“I’m going to have my very own story now”

Although I’ve only read about half of it, Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a poetic memoir about his queer, Asian experience from his childhood and onward.  

The Legend of Auntie Poe reminded me of this narrative. When Mei says, “This is Bee’s story. Bee will go to university, and marry a man” (Khor 37), the author not only addresses Mei’s queer experience, but also, the distance that comes with one minority identity layered upon another. Mei is conscious of how being a Chinese American places her in a marginalized position, and at the beginning of the book, she views herself as a sidebar to Bee’s story.  

However, as Mei builds the myth and the role model of Auntie Poe, her perspective on her own life shifts. Role models, like Auntie Poe for Mei, and like Vuong’s mother in his memoir, are key pieces of childhood and support for these queer characters. 

In Ocean Vuong’s memoir, his Vietnamese identity and relationship with his mother is at the core of the book. Vuong structures his book as a letter to his mother, who can’t read. He intermixes retellings of his childhood with wishes about seeing queer representation around him and contemplating his queerness in relation to his Asian culture.  

This parallels Mei’s position at the end of the novel where she is confidently able to say, “I’m going to have my very own story now” (Khor 282), meaning that, Mei sees herself as a main character in her own story. Although Mei needed Auntie Poe as a catalyst to take initiative, at the end Auntie Poe leaves because Mei now has the power to create her own myths. In a similar vein, the driving force of Vuong’s memoir is providing a narrative to represent untold stories. Vuong looks to similar figures that Mei does, independent women like his mother that have shaped his identity. With these figures Vuong and Khor’s characters are able to harness power and make myths their own.

Texts like Khor’s and Vuong’s are essential to understanding the multiplicity that lies in queer people of color’s identities. Just like Mei’s story proves, queer people should not and cannot be reduced to just their romantic relationships, because there is so much more context surrounding their lives. To be a queer person of color is to exist on multiple planes simultaneously. Without representation like this, queer media risks falls flat which can be detrimental to the understanding of queer representation. Both texts demonstrate how race and class intermingle with queerness, and when these themes can be shown to children through the form of graphic novels like Auntie Poe, children can find the pride and representation that they may lack in their lives. 

Here’s a link to an article where Ocean Vuong talks about his novel

Fantasy vs. Tragedy, The Symbol of the Angel

Although Angels in America by Tony Kushner hones in on the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, the play’s absurdism makes the text more accessible while simultaneously creating a binary between fantasy and tragedy.  

One of the reoccurring symbols in the play, the angel, invites camp discussions into the text. For example, when the angel first visits Prior as The Voice, it says, “Soon I will return, I will reveal myself to you; I am glorious, glorious; my heart, my countenance and my message. You must prepare” (Kushner 65). At first, the angel’s voice seems like it will present an outstanding spiritual message that will act as a guiding light for Prior. However, the Angel presents itself in a camp way, speaking elaborately in metaphors, and in Part II addressing Prior as a Prophet, saying wild phrases like, “Am the Bird of America, the Bald Eagle” that don’t make much sense to the reader (Kushner 160). With pieces like this, the angel is reduced to its camp form, as a being inside Prior’s mind that makes the play more accessible and pulls away from the tragedy of AIDS. 

The angel’s camp and sometimes outlandish actions bring balance to the play. Without humor from the angel, Prior’s narrative could be reduced to “another story about the tragedy of AIDS”, however the play refuses to simplify its characters, and the angel aids in that process. 

Even just the word “angel” brings a duality to the play. For example, when Prior tells Louis he has AIDS, he says “K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine dark kiss of the angel of death” (Kushner 21). Prior’s description of this angel contradicts itself in its beautiful “kiss”, but ultimate death sentence.  

Additionally, although an angel is a holy, godly figure, it visits Prior, a gay man with AIDS. This detail demonstrates that the lines of good and evil aren’t clean cut, which is vital to the story of the AIDS crisis. For years, society viewed people with AIDS as subhuman, as lesser-than, even seeming dangerous to touch, in addition to the homophobia of the time. 

Overall, the angel is necessary in order for the play to interest watchers/readers as well as speak truthfully on the impact of the AIDS crisis. 

Home Is a Contradiction

“Home is also the damp, rotting log smell, the fog lifting to broken sun and wind. I am climbing steadily now, the two-lane shale road narrowing.” (Clare 27).

On this page, Clare connects environmental destruction to the queer experience. As Clare walks into the forest and hears logging trucks, he immediately thinks about his aversion to the timber industry, but then corrects himself with this statement. Although home is “rotting”, and like the trees, Clare felt like he was decaying while growing up in his rural community, he will always have ties there. 

Clare continues this narrative by using a form that mirrors his relationship with his home. When Clare leaves his home the “fog lifts” and he expects to uncover his most authentic queer self, like he expected to see a growing forest. However, living in a city and surrendering to queer metronormativity makes Clare feel like more of an exile, and he feels out of place and “broken” like the environment around him.  

Through the tie between home and decay, Clare implies that maybe home will always be a contradiction. He recognizes that his queer and disabled identities weren’t supported at his home, but he feels perpetually stuck in the chasm between rural and urban, which can feel like the chasm between decaying and flourishing when most queer media set in rural locations references violence or unhappiness. Like witnessing this forest being turned into a wasteland, Clare doesn’t want his life in a rural location “to mean destruction” (Clare 27), but to remain home for him.  

Overall, in this passage Clare reflects on the ostracization he felt his home and how he now emotionally and physically sees his home as “a graveyard, a war zone, the earth looking naked and torn”. However, as Clare states at the end of this excerpt, as he is exploring the forest, he “climbs steadily”, walking on a “shale road”, stepping on rocks at the bottom of the chasm, but continuing forward, with his identities intertwined. For many queer people, home is a contradiction, home is the space between, and home is a multiplicity of identities, and this is what Clare implies as he describes navigating through environmental destruction and the memories of his home. 

Don’t Be a “Drag”

“The dress is an oil slick. The dress / ruins everything. In a hotel room / by the water, I put it on when / he says, I want to watch you take it off. /” (Jones 29).

In the first few lines of “Drag”, I think the narrator implies how his family’s homophobia bleeds into his relationships. I think the dress symbolizes the speaker’s queerness and the confidence that he has gained in understanding his identity. However, simultaneously, “the dress ruins everything”, which may represent how the narrator’s self-worth is decaying. As the narrator distracts himself by looking out of the window, the poem captures the narrator’s split between embracing his “drag”, and being consumed by self-hatred, which is symbolized by the oil spill. Based on the other poems in this set, I think these lines comment on how queer people are made to feel that they are dark and dirty, like an oil spill.

The image of oil versus the water creates a binary, where oil symbolizes unhealthy self-esteem, and the narrator as a whole, and the water symbolizes purity, and what the narrator’s father hoped he would be. The symbol of water reoccurs in the poem with lines like, “the rain has owned us” (Jones 29), which I think comment on how the narrator still feels indebted to his father because of the abuse he suffered. In turn, this hatred is like an oil spill, ruining his relationships.

The title of this poem is also relevant. The narrator puts on the dress so he feels secure in his identity. However, even with the dress on, I think he still feels like a drag, a burden, an oil slick, like he’s ruining everything.

I think these lines are representative of Jones’ internalized homophobia and the remaining effects that still linger from his father’s abuse.