The Surreal Trauma of Ocean Vuong’s Queer Diasporic Poetry

By Karen Gwee

Ocean Vuong’s poems make for difficult reading. The gay Vietnamese American’s work may be characterized as a collision of arresting images, non-conventional syntax and deliberately idiosyncratic presentation on the printed page. These reasons are why Vuong’s work is tough to digest, but more often because his poems are abject knots of family, violence, love and sex that emerge from a queer diasporic space, as articulated by Gayatri Gopinath in “Bollywood Spectacle: Queer Diasporic Critique in the Aftermath of 9/11”. The queer, visceral fluidity of his poem “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds” demonstrates how queer diasporic art can thoroughly contest what Gopinath calls “literal and discursive effacement” (Gopinath 164) without constricting their non-normative experiences for normative consumption.

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“Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016). Screenshots from Google Books

I’m not sure if one can definitively describe “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds”, but here goes: a speaker meditates on the form his self-portrait shall take, travelling through different scenes that he may or may not participate in. The entire poem is an imagined journey from the rain-drenched city, to the refugee camp, to the supermarket, and so on. The poem’s non-linear movement between different points in time and space (particularly Vietnamese history, like Ha Long Bay in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive) is made possible by the porosity of borders in a queer diasporic paradigm. In “Self-Portrait”, one makes the imaginative jump from a refuge from destruction – “a shack rusted black & lit with Ba Ngoai’s / last candle” – to a room where people delight in consuming that violence – ”everyone cheering as another / brown gook crumbles under John Wayne’s M16, Vietnam / burning on the screen.” Reading the poem means undergoing a series of displacements and approximating the experience of a diasporic or refugee subject, specifically one that straddles two nations: the aggressor and the aggressed. At the end of the poem, the speaker imagines himself into the position of a “true / Charlie, like the footsteps of ghosts misted through rain”, returning to the poem’s very first image of “the echo to every footstep / drowned out by rain”, but from the opposite side of the conflict. The speaker moves from being the target of destruction to the one who enacts it, completing the poem’s circular trajectory, albeit in a troubling and discomfiting way that continues, instead of concluding, wartime violence.

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Ha Long Bay (Photograph by Karen Gwee, 2013)

In “Self-Portrait”, Vuong foregrounds the consequent damage and trauma America’s wartime violence enacts upon Asian bodies, demonstrating his understanding that for queer diasporic figures, visibility and provocation are often one and the same. Gopinath articulates this in her examination of the naked, queer Asian people in the photographs of British Asian photographer Parminder Sekhon: “Sekhon’s images cull their power from simultaneously evoking both the extreme vulnerability and the defiance of queer racialized bodies as they lay claim to public space” (Gopinath 165). Their presences are not easily consumable as the “threat of physical violence” looms, absent but palpable. In “Self-Portrait”, Vuong makes visible the neglected trauma war visits upon Asian bodies: a Hapa woman looks for paternity in the faces of white men in a supermarket, while the daughters of the grandfather in the army jeep “rise, fingers blistered with salt and Agent Orange.”

In his depictions of these figures, Vuong also makes visible the ways war and diasporic displacement queer reproductive bonds and patrilineal ties. There is something risibly abject about the way the Hapa woman and “future daughters” seek out their fathers through desperate bodily means: the Hapa woman will take a nose as proof of paternity while the daughters lick dog tags to imprint “that name” of their father’s onto their tongues and “relearn the word live, live, live.” By emphasizing the hitherto unseen baggage of their suffering and the ways they negotiate their queer lineage, Vuong thoroughly contests the effacement of these queer, diasporic figures. He affirms what Gopinath has demonstrated in her analysis of Sekhon’s work: that in the queer diasporic paradigm, visibility is hardly ever just the simple act of becoming present where one was once absent.

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Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016), Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection

Vuong nuances the concept of visibility further by rendering ambiguous images. Some of his descriptions appear grounded in reality, like his brutally frank descriptions of wartime destruction and his sharp portrayals of American banality (like “Wonder Bread / & mayonnaise” and “jars of tomato / & blue boxes of pasta”). But the poem is also suffused with surrealism, like the image of a baby “wreathed / with fishgut and Marlboros”, or “the hogs’ faces we held in our hands / & mistook for brothers.” The different scenes are also connected by the repeated performative utterance “let it”, consistently reminding the reader that the speaker performs the entire poem into existence. Vuong’s scenes are at once imagination and reality, real and unreal, believable and unbelievable.

The poem’s deliberate coyness and lack of fixity frustrates any easy reading of its authenticity, a standard often used to judge the validity of diasporic subjectivity. Asian Americans in particular are consistently read as inauthentic Americans at best and perpetual foreigners at worst. If queer diasporic frames of analysis “work to foreground notions of impurity and inauthenticity” (Gopinath 158), Vuong revels in the very instability of authenticity itself. He paints images that are “utterly unintelligible and unimaginable” (Gopinath 167) in mainstream frames of analysis, but refuses to confirm or verify these accounts for the rigid normative gaze.

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