What does it mean to live between cultures, languages and genres? This is something that Vietnamese-born American author Ocean Vuong is familiar with. In his novel On Earth, we are briefly beautiful, he explores colonial history and his own personal experiences to tell a coming-of-age story – and so, with July 4th approaching, we asked him to recommend books that shed light on the immigrant experience. , in America and around the world. Here are his choices:
Slow lightning, by Eduardo C. Corral
When I think of Eduardo’s work, I think he is the quintessential poet, but that doesn’t mean his work is obscure. This book is particularly haunted by the experience of immigrants at the border. Corral comes from parents who are Mexican immigrants. And there is a sensitivity of, what is an American body that comes from migration and great loss? This book is filled with mourning and sorrow. It is an elegy to the lives lost crossing the border. The tragedy of immigration to America is in a way the tragedy of human life for the dream.
Corral is therefore a writer who cares both about the poetic line, but also about the bodies he writes on, family, heritage, culture and what it means to be American. I read this book over and over again, and for me it is a masterpiece. The Spanish here doesn’t have a glossary, it doesn’t have an endnote, it exists just like English words, right? In a way, it’s an enactment of the feeling of walking through America.
Last words from Montmartre, by Qiu Miaojin
So this may sound familiar to my own book. I am really inspired by Qiu Miaojin. She’s a Taiwanese immigrant in Paris – and we often don’t think of the immigrant or the story of an immigrant having a sex life, a love life, a life of depression and deep angst. And Miaojin actually positions himself in the immigrant narrative in existential wonder. And I think that’s one of the most powerful stories of rewriting or repositioning what immigration is on a global scale. And that positions the immigrant in the artist’s trajectory, because I think that immigration requires a lot of innovation and creativity. No one really survives the process of immigrating to a new country – in America, nothing less, which is so rich and complex – without being creative. So I like this book because it kind of pushes creativity and innovation to the center, that immigrants are not just victims trying to get out of it, they are active agents of their own lives.
The enigma of arrival, by VS Naipaul
It is for me, it is like the Bible of the immigrant writer. And this is the testament of Naipaul coming from a British colonial territory of Trinidad and reading and educated by European writers, reading on the snow, but never feeling it, never seeing it – reading it to Dickens and not seeing it never until he arrives almost at age 20 in London and sees snow for the first time.
And in a way, Naipaul is really interesting because he sort of mastered the British style, you know, high exposure, deep curvy meditations, dialogue. And yet, he’s never really, completely comfortable in his works of being a Londoner or a British writer. He still feels separated. And this book, The enigma of arrival, named after the painting by [Giorgio de] Chirico, that’s exactly it. It is because the two words here, “enigma” and “arrival”, never leave Naipaul as a writer. The remoteness of being in a new world and yet arriving forever, never really having happened. The immigration process is continuous and filled with wonder, curiosity and a sense of loneliness.
The lover, by Marguerite Duras
One of my goals was to decenter America as a site of immigration – and we realize immigration is a species-wide legacy. Everyone who has been human from time immemorial has had to make the decision to move, escape, and forge new routes. Duras The lover is a perennial classic for me in this theme and others as it is a very unique situation of a failed colonial project.
Marguerite Duras arrives in Vietnam through her family, and she was born in Vietnam and she begins to write to get out of poverty. You know, the French colonial project fails in Vietnam and Duras, [who] is supposed to be part of this new establishment in what is then French Indochina suddenly finds itself in abject poverty in the Vietnamese countryside. And she writes from that position. And I think that his immigration, the immigration of his family begins with the failure of a colonial project. And then she writes from a childhood, you know, how does it feel to write in the shadow of your own empire? How does it feel to have privileges and yet be part of a declining Imperial force? It is absolutely unique. You will probably never see text like this again. And I think I’m so grateful that Duras was able to write about this position so that we have this legacy marked and followed.
This story was edited for radio by Reena Advani and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.