The Migrant in the Mirror

In recent novels, Ocean Vuong and Nicole Dennis-Benn tell stories in which young queer characters affected by migration and displacement are worthy of seeing themselves reflected in others.

Morgan Jerkins | Longreads | September 2019 | 8 minutes (1,940 words)

In Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the narrator, called Little Dog, describes the moment that he comes out to his mother. It is a gray Sunday morning inside of a Dunkin’ Donuts; he is 17 years old and in love with a boy named Trevor. After relaying some of the conversation exchanged between him and his mother, Little Dog’s narrative moves backward and forward in time, presenting the history of his queer sexuality. There was a little boy in the sixth grade named Gramoz; he and his family were immigrants just like Little Dog’s family. Little Dog followed Gramoz around, wanting to become his shadow. Years later, a college professor will use Othello to argue that gay men are narcissistic, and Little Dog will think back to his love for Gramoz:

“Could it be…I followed Gramoz in the schoolyard simply because he was a boy, and therefore a mirror of myself?…Maybe we look into mirrors not merely to seek beauty…but to make sure…we are still here. That the hunted boy we move in has not yet been annihilated, scraped out. To see yourself still yourself is a refuge men who have not been denied cannot know.”

Far from being narcissistic as the professor implies, this search for other people — lovers and friends — who serve as mirrors in which “to see yourself still yourself” is a journey of multi-layered feeling. Little Dog is the son of an immigrant mother; she raised him and understands him through a lens that attempts to reconcile his Americanization with his Vietnamese heritage, a dual vision of himself which he has to some extent inherited. Meanwhile, in an American landscape, anyone not white is othered; and the compounding of additional identities — whether it be LGBT, disabled, poor, so on and so forth — makes one even more of a target. And so the body, and all of its physical connections and intimacies, its burdens of proof, becomes an intense center of meaning for a young queer immigrant. By seeking his reflection, Little Dog is asserting a stability of selfhood that has been questioned and denied throughout his life; by seeking refuge in another body, Little Dog is affirming a lesson of migration: that bodies are the carriers of home and memory.

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In Nicole Dennis-Benn’s sophomore novel Patsy, a young mother, the eponymous Patsy, migrates to New York City, abandoning her only daughter in the process. Patsy decides to make the move after being inspired by a series of correspondences from her childhood best friend, Cicely. In their youth, Patsy was Cicely’s protector; Patsy stood up to Cicely’s bullies and helped her cheat on school exams. In America, Cicely’s beauty has allowed her to make a respectable match with an aspiring Brooklyn politician named Marcus, who is also Jamaican yet has an aversion to West Indian immigrants. When Patsy moves into Cicely and Marcus’s brownstone, the tension is thick. At the dinner table one night, Marcus says about Cicely’s chicken, “She’s not the most creative cook. All we eat is unseasoned raw meat in this house.” Patsy follows up by saying that the chicken is “di best,” to which Cicely smiles. Dennis-Benn writes of this subtle expression, “Patsy sees this smile…on Cicely’s face. Feels validated by it — like it’s the only purpose of her being in America; the only familiar thing that renders her envy harmless.” Patsy is in love with Cicely. In fact, Cicely is Patsy’s only anchor in America. When Marcus is not around, they speak and laugh about the past in patois. When he is around, as mentioned in the scene above, small niceties like Cicely’s smile remind Patsy why she is here in America to make a new life for herself.

Survival, the physical endurance of their bodies, is what binds them no matter where their family settles.

Growing up, Patsy had always admired Cicely for how beautiful she was; but, like Little Dog searching for a vision of himself “not yet…annihilated” in Gramoz, Patsy doesn’t admire and stick close to Cicely only because she’s beautiful. Cicely is the physical manifestation of what Patsy yearned for back in Jamaica: the American dream. Cicely made it. By being around Cicely, Patsy reminds herself that because she is still here, she has a chance to make it, too. Even when Patsy is overwhelmed with how and where to apply for jobs and feels as though she’s not ready to take on the city, Cicely says to her, “Don’t worry. Yuh not alone. Not while I’m here.” Cicely gives Patsy her shawl and Dennis-Benn writes, “…she feels its warmth…and the years rub away like smoke from glass as Patsy presses her palms in Cicely’s.” Reading these lines, I thought of the glass as Vuong’s mirror; the smoke being wiped away is the clarity that Vuong references. Neither Little Dog nor Patsy are alone when they gaze upon the one whom their heart desires: the one who makes them feel whole and present in the world, the shadow in the glass as muse.

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While Little Dog is coming out to his mother, his mother decides to confess as well. When she was Little Dog’s age, she tells him, she was pregnant with what could’ve been his older brother. Four months into her pregnancy, she was pressured into aborting him: “There was nothing to eat,” she says. “People were putting sawdust in the rice to stretch it. You were lucky if you had rats to eat.” Later on, she decided to keep the pregnancy that would give her Little Dog because she knew this child would have a better chance at life. Little Dog responds,

“It is no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles the fetus — the nerve of continuation. We are all once inside our mothers, saying, with our entire curved and silent selves, more, more, more. I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication?”

