Queer and Diasporic in Vietnamerica

I used to equate whiteness with unrestrained homosexuality. I grew up in Vietnam with a murky idea of the West as all white and liberated. I absorbed these reductive ideologies from Western media and porn. My childhood ranged from the 2000s — 2010s when Vietnam had reestablished its relation with the US after the Vietnam war; so typical Vietnamese TVs and the internet enabled access to American representations.

When my (homo)sexual reckoning occurred in middle school, I was isolated and desperate, in a similar vein as the rural queer narrative evoked by Eli Clare. I believed that Vietnamese culture is inherently homophobic, for homophobia was/is internalized and reinforced in terms of gender roles within my family and in any aspect of my life. The interesting twist is that it is the Western media, cinema, and porn that affirmed my sexuality around this time. I watched the trend of ‘coming-out’ videos on youtube (where white people say things like “I’m gay and it gets better”), any American movies, and free-range gay porn (anything other than heteronormative is censored; however, Vietnam fosters a culture of illegal online streaming, so I could find any Western movie for free online). I experienced a shock of existence to see unrestrained flesh and desire on screen. All of them were white. At the same time that occidental media and gay porn affirmed me, offered me a masturbatory outlet, and a lexicon to identify myself, they also let me internalize unwitting racism.

Vietnam is racially homogenous, so I did not understand race or why it mattered. I thought extremely naively of America as white and gay. For the latter half of high school, I secured a scholarship to study in Maine as my family was progressing from middle-class to upper-class in Vietnamese standards and could afford my education abroad. Yes, at the time I was convinced the only solution to my sexuality was moving to another country.

I had a very reductive binary idea of racism as well. The racism I experienced in America confused me. A Black man threw racist slurs on me on a subway train; a truck full of white boys drove past me once, hollering “Go back to China”; a Turkish man shouted in my face “Corona” as I walked by on the street. I never questioned these incidents, because I didn’t know how to. I was a teenage foreigner, fresh in a country, which I was still glamourizing, knowing not how to navigate the complexity of America’s racist and multi-phobic bones. To make matters worse, the year I arrived in Maine, Trump was elected and I had shingles (it is rather funny to think of it now).

Then, when I started to have sex, it was only with white men. I tried to assimilate into the script of the model minority and white homosexuality without realizing it. One of my female friends remarked once: “You only like whiteboys, don’t you;” I defended myself, saying I am attracted to everyone, and it was true, I found myself attracted to different men, but when it came to actual sex, I always chose white men. I was conditioned to whiteness as the ideals from my media introduction to America. I started to distance myself away from any other Asians, hated my skin, wanting to be “normal,” the way Eli Clare was determined not to be one of the “special ed” kids (108). Clare calls this “horizontal hostility” because it is easiest to enact oppression within one’s own community (108). Like Cherríe Moraga, later, I found it “frightening to acknowledge that I have internalized racism and [homophobia] where the object of oppression is not only someone outside my skin, but the someone inside my skin” (46). This is not about renouncing whiteness, this is about me. About recognizing myself, recognizing the “primary source” and understanding “the meaning of [my] own oppression… and that [my] oppression of others hurts [me] personally” (Moraga 45, 49).

While the Western media first affirmed my (homo)sexuality, giving me a sense of community, it also conditioned me into racism, which I come to enact within my (homo)sexuality and my racial community. Even while I’m delineating all this, I’m still trying to make sense of my experience, for it contains too many interlocking and competing spheres; it is a diasporic queer racialized reality which I am never finished with. Leaving Vietnam and entering America has disrupted my leaving and entering into any place, physically or psychologically or sexually; I find myself in constant liminality, liminal futurity, though it’s not inherently bad. This post is only a small chaotic contemplation.  Recognizing all these maneuvers leaves me to find alternatives to thinking and being, not just assimilating or resisting any script but towards something more ambivalent, liminal, radical, something new.

