Vietnam re-evaluating Ocean Vuong novel's 'pornographic' controversies

By Ha Thu   May 7, 2024 | 04:48 pm PT
Vietnam re-evaluating Ocean Vuong novel's 'pornographic' controversies
The Vietnamese translation of "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" by Ocean Vuong. Photo courtesy of Nha Nam
The Vietnamese publisher of Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” has been ordered to “re-evaluate” the novel’s “pornographic” content after a local school gave the book to 11th graders.

Nguyen Nguyen, head of the Authority of Publication, Printing and Distribution said on Tuesday the request came amid controversies regarding whether the novel, which has won a slew of international awards, was "pornographic."

"For books with sexual elements, the use of artistic expression is necessary, and there is no need to be too uptight," Nguyen said. "Fundamentally, books which have been approved for publication are all good ones. But whether those books are appropriate for students or not, that’s another story."

Representatives of the Writers' Association Publishing House and the Nha Nam Publishing and Communications company, which jointly published the Vietnamese American author's novel, have so far declined to comment on the matter.

Previously, on May 2, a post on an online group for parents of the International School Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC)'s students said a teacher had handed out the novel to students. The writer of the post wrote that they were "flabbergasted" to see the contents of the book, and that it had "pornographic content."

The same evening, ISHCMC said it had taken back 19 copies of the novel.

The school also said it was evaluating the process of how such works were recommended to students.

The book was part of a reference reading list, which included works in different languages, including Vietnamese. The list was introduced by the International Baccalaureate program.

The Department of Education has also requested the school to discipline the teacher who handed out the books.

Nguyen said several teachers, especially those at international schools, have difficulties choosing reference books for students due to the lack of a standardized reference reading list.

The Authority of Publication, Printing and Distribution, cooperating with the Publishers’ Association, has created a list of 900 reference reading books for students from first to sixth grades.

Regarding the incident at ISHCMC, Nguyen said the root cause of the issue stemmed from parents’ opinions. Some families are more open and accepting of their children learning more about sexual matters, while other families are not.

In accordance with existing publication regulations, only books for children are classified into a separate category. Publication for adults is categorized at the discretion of editors in chief and publishers. Books for adults globally are rarely labeled as well, he added.

"On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous", published in 2022 in Vietnam, is Vuong’s debut novel. It was first published in the U.S. in 2019 and won various accolades - winning the American Book Awards in 2020, being a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction.

Ocean Vuong, whose Vietnamese name is Vuong Quoc Vinh, is a 36-year-old poet and novelist. He was born in HCMC and grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. He has won several prestigious literary awards, including the TS Eliot Prize, The Narrative and the Stanley Kunitz award.

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