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Queering Telemachus: Ocean Vuong, Postmemories and the Vietnam War

International Journal of the Classical Tradition
September 2021

Abstract: Previous studies on classical reception related to the Vietnam War have overlooked the experiences of Vietnamese communities, whether national or diasporic, as they focussed instead on those of American combat veterans. While that scholarship has yielded important insight, it nevertheless has contributed to the disremembering of Vietnamese people that is at the core of the dominant American subjectivity of the Vietnam War, which relegates Vietnamese people to the margins of history as either enemies or victims – or worse, forgotten. To build on this scholarship, this paper closely reads three poems (‘Telemachus,’ ‘Trojan,’ and ‘Odysseus Redux’) in Ocean Vuong’s 2017 poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, through the lenses of memory theory and queer of colour critique. I demonstrate how Vuong queers the Homeric Odyssey by subverting the canonical narrative: Odysseus returns home dead, leaving Telemachus to explore his inheritance of war as a queer refugee. Through this queer mythology, Vuong explores the conflicting layers of his intergenerational trauma, which pit refugeehood and queerness not only against each other, but also against Americanness. Overall, this paper argues that Vuong reworks the Homeric Odyssey in order to create his own ‘postmemories’ of the war that challenge historical erasure by defiantly placing the queer refugee at the centre, rather than the periphery, of an American narrative.