What does it mean to live between cultures, languages and genders? That's something Vietnamese American author Ocean Vuong knows well. In his novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, he explores colonial history and his own personal experiences to tell a coming-of-age story — and so, since the Fourth of July is coming up, we asked him to recommend some books that highlight the immigrant experience, in America and around the world. Here are his picks:
Slow Lightning, by Eduardo C. Corral
When I think of Eduardo's work, I think he's the quintessential poet's poet, but that doesn't mean his work is obscure. This book particularly is haunted by the immigrant experience on the border. Corral comes from parents who are Mexican immigrants. And there's a sensibility of, what is an American body that comes through migration and great loss? This book is filled with mourning and grief. It's an elegy to the lives lost crossing the border. The tragedy of immigration to America is in a sense the tragedy of human life for the dream.
So Corral is a writer that cares both for the poetic line, but also for the bodies that he writes about, for family, legacy, culture and what it means to be American. I go to this book again and again, and to me, it's a masterpiece. The Spanish here has no glossary, it has no end note, it exists on the same footing as the English words, right? In a sense, it is an enactment of the sensation of walking through America.
Last Words from Montmartre, by Qiu Miaojin
New York Review Books Classics
So this might sound familiar to my own book. I'm truly inspired by Qiu Miaojin. She's a Taiwanese immigrant to Paris — and we often don't think of the immigrant having, or the immigrant story having a sex life, a love life, a life of depression and deep existential angst. And Miaojin really positions in immigrant narrative in an existential wonder. And I think this is one of the most powerful testaments of rewriting or repositioning what immigration is on a global scale. And it positions the immigrant in the trajectory of the artist, because I think immigration demands a great amount of innovation and creativity. Nobody really survives the process of immigrating to a new country — to America, no less, which is so rich and complex — without being creative. So I love this book because it kind of pushes creativity and innovation at the center, that immigrants are not just victims who are trying to get by, they are active agents in their own life.
The Enigma of Arrival, by V.S. Naipaul
This is to me, it's like the Bible of the immigrant writer. And it's the testament of Naipaul coming from a British colonial territory of Trinidad and reading and being educated by European writers, reading about snow, yet never feeling it, never seeing it — reading it in Dickens and never seeing it until he arrives almost at age 20 in London and seeing snow for the first time.
And in a sense, Naipaul is really interesting because he kind of mastered the British style, you know, high exposition, deep winding meditations, dialogue. And yet he has never truly, fully comfortable in his works in being a Londoner or a British writer. He's always feeling estranged. And this book, The Enigma of Arrival, named after painting by [Giorgio de] Chirico, is exactly that. It's that the two words here, "enigma" and "arrival," never leave Naipaul as a writer. The estrangement of being in a new world and yet forever arriving, never truly having arrived. The immigrant process is one that is ongoing and filled with wonder, curiosity and a sense of loneliness.
The Lover, by Marguerite Duras
One of my goals was to kind of de-center America as the site of immigration — and we realise that immigration is a species-wide legacy. Everyone who has been human from time immemorial has had to make the decision about how to move and escape and make new routes. Duras' The Lover is a perennial classic for me in this theme and others because this is a very unique situation of a failed colonial project.
Marguerite Duras arrives in Vietnam through her family, and she's born in Vietnam and she starts to write out of poverty. You know, the French colonial project fails in Vietnam and Duras, [who] is supposed to be a part of this new settlement in what is then French Indochina suddenly finds herself in abject poverty in the countryside of Vietnam. And she writes out of this position. And I think her immigration, her family's immigration begins with the failure of a colonial project. And then she writes out of a girlhood, know, what is it like to write in the shadow of your own empire? What is it like to have privileges and yet still be part of a declining imperial force? It's absolutely unique. You probably never see a text like this again. And I think I'm so grateful that Duras was able to write out of this position so that we have this legacy marked and tracked.
This story was produced for radio by Avery Keatley, edited for radio by Reena Advani and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.