This replication, this quest for more, for the sublimeness of being seen, is what drew Little Dog to Gramoz; that’s the best way he can describe his sexuality to a mother who responds to his coming out by asking if he will start wearing dresses, if he knows that gay men are often killed for being gay. As Little Dog explains, “before the French occupation, our Vietnamese did not have a name for queer bodies.” The only substitute is the word for pedophile, linking his queer body to criminality, categorizing his body and his desire as something which is not allowed or possible, much like his mother’s first pregnancy. Little Dog tells the readers that they both left the Dunkin’ Donuts heavier than when they came in because of what they knew about each other, Little Dog having learned about his mother’s life in Vietnam before he was born and his mother having learned her son is gay. Reaching out to her across time and space, Little Dog draws a connection between these two experiences; in that Dunkin’ Donuts, an iconic American chain, in between the ruptures in translation and cultural conditioning, Little Dog shows his mother how he is growing outside of her womb, outside of Vietnam, at the exact age where she did not allow for another son of hers to do the same. It’s a blurring of timelines, of what could have or should have been and what is now. Both Little Dog and his mother are heavy with acknowledgment of what their bodies mean in their respective spaces. Little Dog graphically explains that her mother’s earlier child was “scraped…out of [her], like seeds from a papaya.” In America, Little Dog yearns to not be “scraped out” or “annihilat[ed]” by his desiring of men. Survival, the physical endurance of their bodies, is what binds them no matter where their family settles.

Queerness gives them hope that they can not only survive but flourish — by refusing to see themselves as strangers in the world.

In Patsy, survival is a more individual project; the family is frayed. Patsy has a small child named Tru, but her role as a mother is precarious. Patsy did not want Tru; during her pregnancy, relatives would physically restrain her from flinging herself down steps. Unlike in Little Dog’s mother’s situation, abortion was not an option because of Jamaica’s laws. Once Tru is born, Patsy doesn’t do much to nurture her; Dennis-Benn writes, “It was as though the child somehow knew…that she would have to sooth herself.” This is a foreshadowing of the abandonment to come. Though Patsy birthed Tru and loves her, that love does not overpower her desire to move to America; when she leaves, Patsy lies to Tru about coming back for her in due time. Despite this estrangement, there is a connection between them, a kind of synchronicity: as Patsy is trying (but ultimately failing) to have a relationship with Cicely, and later on striving to make it work with another woman named Claudette, Tru is leaning into her own queerness.


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Similar to Patsy and Cicely’s romantic genesis, Tru is falling for a classmate named Saskia. One day, when Saskia invites Tru over to her place, Tru asks Saskia, “Yuh talk to yuh mother a lot?” Saskia replies, “Every day” after which Dennis-Benn writes, “Tru imagines Saskia and her mother exchanging stories about their day like girlfriends. Suddenly she’s lanced with envy.” Tru doesn’t have that connection with Patsy, whose communication is irregular. From Tru’s standpoint, Saskia has a fuller life, with a mother who’s emotionally, if not physically, present. Saskia begins to dance and motions for Tru to repeat her steps — a literalization of the desire for replication that Little Dog expresses to his mother. Tru falls and brings Saskia with her. They laugh and play off the momentary intimacy of their embrace, after which Tru asks if they can hang out after school more often. Tru has found someone she can shadow, a girl who is a projection of what Tru wants to be: someone with a stable mother, someone who can dance and have fun. Tru, meanwhile, suffers because of the absence of her own mother, whom she (wrongly) assumes is living it up in America.

Despite their estrangement, Tru and Patsy’s bodies seem to resonate with each other. They are both queer people trying to navigate what that means in their respective spaces, and to survive. Survival is a steady theme throughout immigrant literature, but what is most striking in Vuong and Dennis-Benn’s work is that they concentrate on the intimacy of their subjects without bombarding the reader with cold and calcified historical detail; instead, we learn about their countries’ histories — and about the consequences of the characters’ movement across vast spaces — through the living, breathing reality of the protagonists’ bodies. We learn about physical, bodily sacrifices at the expense of others, as in the case of Patsy, who denies her daughter the comfort of a mother’s presence; or for the future benefit of others, as in the case of Little Dog’s mother, who makes a wrenching choice to abort a pregnancy when she does not believe the child will be able to thrive. And in the midst of these often painful decisions for immigrant mothers, queerness is a challenge to conventions of identity and sexuality, but also of motherhood and migration. Queerness encourages these characters to see how their bodies, and their beings, resonate and connect in both expected and unexpected ways. Queerness gives them hope that they can not only survive but flourish — by refusing to see themselves as strangers in the world.

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Morgan Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America. She is based in New York.

Editor: Dana Snitzky