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Special Issue Articles

Vol. 4 No. 1 (2022): American Studies as Vulnerability Studies

On Being Topped: Vulnerability and Pleasure in Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

  • Leopold Lippert
November 15, 2021


This article explores the sexual and racial politics of anal vulnerability in Ocean Vuong's 2019 novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. The article shows how the book negotiates the relationship between vulnerability as an embodied relation—configured as forms of bodily receptiveness, permeability, and dependency that necessarily constitute the formal basis of any intersubjective encounter—and vulnerability as a social relation, configured as frameworks of legitimation that differentiate populations in terms of how they encounter, and are affected by, risk, attachment, desire, violence, and physical and mental health. By reading a series of teenage sexual encounters between the Asian American narrator-protagonist Little Dog and Trevor, his white first lover, the article shows that the novel uses anal sensation and metaphoricity to negotiate the vulnerabilities that come with sexual shame and stigma, racial trauma, internalized homophobia, as well as with racialized sexual stereotypes, all the while suggesting ways in which these vulnerabilities may be turned into sources of pleasure, care, reparation, and healing.


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