Arrive on American soil to begin the American dream.
In an era where our different histories and prejudices hinder people from equal access to success, those who do not conform to the standard American identity may question what the American Dream truly signifies. In Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong delivers an autobiographical collection of poems about his American experience as the child of recent Vietnamese immigrants with an LGBTQ identity. With a lyrical voice and stirring narrative, he illustrates the dark and beautiful underbelly of an immigrant’s idealistic image of a great America.
The guns fire and the radio broadcasts a cheerful Christmas song, and suddenly, we watch the fall of Saigon in 1975, complete with American soldiers evacuating and celebrating their exit. Vuong exquisitely details the clash between the white American dream and the tensions of being part of a minority group in America—especially one that was recently on the other side of an American war. He contrasts “White Christmas”—a quintessentially American song—and the violence of “the first shell flash[ing] their faces” (Vuong 11) in a poem, “Aubade with Burning City.” Although this is a haunting reminder of how the two identities can coexist in a war-zone, the same tensions trickle into peacetime American life. Vuong makes his personal story into political symbolism when he talks about how his mother—and ultimately Vuong himself—came to be when “an American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl”(70). Vuong never shows anger or disdain, but a melancholic pensiveness as he ponders these aspects of his own, as well as other minorities’, identities. The emotions he expresses within the collection are natural and contemplative—never a forced attempt at a political statement.
Vuong’s honest naturality is even more apparent when he discusses his LGBTQ identity in the context of his American adolescence. Much of what he describes are tender moments, making moment of sexual discovery seem romantic as his and his lover’s head are “haloed with gnats & summer too early to leave any marks” (45), yet his poetry also painfully discusses the societal impediment to one’s choice of sexuality as his poem “Seventh Circle of Earth” references the murder of the gay couple of Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw. The entire scene is love and violence, yet, from the perspective of one of the couple, Vuong writes “Look how happy we are / to be no one / & still American” (42). Though the book is about Vuong, he is able to relate the larger historical traumas and tensions to his own experiences—thus creating a piece addressing the hidden pain in any national identity.
Perhaps Vuong’s most freeform and seemingly innocuous poem in the book is “Notebook Fragments,” which takes the form of random notes written in a personal notebook or journal. Even in our everyday lives, the trauma or injustice we may have experienced collectively never fully escapes us, as Vuong demonstrates in his collection. One moment someone is idly running a cornfield and in the next he or she remembers that in wartime, soldiers would “grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle, and pull” (70).
We cannot escape our pasts or our ancestors’ even as we try to claim the American Dream for ourselves. Generational trauma is a constant, quiet part of our identities, and Vuong is fittingly gentle in how he communicates this.
However, that trauma does not necessarily equate to a negative part of our identities, even though it may make our American experience different.
Yes, it may require struggle and tenacity to work through these differences, yet Vuong’s book still concludes with self-love in the midst of melancholia. He encourages himself “Ocean. Ocean—get up” because the most beautiful part “of your body is where it’s headed,” in his poem titled “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” to urge that those experiences do not necessarily define our endings.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds can, at times, feel intimately personal to Vuong, yet his nuanced connections to the patchwork quilt that is the American melting pot experience allow us to recognize the different identities, hopes, and dreams of America and find strength in his personal story.