Literary and Literal Bodies: Vietnamese American Form, Affect, and Politics in Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Tran, Mannhi Nguyen
Since the institutionalization of Asian American Studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the definition of “Asian American” has been under constant revision in response to changes in immigration policies and, consequently, to shifts in class, ethnic, sexuality, and gender demographics. Asian America’s original reliance on identity politics for sociopolitical progress consequently produced reading practices that prioritized referential correlations and idealized positions of resistance in relation to hegemonic U.S. politics. Pushing against the reactionary limitations of this bias, the field’s growing interests in aesthetics emphasize the discursive constructedness of the Asian American category and argue that Asian American literature should be (re)approached as works of art rather than as political statements.Vietnamese American literature has mostly eluded the debate between politics and aesthetics, primarily concerned with processing and resolving the geopolitical consequences of the Vietnam War. Given the violences inflicted upon the Vietnamese body during war, embodiment is inherently embedded in Vietnamese American literary representations. For Vietnamese American literature, the human body and its affective experiences emphasize the necessarily dialectic relationship between embodiment and deconstruction. Beginning with the scholarships of Dorothy Wang, Rachel Lee, and Marguerite Nguyen, I argue that an affective literary form emerges from Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Vuong engages with the Vietnamese body, particularly that of the Vietnamese American refugee working class woman, and the literary body of Vietnamese American and canonical American forms to register the unspeakable subjectivities of contemporary Vietnamese America.I interrogate the formal choices of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, particularly the protocols of the epistle and the memoir, and the ways in which Vuong inherits and transforms these narrative structures using mechanisms of poetry and tonal shifts of the Vietnamese language to (1) challenge the linearity and atomistic qualities of time in approaching history and (2) expand the spatial or geographical framework for Vietnamese America. I argue that the novel’s expansion of the historical context for Vietnamese America produces a narrative form that coheres affectively rather than sequentially to de-exceptionalize Vietnamase America with a relational positionality that considers other communities of marginalized identity and their correlated histories.
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