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No One Knows His Own Stock: Ocean Vuong’s Reception of Telemachus and Odysseus

Kelly Nguyen

Brown University

What do the children of war inherit?  In his first full-length collection of poetry, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong explores this question within the context of the Vietnam War and its intergenerational aftermath.  Vuong personalizes the narrative of a war refugee by incorporating elements of his own identity in connection to and in tension with those of his family members.  As Vuong succinctly puts it in “Notebook Fragments,” “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists./Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me./Yikes.”

A major recurring figure throughout the collection is Vuong’s father, a war veteran of the south Vietnamese army, whose demons eventually lead him to abandon his family shortly upon arriving in the US.  Vuong problematizes his relationship with his absent father by situating it within the realm of Greek mythology, specifically that of Homer’s Odyssey.  This paper analyzes how, by conjuring the figures of Odysseus and Telemachus, Vuong explores the themes of loss, absence, and filial piety from a post-war, transnational perspective.  I argue that Vuong does not simply borrow these mythical motifs, but rather that he reworks them to create his own postmemories (Hirsch, 2012) and to ultimately subvert historical erasure.  Vuong defies the canonical narrative by crafting multiple Odysseuses who do not complete their hero’s journey.  Instead of a traditional nostos, one of Vuong’s Odysseuses deserts his family, another is imprisoned, while another returns home, dead. Meanwhile, Vuong’s Telemachus is struggling to understand what traits, memories, and legacies he inherits from his father, all while he is on his journey to self-discovery as a young, queer man.  Overall, Vuong disrupts the mythological narrative in order to explore the conflicting layers of his intergenerational trauma.

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Classical Reception in Contemporary Asian and Asian American Culture

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