a waste…” This is someone … I’m sorry.
The essay spoke about your uncle committing suicide, and you went into that. It was a powerful essay. I bring it up, along with the relationship to your mother, because I think this is a very common experience for Vietnamese people, but also refugees, immigrants, who come and work these kinds of jobs — they’re just furniture in these kinds of places, to service people. That’s why I’ve only ever actually gone to a Vietnamese nail salon once. It was an uncomfortable experience, because I could converse with the woman doing my pedicure, the only time I’ve ever had a pedicure, but every other customer was not Vietnamese. I thought, “I don’t want to be serviced by Vietnamese people in this way for the very reasons that you’re talking about.”
And the pronouns make it possible, or rather, the derangement of pronouns, when the person lowering themselves before you is a cô or chị (big aunt, big sister), and all of a sudden, it’s very difficult to speak to an elder, to speak down to an elder. I think this is part of the reason it was so difficult for me to teach my mother to read. I tried, but how does a son direct a mother? The only grounding she has in this country where she is often mute, often invisible, often beneath others, is to be a mother. “That’s my son. I made that.” So for me to be this authority figure fractures the last remaining tether that we have. So I let it go, and we speak through presence. Also, my mother’s Vietnamese is fifth-grade level at best. I had to learn, living in an illiterate family, to communicate through presence.
For the Vietnamese, a lot of love is articulated through service. We don’t say, I love you. We cook, we massage, we cạo gió, we scratch each other’s backs. It’s always this action, and it started to inform the way I thought about language — that language is embodied, language is carried. I think that’s how I maneuver the rhythms in my work. The intuitive moments of the line break, the silences, the pauses, the alliteration, all of that is finding an embodied movement of language, carrying the language, which is why I seldom write. I carry, and then I walk, and I interrogate, and have this friction with the line. The writing is the last part for me.
Now, I don’t know for sure what is autobiographical or not autobiographical in your work, but the persona is autobiographical. When you write, do you feel a tension between the act of making poetry and the act of autobiography? Do you feel there’s a potential violation or extraction taking place if you do pull material out of lives that are not your own?
Yeah, it’s a tension that I have as an artist. But I do think that at the end of the day we inherit the genes of our elders. We also inherit their personalities, and their stories. It’s interesting that you turned to fiction. My genesis with the storytelling in my family is that I would do this thing where I would take. My grandmother would get me to pluck her white hairs out. This is very common in Vietnamese, nhổ tóc ngứa. It’s like there’s like a euphemism that they’ll say, “Oh, take out my itchy hairs.” They don’t say white hairs, right? They’re like, itchy hairs. She’ll say, “Oh, come take out grandma’s itchy hairs, I’m so itchy.” It’s vanity in the guise of service, which is how everything works in a Vietnamese household.
She would sit between my legs, and I would get sleepy, I was six or seven, and to get me to keep going, she would tell me a story. She would tell me ghost stories, knowing that if I heard a ghost story, immediately I’d be alert. But the ghost story was also her story, the story of history. She’s telling a ghost story, but all of a sudden, now there are bombs, now there are gunshots, now there’s a house on fire. Now, where did your mother come from? What did I do when I met your mother’s father? Where do your aunts come from? There was this village over here, and over there, there was this girl. All of a sudden, we’re back into that world, these blank walls of Hartford became this sort of time capsule. Likewise, you hear the story over and over, and each time the story changes a little bit.
By the time you get to the ghost, it was almost an afterthought. The mythology that she created becomes an architecture for remembering and preserving, and ultimately, an act of inheritance. For me, myth-making, we can go all the way back to Homer. Homer wrote the Iliad 400 years after the Trojan War. So what did he invent, and what did he inherit? If he decided to be silent, we would lose everything about him, and that war, and his people and what they valued. And so, I see the inheritance of a story like the inheritance of an object that we create, except the neat thing is that it’s continuously being shaped and reshaped each time it’s told.
It reminds me of something you wrote about in that essay for The Rumpus, about your uncle. In the essay, you were talking about your uncle’s suicide, but you’re also talking about fire escapes in New York City. The poem, like the fire escape, as feeble and thin as it is, has become my most concentrated architecture of resistance, a place where I can be as honest as I need to be, but I still have my body and with it, these words. Then, in another passage, I think this is actually from your poems, you said the body is the book, and one needs the body. I want to get to that, that connection between the body and writing, because it seems very, very important in your work. Obviously, the body as a theme, as a motif, and what the body does, is omnipresent. What is the relationship between the body and writing? Why is the body the book, and why does one need the body in order to write?
