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War baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet

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His grandfather was a US soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese farm girl. But then Saigon fell and the family was blown apart. Ocean Vuong poured it all into Night Sky With Exit Wounds, winning him a Forward prize – and comparisons with Emily Dickinson

There’s a photograph on the jacket of Ocean Vuong’s debut poetry collection of a small boy sitting on a wooden bench. Encircled by the arms of two women in summery cottons, he gazes steadily at the camera.

The elegance is deceptive: it was taken when the family were living in poverty in a refugee camp in the Philippines, en route for the US, after being expelled from Vietnam. Vuong, the only child in the three-generation exodus, was two years old. A fellow refugee was bartering photographs for food. “That picture cost my family three tins of rice, according to my mother,” he says. “Each of us gave up our ration just to be seen.”

He took a degree in international marketing but quit after eight weeks. ‘I was so tired of learning how to lie’

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