Refugee Vuong nets global deals for debut novel

Refugee Vuong nets global deals for debut novel

Rights to T S Eliot Prize winner Ocean Vuong’s debut novel have been snapped up around the world, with Jonathan Cape clinching rights to publish it in the UK.

President and editor-in-chief of Penguin Press US, Ann Godoff, snapped up the former refugee’s book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous at auction from Frances Coady at Aragi, for "a substantial sum", The Bookseller understands. Meanwhile Robin Robertson, associate publisher at Jonathan Cape, bought UK rights from Caspian Dennis at Abner Stein. Robertson also edited Vuong’s “remarkable” debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds which scooped the £25,000 T S Eliot Prize in January.

German rights went to Hanser while La Naveo Di Teseo bought Italian rights from Camilla Ferrier at the Marsh Agency. French rights went at auction to Gallimard via Jemma McDonagh at the Marsh Agency, while Danish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish rights are also under offer.

The novel takes the form of a letter written by a son to his mother who cannot read, echoing Vuong’s own early life experiences as a refugee. Narrated by Little Dog, a Vietnamese American in his late twenties, the letter explores a family history rooted in war and displacement, and soon reveals parts of the son’s life his mother can never know.

It is described as “a novel examining American identity through storytelling, class, love and violence, and how we can not only survive trauma but find new life and joy in its aftermath” by a Cape spoksperson.

Robertson told The Bookseller: "Ocean Vuong writes about language and story-telling, race, the aftershocks of war, the refugee experience, domestic violence, PTSD, masculinity and queer sexuality, but he does so without polemics, without the usual hectoring tone. His voice is quiet; so quiet, we physically lean in to listen more closely. And we learn quickly that this is a man whose words are worth close study, because each word is the product of experience and examination."

He added: "The writing is, as many have remarked, searingly beautiful and very moving, but that is often because of the attention he gives to the things he describes." 

Born in a rice farm outside Saigon in 1988, Vuong moved to the US at the age of two, after a year in a refugee camp. He was the first in his immediate family to learn how to read proficiently, at the age of 11.

He wrote the poems that would become part of the Night Sky with Exit Wounds at Brooklyn College while mentored by American poet and novelist Ben Lerner. 

Robertson acquired UK and Commonwealth rights to Night Sky with Exit Wounds from US independent publisher, Copper Canyon Press, in 2016 and described it at the time as "the most unusual first American collection I’ve seen in many years”.

The collection also won the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and in September Vuong scooped the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. His work has been translated into Hindi, Korean, Russian, and Vietnamese.

Vuong now lives in Massachusetts where he is an assistant professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts. A Ruth Lilly fellow and winner of a Pushcart Prize, he has been recognised by the Poets House and the Academy of American Poets.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is slated for publication in the UK in spring or summer next year.