Water has held a privileged place in theorizations of Vietnamese refugee being. Drawing from Ocean Vuong’s chapbook Burnings (2010) and novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) along with Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s film The Boat People (2020), this article traces an alternative genealogy of Vietnamese diasporic aesthetics based on the element of fire. Theorizing fire as another critical site of refugee passages, these works evince a pyric refugee onto-epistemology, one that conceives of fire and ash as explicit matter-metaphors of living and beauty that refuse the sensory diminution of racialized subjects as a result of US imperial and militaristic violence. Fire carries with it a destructive valence, and ash is taken as evidence of ruin and disaster. However, the explorations of fire and ash in both artists’ work not only attest to the various onto-epistemological unravelings signified by fire and ash but also conceive of the possibilities and openings for a refugee poiesis that emerges in the aftermath of destruction. Both Vuong and Nguyen stage haptic encounters with ash that wrestle with questions of sensation and subjectivity in the narration of personal and collective trauma. Paradoxically, these texts espouse the notion that any possibility of refugee futurity happens through contact with the subjunctive power of that which is insensible, ash.

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