Who the Hell Are You, Rannit? : Sexuality (mis)Constructed

In his autobiographical essay collection Times Square Red Times Square Blue, Samuel Delany recounts his sexual and social contacts with Rannit, a “good-looking East-Asian,” who frequents the same porn theater as him (84-88). Delany concludes that Rannit operates “outside an entire discourse of ‘normal’ male/female relationship” (88). Indeed, Rannit’s sexuality is convoluted: he seeks sexual gratifications from men; he is a “connoisseur of heterosexual porn;” he sexually harasses women on the street; but he is “naturally affectionate” and “friendly” (85-6). Rannit appears to hold at once too many contradictions; is he homosexual, heterosexual, both? How can he keep groping women and being so “affectionate” and “friendly” all the time? Following constructionist and intersectional lens, without attempting to categorize Rannit’s sexuality but only to examine how it forms, I underscore that Rannit’s sexuality and gender are simultaneously social-economically driven, racialized, “performative,” and historically situated (“Combahee River Collective Statement;” Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality; Judith Butler Gender Trouble).

Rannit comes from an immigrant and working-class background. He lives with his mother (85). He works full-time on the sidewalk distributing leaflets for a strip club (84). Given his inflexible working and living condition, he can only enact sexual outlet briskly during lunch hour at porn theaters and through his collection of straight porn cached at home (86). Alongside this constricted mobility, it would have been difficult for him to seek casual sexual encounters with women, for I speculate that Rannit is likely to be desexualized and feminized as an Asian American male within the American hetero and homo sexual-hierarchies (Richard Fung “Looking for My Penis). (I can’t speculate about his sexual encounters with women from his own race, for it would require knowledge I do not have of his culture’s values on sex and the physical proximity of his racial group in his time among other factors).

Porn theaters, on the other hand, facilitate easy and frequent sex but are proliferated with male sexuality. Delany describes sex with Rannit as “protracted and friendly,” “fulfilling,” and “satisfying” (84, 88). Perhaps Rannit has been able to bend his sexuality however the situation affords it. Rannit goes to the theater not only to seek sexual pleasure but also homosociality. In another word, he goes to the theater to have social sex and experiences that would then shape his gender and sexual behavior. Rannit says of his sexualization at the theater and his persistent harassment of women: “That’s what I go to the movies for! Trying to cop a feel, that’s just what guys do, ain’t it? I see lots of other guys do it” (88). Rannit admits that his sexuality and gender are “performative,” shaped by his sexual interaction, socialization, and the porn materials in the theater (Butler Gender Trouble). After writing five pages about Rannit, even Delany declares Rannit’s sexual “habits” to be “a cross between social and obsessive” (88). He harasses women because he has incorporated such behaviors (pervasive in porn, mainstream media, and other men) into his sense of gender identity and without it, he wouldn’t know how to be.

However, Rannit’s sexuality, as I have delineated so far, only develops as it does while the theaters still exist and afford it. I wonder, when they are closed down, how his sexuality would ramify in another direction or if he is able to continue it elsewhere.

Delany often presents us with complex people and situations that resist categorization and linear judgment, for it is impossible and even futile to fit Rannit into a sexual category. He inhabits no specific sexual identity but perpetuates sexual acts that are curtailed by his working and immigrant background, politicized by race, situated within a specific historical period and place, and determined by gender performativity.

Jack and Ennis: Body as Transformed and Trapped by Metaphor

“Ennis …hit the ground on his knee…But before [Jack] was out of the truck, trying to guess if it was heart attack or the overflow of an incendiary rage, Ennis was back on his feet and somehow, as a coat hanger is straightened to open a locked car and then bent again to its original shape…” (Proulx 42-43; I leave this sentence hanging unfinished here).

The writer Ocean Vuong posits that a metaphor is a “detour” from the original subject, leading to “discoveries” in order to “transform” and/or “amplify” the meaning upon our return (Vuong). A “strong” metaphor, which can work without context, demands simultaneously a “sensory connector” and “clear logical connection” between the original subject and the “transforming element.” In Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx crafts a powerful metaphor (in bold above) that magnifies Ennis and Jack’s emotional and corporeal relationship by connecting their bodies to the materiality that shapes them, i.e. the “transforming elements” of “coat hanger” and “locked car.”