I think a lot of times the way critics have carried other bodies of work, other texts, is often through the amputation of the person from the text itself. Think of how Harold Bloom praises John Ashbery’s work but in many ways ignores, or at worst rejects, his homosexuality, his queerness. We would know by reading the work that those things are intertwined — how can you separate one part of a writer from his text?
That perhaps is clearest in the act of storytelling, which is how literature began. The first stories were our ancestors waiting for the meat to cook on the fire, looking up at the stars, making up a story. From that story, we get to know their joys, their terrors, what they cared about. Suddenly, it wasn’t only about the story. It was about them. It was a DNA of their personhood articulated on the page. When I see a book, I see the fingerprint, the mental and emotional fingerprint of a person on the page. Without language, we wouldn’t have that, just like without the body, we wouldn’t have the language. To me, it’s intertwined, and I think that, when we start to value text as much as we value bodies, we start to understand a more holistic idea of what a person is, and perhaps value them more or better.
The body of the poet is definitely involved in the poetry itself, and in the book, the body of Ocean Vuong is involved with the bodies of your new readers there, and the bodies of other men. It’s a very important subject for the book. There’s one moment where you say, “To love another man is to leave no one behind to forgive me. I want to leave no one behind.” I wonder if you can unpack those lines for me.
For me, there’s so much there, and I don’t want to be coy, but I hesitate laying it all “out,” because in many ways that would take away from what a reader got from it. The text is an object, and we all get to inhabit it and interact with it, but if I insist that this is my meaning, if I start to claim it, I almost undo what I’ve done by offering it into the world — I start to take it back. To me, this is the antithesis of what it means to be a writer in communication with the world, as opposed to a writer in communication with himself in a notebook, or a diary, or something like that.
Okay, I’m still going to ask you about the poetry, though, because I’m a critic, and now I’m in the role of an interviewer, so I have to ask you something. If you tell me you’re not going to answer, I’m going to have to go back at it again. Here’s another passage from your poetry that really stood out for me: “How one night after backhanding my mother, then, taking a chainsaw to the kitchen table, my father went to kneel in the bathroom until we heard his muffled cries through the walls, and so I learned that a man in climax was the closest thing to surrender.” Beautiful, and violent, and a sexual set of images — which, again, I think is a fair way of describing much of what happens in your poetry. As we were talking about this in advance, I said, “Oh, was this hard to write, because it seems to be autobiographical?” Obviously, autobiographically, you have spoken of your father outside of the poetry as well, but you were telling me that you also made up parts of these things in this section. You don’t have to tell us what you did or didn’t make up.
Again, I’m curious about that relationship — trying to mediate between what you know readers will know of your autobiography and the construction of a scene, or of the narrator in a particular poem. For me, the force of this, besides its power as a set of images, is that invocation of the father and this very violent act that he’s doing, this very secret act that he’s doing at the same time.
I think going back to the idea, the word “poet” in the Greek is a “creator,” and I think, for myself, I see the act of the imagination in service of larger questions. And so, as a poet, I often invent these spaces based on truths. We go back to Dickinson’s age-old model of model of tell the truth but tell it slant. In that scene particularly, I was interested in seeing fatherhood, and my father particularly, as an entire person despite what he feels comfortable displaying. I was questioning masculinity and the vulnerabilities inherent in performing masculinity, and how that starts to collapse and break down into violent ruptures.
I think these scenes, they’re always in service of this question, and I think I prioritize that last moment — what does it mean for a man to destroy within his family and then to escape through pleasure and climax? What is that for me? I think it’s this moment of surrender, it’s this moment of letting go of himself, because the society and the culture have created a space where he can no longer perform in it. It’s actually a straitjacket of masculinity. What does it mean when you have to look up to him to be a man, what do you inherit then? For me, I tried to inherit not necessarily what he performed, but where he failed, where it fell apart, because that’s a lesson, too.
We live in a culture, I think, where failure is immediately doomed, or blacklisted. But for me, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to reimagine and redefine failure for ourselves. What does it mean to fail well, to fail better?
