How I love this article by Ocean Vuong for its insight into a different way of writing, especially handling narratives and literary techniques such as metaphor, and in the writing of On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous. I suppose I am grateful for Vuong’s voice at this moment because with the opera I am writing I feel pressured to write a classical dramatic arc with a main protagonist (Riel, of course), someone who DOES SOMETHING! In this much-anticipated work on Riel, I feel especially pressured to write something political/historical rather than the multi-layered work I have written to date, one with multiple persons, choruses, narrator, all working in an ensemble to create a whole. Thus it is fascinating to read Vuong’s literary provenance— that they are a poet does not surprise me.
In the article, Vuong (a McArthur Genius Award winner) writes: “In Western narratology, the plot is the dominant mode to which all characters are subordinate. But I wanted a novel to hold these characters thoroughly and, most importantly, on their own terms, free from a system of governance, even one of my own making. I could not employ the plot-heavy strategy because I needed these people to exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story.” Vuong cites
I love their commentary on the use of the metaphor from the point of view of non-Western literature. So often, it seems, we are warned not to write in clichés, nor to write in a style that is too metaphor-heavy. But Vuong comments that metaphor is ‘an alternate speech act’, and that ‘metaphor in the mouths of survivors became a way to innovate around pain’.” Oh how interesting, metaphor being a time-honoured building block of poetry empowers rather victimises the one who has experienced trauma; it is not a sidestep, nor a blocking.
What I am particularly intrigued with is how Vuong cites his use of Kishōtenketsu, a Chinese/Korean/Japanese literary form (Ki – Introduction; Shō – Development; Ten – Twist; and Ketsu – Conclusion). In this way they felt able to describe violence but not privilege it: ‘”It was important to me, at least in this book, that violence remain independent from any character’s self-worth, rendering it inert, terrible, and felt—but not a means of “development.” Through Kishōtenketsu, violence becomes fact and not a vehicle towards a climax.’
Now if I understand correctly, the Ten, or the twist, is a contrast rather than a climax in a ‘typical’ Western narrative arc. In some cases, the Ten is a cautionary tale within a tale (I’m just beginning research on the form so forgive me if I don’t have it correct!). Interestingly, Kishōtenketsu is used in gaming narratives (google the term in Google Scholar for a wide body of analyses), and given the relative youth of Vuong I could see how this might be a natural narrative ecology. The author offers this statement on why they used this form: ‘I could not employ the plot-heavy strategy because I needed these people to exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story.’ I like this very much in the context of my current work that focuses on the multi-cultural peoples—the composers and conductors may feel daunted as they juggle the forces on stage, but somehow, to me, it just feels right.