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Ocean Vuong’s mythic intertextuality

The interweaving parallel narratives in Night Sky With Exit Wounds.

Source: Poetry Foundation

Greek mythological epics have laid the path traversed by literary greats, Homer’s archetypal characters permeating the very essence of Western culture. Literature is colourfully enriched when repurposed and reappropriated into new, diverse narratives — and there are no two experiences more diametrically opposed than those of the Ancient Greeks and Ocean Vuong, a second-generation immigrant whose parents fled war-torn Vietnam. Yet, as he unpacks Western canonical epics, he ties common threads in his variegated poetic patchwork of personal and cultural identity. Despite the spatial and temporal rifts, Vuong claims “displacement, war, violence and trauma is a human and species-wide history,” and thus any story is only amplified by the subtle echo of voices of another. By reframing and inhabiting Western works with the use of poetic license, Vuong is also able to broach cultural barriers between him and his Western audience; ultimately, he constructs his own quasi-epic, drawing from and preserving experiences since time immemorial. 

Vuong reappropriates the strong martial undercurrents of Homer’s epics to construct a representation of queer identity that shatters prior misrepresentations and society’s normative model of gender and sexuality. Vuong describes the importance of “mythologising the queer body”, which has historically received inadequate attention in literature, whilst confronting the Western masculine tropes associated with combat. By appropriating age-old tales of Greek war heroes, he both sheds light on the perilous nature of queer expression and subverts stereotypes. Alluding to the famed Trojan myth, he writes, “this belly full of blades/ & brutes,” indicating the danger of concealed queer identity — but as the boy experiments with wearing a dress, he becomes “a flame,” both potent and transformative. 

Vuong explores queer coming-of-age as the poems chronicle adolescence and the path to maturity, with intertextuality functioning as a constant Western frame of reference. Vuong alludes to the fables of Odysseus to evoke a queer journey of self-discovery, portraying caution and reluctance to display intimacy as he, “waited/ for the night to wane/ into decades — before reaching/ for his hands.” The heroic connotations of Odysseus’ journey endow Vuong with the ability to transcend cultural chasms and bring the mythology of the queer body to the forefront of literature, heightening its valour and value. Here, intertextuality functions to reject the silence and shame conventionally surrounding narratives of minority identity, reconstructing a platform for hushed voices on which discourse can burgeon. 

Another shared thread woven through traditional Western and Vietnamese narratives is the concept of steadfast filial piety, and such cultural norm is amplified by the inclusion of the tale of Telemachus’ devotion to his father Odysseus. As Vietnam is a collectivistic society, values of unconditional filial piety and parental respect are intrinsic to Vuong’s selfhood. Vuong draws from his experience of paternal absence, inviting a comparison of the Western patriarchal value of the father-figure with the power vested in matrilineal heritage in the Vietnamese realm. The contrast in the dominance of masculinity over femininity highlights the cultural differences in perceptions of familial hierarchies, confronting the Western audience. 

In an interview with The Guardian, Vuong discloses his intentions, that “Western mythology is so charged with the father,” providing an apt foundation for the dissection of his father-son relationship in poetry. The intertextuality of Greek mythology does not just function as a point of contrast; Vuong is also attracted to the way in which epics are constructed, and the personal stories they ensconce. He shares, “personally, I am always asking who my father is. Like Homer, I felt I’d better make it up.” The mythological allusions serve a cathartic function for Vuong, a testament to the power of mythology to communicate and reconstruct a personal narrative. Vuong expresses admiration for Homer’s “audacity to invent,” demonstrating how myths remain a crucial genre of literature, despite their antiquated connotations. 

To examine his absent father’s complex character, Vuong draws from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which explores man’s vulnerability to narcissism, seen in Orpheus’ direct defiance of divine orders as he could not help but glance back at Eurydice as he made his way out of the Underworld. Orpheus’ actions are a commentary on the weakness of the human spirit and its tendency to lose faith; Vuong transfers these characteristics to his father, whose true personality is unknown to him. The collection probes Orpheus’s flaws, emulating the essential experience of gradually realizing parental imperfections, as they fall from heroic grace in our eyes. Parental absence inevitably leads to a struggle between forgiveness and spite, so the universality of filial identity among cultures provides a salve. The father-son relationship of both Vuong and the Greek Gods have been tainted by war, interweaving them in a way that invites a collaborative approach to literature as stories are written, and rewritten. This approach, encouraging diverse interpretations and reappropriations, preserves works in that it allows them to be loved and pored over by audiences that have not yet been born. 

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