This poem worked for me both as a poem and as a commentary on Vietnamese-American masculinity, which I’m pretty familiar with, too. I think that your explanation renders clear for the audience that this is what a lot of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American men face, that straitjacket of heterosexual masculinity, and then, they take it out on everybody else …
And also, trauma. I think a lot of this has been ignored, how Vietnam is such a small, localized space, no bigger than California, with thousands of years of warfare. And so, what does that mean when destruction and loss have inhabited this extremely small space? What does it mean for the art, for the body? We know through epigenetics that trauma is embodied, we inherit it. A lot of Vietnamese men suffer from mental illness, my uncle included. There’s a reason why, all of a sudden, these people living through PTSD now have to perform these domestic acts, and they can’t do it. I think that’s often ignored in the drinking, in the violence. They’re struggling, and I think that’s what I wanted to examine.
As I grew up in America, I started to see these white men experience similar struggles, where they started to fear this idea of failing at masculinity, when they are already men, but they’re failing. “No homo,” right? What happens is that you lose intimacy between men, and thus you lose the humanity that men get to express. I started to see that connection between these two spaces, and how men exist in a space.
Well, I still have a lot of questions, but I know audience members probably have questions, too. I want to turn it over to the audience and see what you all have for Ocean Vuong.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for your beautiful reading. When I examined your work, I tried to figure out how it’s done, and you explained a little bit about alliteration and embodying it. I’m still wondering if there’s something you’re trying to achieve, like maybe a sentence that has no period, or something that is just moving, or trying to be as expressive of as many ideas crammed into one sentence. Even hearing your reading, I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know if it’s being done on purpose, or if it’s just the way it naturally flows.
OCEAN VUONG: I think why I fell in love with poetry was that it allowed freedom in articulation. And so, what does it mean when a poem ends without a period? What does that mean for the voice? Was it cut off? Was it unfinished? All of a sudden, the removal of punctuation adds those questions, amplifies those concerns. I believe in one of Whitman’s versions of Leaves of Grass, after “Song of Myself,” he left out the period by accident. I thought that was the best version, because it ends with, “I stop somewhere waiting for you,” with no period. I have to participate in that perioding. I think formal manipulations add meaning the way body adds meaning, the way we sit, the way we talk, our voice, all those pressures are also language.
The way you touch someone, the pressure of the hand on the skin, that’s language. We all know that. I think that, when the poem starts to investigate form — and break form, redefine form — it’s a radical act of reinvention and articulating beyond language. Think of Dickinson, her famous slashes, the dashes. For me, in the context of a patriarchal structure, where all the men around her at that time were silencing her, rejecting her voice and imagination, what does the dash mean? It’s this moment of visceral response, when language is not enough, I have this. This is my attempt to keep speaking. I think she had to knife the page in order to speak again on the left margin. When we look at this form, everything matters. Everything matters about it, and I think poetry allows for that space for me.
AUDIENCE: I came here young, too, and was wondering, was it difficult for you to go to a school where your first language was basically English, and your second was at home? How was it? Was it an easy translation?
OCEAN VUONG: It was very difficult, because my family didn’t speak English, and so by the time I was five and starting school, I didn’t speak English. I remember trying to fake it. They would recite the national anthem, and I would just move my lips along and wait for the pauses. You just learn a way to blend in in order to make it to the next hour, the next class. I think, on the other hand, that struggle, that demand to be perspicacious and attentive to the world, in the end trained me to observe as an artist. Nothing could be left out, because looking at the world was how you survive the world. Looking carefully at the world is how you thrive in the world, knowing where you belong, knowing where you’re safe, all of that.
Du Bois talked about double consciousness, and that’s very rooted in how I felt as a young person. In a way, maybe this is the silver lining, in that I feel like I was training my whole life to be a poet, and how to observe the world. I always think of the Simone Weil quote where she says, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” That’s what I feel as an artist, but I would edit that quote to not say rarest, but most common and purest form of generosity. What happens when we turn attention into a common thing, when we start to see each other more carefully, and more thoroughly? I think that’s my larger question, and poetry is just one way of serving that.
AUDIENCE: I wanted to ask about writing about heritage. It feels absolutely terrifying to me. My mom defected from the Shanghai Ballet so she could be American and have that sort of life. There’s so much trauma, as you discussed, there. It seems like, if you write about that, you’re taking on a filial weight. There’s so much responsibility to get it right, or do it justice. How do you deal with that?
