The acclaimed Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong has hit back with humour after perplexed Australian year 12 students bombarded him on social media complaining about his “confusing” text in their final English exam.
More than 60,000 New South Wales HSC students sitting their English paper one exam on Tuesday were given excerpts to analyse from Vuong’s award-winning 2019 debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
The non-linear coming-of-age novel draws on Vuong’s own family story. It is told from the perspective of a character called Little Dog, the son of Vietnamese immigrants to the US, and is framed in the style of a letter to his illiterate mother.
One of the extracts given to the HSC students feature Little Dog plucking grey hairs from his grandmother’s head as she regales him with stories, while another involves the protagonist engaging in a romance with a book.
After the exam, the author, who has received a 2016 Whiting award and the 2017 TS Eliot prize for his poetry, received a deluge of messages to his Instagram from baffled students asking what his text means.
Sharing the messages on Instagram stories, Vuong wrote back to one student: “Meaning… I, too, am haunted by it.”
Vuong took the complaints in his stride, posting a picture of a dog with the caption: “yo, what the hell is an HSC exam and why are all of y’all failing it?”
He also shared more messages, along with ripostes.
“UR TEXT WAS GOOD BUT SO CONFUSING,” wrote one student.
“MISSION ACCOMPLISHED,” quipped Vuong.
“So u da one that got us all fucked up,” wrote another student.
“Don’t let ’em tell you literature can’t change lives,” Vuong responded.
Another message appeared to blame Vuong for scuppering their chances at higher education: “Ur text was in our major exams in Australia.. Those exams determine our entry into university ... WTF WAS UR TEXT.”
Vuong responded: “Yikes, next time quote from the opening chapter of William Empson’s ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ on the slipperyness of language and its destabilized meanings as a convincing and robust alternative answer. Good luck, blokes.”
When a student’s mother joined the post-exam pile-on (“Can you send me more information? My son tried to write about your text today and he still didn’t know what it’s about”), Vuong exclaimed: “Guys, they got the MOMS out here digging hard in my DMs. Don’t y’all have Spark Notes in Australia?”
Later, Vuong posted another Instagram Story saying: “For what it’s worth, I didn’t get into ‘uni’ either out of high school. I went to a local community college where I did some of my best learning (I was introduced to Foucault and Annie Dillard in Comp 101!).”
In 2017, Indigenous writer Ellen van Neerven received abusive messages on social media from NSW HSC students after her poem Mango was featured in the English paper one exam. The NSW Educations Standard Authority called on the students to apologise.