Interwoven parallel narratives displaced by time and culture
The Greek mythological epics marked the path traveled by the great literary men, the archetypal characters of Homer permeating the very essence of Western culture. Literature is colorfully enriched when reused and reappropriated in new, diverse narratives – and no two experiences are more diametrically opposed than those of the ancient Greeks and Ocean Vuong, an immigrant from second generation whose parents fled war-torn Vietnam. Yet as he decompresses Western canonical epics, he ties common threads together in his varied poetic patchwork of personal and cultural identity. Despite the spatial and temporal divisions, Vuong asserts that “displacement, war, violence and trauma is a human and species-wide story”, and so any story is amplified only by the echo subtle voices of others. By reframing and inhabiting Western works with the use of poetic license, Vuong is also able to break down cultural barriers between himself and his Western audience; ultimately, he builds his own near-epic, drawing on and preserving experiences from time immemorial.
Vuong reappropriates the strong martial currents of Homer’s epics to construct a representation of queer identity that shatters previous false claims and the normative model of gender and sexuality in society. Vuong describes the importance of “queer body mythology,” which has historically received insufficient attention in the literature, while confronting Western male tropes associated with combat. By appropriating the age-old tales of Greek war heroes, he both sheds light on the perilous nature of queer expression and subverts stereotypes. Hinting at the famous Trojan myth, he writes, “that belly full of blades / brutes” indicating the danger of a concealed queer identity – but as the boy experiments with wearing a robe, he becomes “a flame” both powerful and transformative.
Vuong explores the coming queer age as the poems chronicle adolescence and the path to maturity, with intertextuality functioning as a constant Western frame of reference. Vuong alludes to Odysseus’ fables to evoke a bizarre journey of self-discovery, portraying caution and unwillingness to display his privacy as he, “waited / for the night to diminish / in decades – before reaching / for his hands.” The heroic connotations of Odysseus’ journey give Vuong the ability to transcend cultural chasms and bring queer body mythology to the forefront of literature, reinforcing its worth and worth. Here, intertextuality works to reject the silence and shame that conventionally surrounds narratives of minority identity, rebuilding a platform for muffled voices upon which discourse can hatch.
Another common thread woven into traditional Western and Vietnamese narratives is the concept of unwavering filial piety, and such a cultural norm is amplified by the inclusion of the story of Telemachus’ devotion to his father Odysseus. As Vietnam is a collectivist society, the values of unconditional filial piety and parental respect are intrinsic to Vuong’s individuality. Vuong draws on his experience of paternal absence, inviting one to compare the western patriarchal value of the father figure with the power vested in the matrilineal inheritance in the Vietnamese kingdom. The contrast of the dominance of masculinity over femininity highlights cultural differences in perceptions of family hierarchies, faced with Western audiences.
In an interview with The Guardian, Vuong reveals his intentions, that “Western mythology is so loaded with the father,” providing a suitable basis for dissecting his father-son relationship in poetry. The intertextuality of Greek mythology does not function only as a point of contrast; Vuong is also drawn to the way epics are constructed and the personal stories they embody. He shares: “Personally, I always ask who my father is. Like Homer, I felt I had better catch up with him. Mythological allusions have a cathartic function for Vuong, a testament to the power of mythology to communicate and reconstruct a personal narrative. Vuong expresses his admiration for Homer’s “daring to invent”, demonstrating how myths remain a crucial genre of literature, despite their outdated connotations.
To examine the complex character of his absent father, Vuong draws inspiration from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which explores man’s vulnerability to narcissism, seen in Orpheus’ direct challenge to divine orders as he couldn’t help but glance at Eurydice as he left. from 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’ flaws, mimicking the essential experience of the progressive realization of parental imperfections, as they fall from heroic grace to our eyes. Parental absence inevitably leads to a struggle between forgiveness and wickedness, so that the universality of filial identity between cultures provides a balm. Vuong’s father-son relationship and the Greek gods have been marred by war, interweaving them in a way that invites a collaborative approach to literature as stories are written and rewritten. This approach, encouraging the diversity of interpretations and reappropriations, preserves the works by allowing them to be loved and poured out by audiences who are not yet born.