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'You'll have to die to get these texts': Ocean Vuong’s next manuscript to be unveiled in 2114

The Guardian logo The Guardian 19/08/2020 Sian Cain

Ocean Vuong is to become the seventh author in the Future Library, an ongoing art project that sees contemporary writers pen works that will remain unread until 2114, when they will be opened and printed on 1,000 trees currently growing just outside Oslo.

The writer and poet, who was born in Saigon and now lives in Massachusetts, is the author of the novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and the TS Eliot prize-winning poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds.

By contributing a work to the Future Library, conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, Vuong follows in the steps of Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, Elif Shafak, Han Kang and Karl Ove Knausgård, all chosen “for their outstanding contributions to literature and poetry and for their work’s ability to capture the imagination of this and future generations”.

The length of the manuscript is up to the authors, as is its genre. Each author makes the trek to Nordmarka forest, high above Oslo and where 1,000 trees were planted in 2014, to surrender their manuscripts in a short ceremony. For the next century, the manuscripts will be sealed in Oslo’s Deichman public library until 2114, when the trees will be cut down to make the paper on which the 100 manuscripts will be printed – and, finally, read.

Speaking from his home in Massachusetts, where he serves as an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Vuong said he liked the idea of “planting literary seeds”.

“So many of our problems have to do with this Yolo approach – you only live once, use all the resources, forget about the next generation, destroy the world to get what you want. This is something antithetical to that,” he said. “It is less egotistical than regular publishing too. So much of publishing is about seeing your name in the world, but this is the opposite, putting the future ghost of you forward. You and I will have to die in order for us to get these texts. That is a heady thing to write towards, so I will sit with it a while.”

Vuong said he was interested in the idea of being placed alongside future bestselling authors and great literary names who have yet to be born.

“If you look at any literary epoch, who gets carried forward in time is a mystery, still. Melville sold about 1,000 copies of Moby-Dick and now he is the totem of American fiction,” he said. “This is an antidote, to say regardless what happens in market trends, we have a record of what humans have found valuable, the voices we were interested in, for better or worse. It’ll be interesting to see if someone gets quote-unquote ‘cancelled’ or something – they’ll open it up and say, ‘Oh my God, they had this guy in there?!”

Related: Into the woods: Margaret Atwood reveals her Future Library book, Scribbler Moon

The authors are selected by Paterson, who will never read the writing in the library, alongside a trust that will continue the project after her death. “Ocean writes with a radiance unlike any author I know,” Paterson said. “His poetry and prose is raw and fearless, capturing the essence of survival. In a year of unprecedented global suffering, we are fortunate to welcome to Future Library this remarkable writer, a leading voice of the young, LGBT+ immigrant experience.”

Speaking this week, Vuong said he had not started the Future Library work yet, because he has struggled to write during the coronavirus: “We are in a pandemic. We have a highly charged election ahead. I’ve been telling my students on Zoom, it is OK if you don’t write. So I am thinking about it, what I would want to leave behind.”

Maybe I'm being too grim but my main concern is will readers be there? Or will they be in a bunker?

As for his future readers, he said: “Maybe I am being too grim, but my main concern is, will they be there? Or will they be in a bunker?” But this seemed to spark an idea: “Maybe that is something – I could write a story about a group of folks who have heard of the wonderful literature of the past and are trekking through a Norwegian forest in a postapocalyptic world, thinking they’ll find some great tablets – and only finding some poems about being sad.”

All the authors are barred from revealing too many details of their works, though they have divulged a few over the years; Atwood’s manuscript was called Scribbler Moon, while Mitchell’s was a 90-page novella titled From Me Flows What You Call Time.

Due to the pandemic, Knausgård, the last author before Vuong, has been prevented from delivering his manuscript, because the Norwegian author lives in the UK. Organisers said they were planning for a handover ceremony in early September, coronavirus travel restrictions permitting.

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