OCEAN VUONG: There is the obligation, but for myself, I felt informed by their story. And so, if someone were to ask me, what is your canon, who are the writers that you admire? On my imaginary bookshelf, it would be Dickinson, Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin, my grandmother, without skipping a beat. I do believe she is right up there. If we are having dialogue with our heroes, how do we not have dialogues with the people who informed us and gave us a story, but also flesh? For me, the ultimate act of betrayal is to turn away from that story, turn away from that light. Even when they reject it, when they reject your act, you have to find this commitment to yourself beyond that.
Sometimes, it’s a silent commitment, but in order to write, every word is your way of moving forward, and you have to make that commitment. It’s not easy, but you have to find a way to do it.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Do you think writing your poetry has brought you closer to your family, or alienated you from your family?
OCEAN VUONG: Both, in the sense that the more words I know, the further I move away from them. The more I educate myself, the larger my vocabulary, whether it’s in Vietnamese or English, I move further away from my family, who are not as educated as I am. There’s this actual distancing. On the other hand, through the work, through these questions, it allowed me to be with them, to ask them, and in a way enter their lives again, where even they didn’t want to. In your book Nothing Ever Dies, you talked about Toni Morrison’s idea of “re-memories.” What do we mean when we create a novel, when we create a text as a re-memory?
I think I got to do that for them, with them. I do think of it as an act of collaboration, ultimately. I’m the first to read and write in my family, but I’m not the first poet, I always say that. There’s one name on the book, but it’s everyone there.
AUDIENCE: I was just wondering, we have two artists on the stage with shared experiences, who chose to express their art and their truth through writing, but one chose prose, and one chose verse. One chose to write almost autobiographically, and the other through fiction that was influenced by their family stories, or their unwillingness to share the stories. I was wondering if you could talk about that choice, both of you. Whether it’s commenting on each other’s choices, or your own choice.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Me first? Okay. You had asked me earlier, Ocean, if I ever wrote poetry, and I said, “Yes, in college, and it was very bad poetry.” It was sort of like Ocean Vuong poetry, it’s like, “Oh, let me talk about my personal life and let me talk about history in this very naked and emotional way.” I just felt that I wasn’t very good at it. I wasn’t very good at getting close to my emotions in a naked form, or even the pretense of a naked form. For me, in a strange way, I was the kind of writer who needed distance from myself in order to access myself, because like Ocean, I do believe that one of the writer’s tasks is to say the unsayable, but there are different strategies on how to get there.
In my case, it was through constructing a fictional persona who is nothing like me, biographically, but who was like me emotionally and intellectually. I could use the fiction as a mask to give access to the truth that was inside of me, and to say the unsayable in that way. I wasn’t the kind of writer who wanted to say the unsayable about my own life and my own family, but I wanted to say the unsayable about history, culture, politics. That’s a very different kind of unspeakable thing, but I think it takes a lot of courage to do what Ocean does, which I couldn’t do myself.
OCEAN VUONG: I could say the same to you. Well, I wrote one book of poems, but I don’t see myself as only a poet, don’t see the genre as these fixed borders. For me, genre is as fluid as gender, as sexuality. I’ve been curious about what would happen in prose. For me, poetry was intimate particularly because of the breaking of language, the fracturing of syntactic pressures. That made sense to me. As the outsider relearning the language, we often stutter, we often double back. We have pauses. For me, poetry became this language of outsiderhood. I’m thinking of Paul Celan, who as a German-speaking Holocaust survivor decided to write, and continue to write, in German, but in order to do that, he had to derange the syntax to the point where it was no longer even barely legible as German.
He created this third language for himself as a way forward. I think poetry was attractive to me because it allowed me to stutter, because I’ve always been stuttering, in my mind, in my sentences, in the way I think, as ellipses. Our very history is full of ghosts and erasures. And so, poetry, for me, was ultimately a craft of erasure, a craft of breaking, but I don’t feel fixed in it. For me, the larger question is: How do I navigate the intersections of violence as an American body, a queer American body? How do I reckon with that history moving forward? I’m interested in what happens when form collapses, when it hits the point where it obliterates itself, and yet it has to continue.
Because that’s what I feel like right now, as an American citizen. We have hit a point where everything is collapsing, and yet time moves just as fast as before, and so we are continuing to move through time, being carried by it without any choice. My question for myself as an artist is: Now what? What will you do to honor total obliteration and yet still have a life to work with? I am writing prose as well now, and it’s a space where I feel I get to expand on the same questions that I had in poetry.
Photo of Ocean Vuong by Tom Hines.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His latest book is a collection of stories, The Refugees.
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