A Reply to Paul McAdory
By Hayden Elrafei
Art by Chloe Jung
Ocean Vuong’s 2019 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous rightfully took the queer studies communities by storm. Vuong’s novel narrates the complex lived experiences of occupying a queer and racialized body in the wake of imperial violence. He does this through intimate poetics, the novel being in the form of a letter from the main protagonist, Little Dog, to his mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who cannot read or write. While Little Dog does invite the reader into the exploration of his sexuality, Vuong’s novel is a larger meditation on Queerness — that is, all of the compounding, multiplicative ways in which bodies are marked as non-normative, all of the ways in which they do not hit the mark of society’s standards (i.e., not straight enough, not white enough, not masculine enough, etc.). From the very beginning of his Gawker article “Gay Sincerity is Scary,” Paul McAdory invokes his concept of “gay sincerity” — “a mode of address that privileges weepy disclosure and self-serious sentimentality; it portrays itself as emotionally straightforward and easy to comprehend aesthetically and ‘morally.’” McAdory uses this frame to back his critique of the novel, dismissively referring to Vuong’s style of writing over these experiences as “weepy” and “self-serious” in his aesthetics and expression. “Gay sincerity” is reductive to understanding the lived experiences of queers of color through their art — instead, we need to understand Vuong’s writing through the concept of queer sincerity, which I describe as a mode of writing which uses the artistic expression of queer ephemera to articulate the complex experience of inhabiting a body which is found at the intersection of multiple othering social forces.
The aims of queer theory are to critically consider all of the ways queer people are marked as other, and this multi-faceted, intersectional approach is the only way to fully contextualize Vuong’s novel. Without considering all of the ways in which Little Dog is at odds with the expectations and standards of the world around him as he lives in Connecticut as a queer and racialized subject in the wake of French imperialism and US military force in Vietnam, we lose the meaning of Ocean Vuong’s sincere style. There is a lot to be lost in light of a critique that is more “gay” than “queer,” more unilateral than contextual, for both Vuong’s novel and the concept of queerness writ large consider how sexuality interacts with other positionalities such as race, class, gender, and many others. Reading Vuong’s style as “gay sincerity” is simply an insubstantive frame of understanding for his art as a queer of color, and this myopic lens can lead to unnuanced and insensitive conclusions. Rather, Vuong’s novel is best understood and appreciated through a Queer lens, where sincerity serves as a vehicle to express how different positionalities manifest, intersect, and interact in the body.
McAdory has a troubling preoccupation with humor, which he discusses four discrete times throughout his article. McAdory seems to yearn for some sort of comic relief in Vuong’s narrative of queer of color struggle against racism, violence, queerphobia, and heterosexism. Real-life queers of color often yearn for this comic relief too, but our experiences are not a book in hand that can be placed down momentarily for a sip of coffee. Is McAdory simply masking his discomfort as a call for range, or is this an implication that queers of color owe the reader humor, demanding that we soften the truths of our experience in the interest of comfort and palatability for more privileged readers?
My main trouble is McAdory’s frame of “gay sincerity” and the scope it fails to offer. McAdory attempts to separate the nuances and degrees of Vuong’s experiential writing; Little Dog is not just gay — he is a poor Vietnamese boy, born of transnational migration under the force of colonialism and militarism. McAdory’s isolation of Little Dog’s sexuality robs this queer of color art of context, and his rhetoric is destructive to an understanding of the novel and queer of color art writ large. McAdory even concedes that his review is not Queer in nature, yet he still imposes a framework of understanding that is so reductive, critiquing Vuong’s narration of Little Dog’s homosexual experiences with no nuance of considering Little Dog’s position as a racialized subject. McAdory’s “gay sincerity” separates Little Dog’s sexuality from all of the identities which influence his experience, which is simply an inadequate frame; instead, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous may only be fully understood through a frame of Queer sincerity, where sexual, romantic, racial, gendered, and all other normative intersections of identity are at the forefront of our analysis.
McAdory is particularly critical of Vuong’s depiction of the queer erotic. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous concerns histories which render queer of color bodies, specifically queer Asian bodies, fetishized and objectified. Vuong uses the poetics McAdory is critiquing to ruminate on this erotic illegibility, capturing these legacies that emanate forward in the subtlest of details. I would like to offer a queer close reading of a passage from the novel depicting this intimacy:
Under the humid sheets, [Trevor] pressed his cock between my legs. I spat in my hand
and reached back, grabbed tight his heated length, mimicking the real thing, as he
pushed, [...] Although this was a mock attempt, a penis in a fist in place of the inner self,
for a moment it was real. It was real because we didn’t have to look — as if we fucked
and unfucked at a distance from our bodies, yet still inside the sensation, like a
memory, [...] he fucked my hand until he shuddered, wet, like the muffler of a truck
starting up in the rain. Until my palm slickened and he said, “No, oh no,” as if it was
blood, not semen, that was leaving him. Done with ourselves, we lay for a while, our
faces cooling as they dried.