The bolded image demonstrates a sensory and logical connection between Jack and Ennis’ rural male bodies and “coat hanger[s].” The coat hanger, as Ennis later discovers in Jack’s closet, is made of “wire” (51). “Wire,” in texture, is a hard and tough metal, like the “cowboy” masculine performative skin these men put on: “I’m not no queer,” says Ennis, “Me neither,” says Jack (15). However, this thin wire can be “bent,” like their sexuality and bodies: they oscillate between a certain sexuality with each other and their public sexuality. Proulx even illustrates this sexual oscillation in their last names: “Twist” already denotes bendability and “del Mar” in Spanish means “of the sea,” which conveys a vast body of volatile indeterminate water, volatile literally in shape and texture. The wire hanger also carries their clothing, another layer of their social skin/status. It carries both their shirts “like two skins, one inside the other, two in one” (52). This convergence of skin conjures their sexual intimacy, their practiced anal penetrative sex, as one skin enters into/”inside” the other. Proulx grounds Jack and Ennis’ intricate sexuality within the materiality that shares the texture of their identity and their life.

While “coat hanger[s]” deepens our understanding of their performative and private sexuality with each other, they are the tools to open also another component of Proulx’s metaphor: “a locked car.” Bending a coat hanger in order to “open a locked car” announces the stealthiness or the illegality of such action, or, of Jack and Ennis’ intimate and illicit encounters. However, this stealthy and illegal act also enables mobility, security, and survival: they enter the car, contain themselves within a larger and safer metal skin, and drive away to temporarily escape their hapless lives. But after all, they must come back to rebend themselves to their “original shape.”

Employing “coat hanger” and “locked car,” Proulx puts us on a “detour” towards the materials that allow us to touch the texture of Jack and Ennis’ reality, to feel the metal and its bending to a breaking point (in the case of Jack). These are also the materials that mark their rural and class identity, such as their cowboy clothing and their pickup trucks, which ultimately trap them where they are. The metaphors satisfy both the sensory and logical connection between the original subject (Ennis and Jack) and the transforming element (coat hanger and locked car). Proulx has successfully “recalibrated the traditional mode of value” placed on Jack and Ennis’ (homo)sexual oppression by expanding their private and public bodies with their defining materiality (Vuong). She shows that we cannot think about Jack and Ennis’ tyrannized (homo)sexuality without examining the materials that situate and trap their lives and bodies. All in one perfect and succinct metaphor.

Source: https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/17888013988759825/      This is a theoretical mini-essay by Ocean Vuong posted and saved only on his Instagram story highlights. If you have trouble accessing it, let me know.

Womanhood as Blood, Wine, Gasoline, and the Sea

Detroit Annie, Hitchhikingin The Work of A Common Woman presents Annie’s state of being, history, and her womanhood through the symbolism of liquids and the solid matters that contain such liquids.

Annie’s interiority as a woman is first represented by blood and “the reddest wine.” This interiority of hurt and façade, respectively, arises from the discontent of her female upper-class background. She is (dis)placed by others in the ostentatious appearance of a “velvet hat with great/dangling black feathers.” She is as “common/as the reddest wine,” another signifier of her supposed bourgeoise taste. Her mind, at first, is equated to “cut-glass,” a crystal solid matter that is chiseled into, to fit the constraints of her background. Annie “carelessly handle[s]” her glass-chiseled mind, which results in her words pouring out like blood from a “broken/artery” (literally broken here by the enjambment; artery likely broken by the “carelessly handled” glass). Her “cut-glass” mind becomes the shell that holds both the “reddest wine” (her upper-class façade) and the blood of her words (her pain caused by being female and bourgeoise). The red hue of blood and wine is indistinguishable, which constitutes her abject womanhood.