If we consider Little Dog’s queer positionality as a whole, Ocean Vuong’s narrative intent becomes clear; Vuong captures Little Dog’s embodied affect, or how his emotions manifest in the body. This allows us to feel Little Dog’s doubt firsthand, from the very beginning of this intimate experience with Trevor: “mimicking the real thing,” as if Little Dog’s experience is rendered invalid via the contact of his queer, racialized body against that of Trevor — white, masculine, normative. This gives Little Dog an almost out-of-body experience, like he is “at a distance from [their] bodies.” This all leads to Little Dog interpreting Trevor’s pleasure as disgust, which Vuong paints through violent symbolism: “as if it was blood, not semen, that was leaving him.”
The racial dynamic of Trevor’s white, normative body against Little Dog’s racialized and queer one can be best observed during another scene toward the end of the novel, where Little Dog faces an expulsive plight in the space of their intimacy: “Trevor being who he was, raised in the fabric and muscle of American masculinity, I feared for what would come. It was my fault. I had tainted him with my faggotry, the filthiness of our act exposed by my body’s failure to contain itself.” Here, Little Dog’s positionality highlights itself in its sexual and erotic illegibility, evoking feelings of shame when he finds himself human against the body of a normative, white, masculine figure. Via Little Dog’s psyche, Ocean Vuong holds a mirror up to the fact that Asian bodies are seen as needing to assimilate by assenting to an exploitative capitalist nation-state to be seen as human, only to be marked as perpetual foreigners — those for whom assimilation is impossible and unattainable, for otherness is inscribed on their bodies and societal expectations surrounding them. The reader is swept into the emotional havoc born of the idea that queers of color should not take up too much space, that we should be perfect law-abiding citizens, that we should be hypervigilant lest we dirty the world around us with our racialized faggotry. This boundary is enforced psychologically, demarcated in our minds through an architecture of respectability politics and histories of violence against those of us who transgressed by shitting on the cock of a state which demands our saline abjection. Looking past our own personal discomforts, we begin to see how Vuong’s storytelling captures this nuance; details like these are not simple poetics — they are testimonies against the structures which render racialized queer bodies sexually illegible in the eyes of a subversive capitalist state.
McAdory references another novel by a queer of color, 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell, to offer us his preferences in reading queer of color art. 100 Boyfriends is a fleeting, ephemeral novel, describing the Black queer narrator’s erotic navigation of the world in all of its twists and turns, including but not limited to the time he was pissed in at a bathhouse (you read that correctly, I assure you). Purnell’s style is distinct from that of Vuong, in that Vuong makes his narrator legible by reaching into us through poetic expression where Purnell pulls us in with tongue-in-cheek caprices, rich with shock value that keeps us coming back for more. Purnell and Vuong have a common goal: to make their narrators’ experiences — sexual and quotidian — legible as queers of color who fall in the margins of race, class, sexuality, among many others. To imply that Purnell’s method of accomplishing this — through his strikingly vivid descriptions of the narrator’s sexual encounters — is superior to Vuong’s poetics is to say that queers of color can only be made legible when presented as steamy, clever, and gloomless sexual subjects.
Returning to McAdory’s overarching argument, his critique of Vuong’s construction of affect, we see that he is quite displeased that On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a narrative that does not call for flowery and merry writing; he seems frustrated at the lack of a feel-good, “energizing,” and “refreshing” beat to the story of a young queer of color navigating a minefield of social and personal hardships. McAdory critiques Vuong’s expression of trauma, expressing his grievances with the “still-open wound[s] suffered by the narrator,” as if these are to be softened or adulterated for the reader’s comfort. Is the onus on racialized queer bodies to shift our intentions away from our own healing? Should we instead pursue the interest of a reader who — in a position of privilege — is made uncomfortable by the way we express the bearing of these wounds? Of course, as queers of color grapple with our lived experiences through writing, we would never want readers like McAdory to “grow tired, after so many rounds of this sentimental journey to the weepy” when faced with the truth of our everyday experiences. Queer sincerity is scary, after all.
 Paul McAdory, “Gay Sincerity is Scary,” Gawker, September 9, 2021, https://www.gawker.com/culture/gay-sincerity-is-scary.
 Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (New York: Penguin Press, 2019), 114. Emphasis mine.
 Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, 203. Emphasis mine.
 McAdory, “Gay Sincerity is Scary.”
 McAdory, “Gay Sincerity is Scary.”