Then Annie seeks to change: by removing herself from her “frozen” status quo, by going “to the docks and dances” into more vast and clearer water, and by “hitchhiking.” This hitchhike takes place on a large body of water as well, like the sea, where “fishermen” find themselves looking for fish. They think Annie is fish because of her intimate relationship with water. These men become “danger” and predators, who seek to capture her. But they are “fools” and unable to, because she is constantly “in motion” and has learned to fend for herself by transforming into another form of liquid: “gasoline.” Gasoline is clearer, more diluted from the thickness and from the red hue of blood and wine; it is also more flammable and so people must be careful with it, with her. While her interiority changes into a tougher, defensive liquid of womanhood, it still requires a shell to protect it, i.e. fire. She must “light” the gasoline that is herself to effectively enact the fireful defense before “danger,” before men. Fire doesn’t burn the gasoline or with it but burns on top of it.

Finally, the hitchhiking in the open water has once more transformed her liquid into seawater, freer and vaster womanhood. Having fended off the fishermen, now she leaves the taste of “salt and iron” under “your tongue.” This second person “you,” or us the readers of the poems here, has witnessed their false illusion of Annie to her metamorphoses,  from her literal “shav[ing] her head” to the taste of her saltlike interior and iron exterior.

Nonetheless, Annie’s altering forms of liquids do not separate from one another but all connect together like a body of water, for the tense of the poem remains the present tense throughout all these metamorphoses. Her interior state moves and merges blood, the reddest wine, with gasoline and seawater, moves and merges hurt, constraint, with defense, with the vast interiority of “salt” water. However, all these different interiorities cannot exist on their own but shielded by glass, fire, and iron. The poem still begins and ends with her blood and wine state as a frame that still constrains her. Annie cannot achieve complete liberation from her background or the persecution of her womanhood. She must always keep guard of herself by imposing a shell to protect her womanhood.

Learning to Live With Injury

“Queerness,” writes Love, is “both abject and exalted” (3). This contradiction permeates the queer studies as one side aspires to “fix” the abjection by disregarding it and imagining a utopia, while the other emphasizes the suffering of queer lives.

The attempt to deny the past, without properly dealing with it, can misfire; such an attempt is only “a symptom of haunting,” of pretending without succeeding (1). Queer novels, like The Well of Loneliness, that anchor in queer suffering, are the novels that stay and haunt the readers the most, not the happy ones. Suffering seizes while happiness makes us forget. The forcibly imagined utopia for queer lives can create a delusion, a discrepancy between reality and fiction, and ultimately, apathy. In another word, we don’t care about ourselves when we are happy and others don’t care about us when we are happy (or pretend to be). The “mass-mediated images of attractive, well-to-do gays and lesbians” can generate apathy on a larger scale, within the public (3). We have had our equity, so why should anyone care about us, why should pay attention to the “reality of ongoing violence and inequality” (3). Denial of this reality for an “imaginative fix” makes it easier to happen again, to allow it to keep happening unchecked. Denial can also disregard the legacy of our ancestors, disregarding what has propelled and led us here. Love says we cannot risk such amnesia.

On the other hand, suffering can individualize as well, meaning that we can become it, be consumed by it, and, as Love cautioned, be “destroyed” by it (1). And so the challenge for Love is to understand suffering and not be consumed into the totally crippling victimhood. Even though she claims she does not know how dwelling into the “dark side” can brighten queer lives, she does not mean to brighten it, at least not in the sense of “wishful thinking” or an amnesiac “utopian desire.” Going backward and “feeling backward” on “painful and traumatic” queer literature is not to be equated with being retrograde or homophobic. Love means to understand the past, to move beyond victimhood, to reconcile, in order to live better, to engage with the “archive of feeling,” to honor the roots of queer literary history (4).  Such roots indelibly always involve suffering and without such roots, the propagation and history of queer lives and queer literature would not be possible. The future of queer lives, then, depends on how to reconcile with that suffering, to understand what it meant to be “living with injury——not fixing it” (4). No denial or utopia can advance our lives if we cannot understand and reconcile with the unavoidable rememory of our own lives.