Voicing an immigrant-American experience with expressive type

Fall 2019
2 weeks

Environmental typography
Print Design
A 36”x72” hanging print that uses typography to explore voice. How can emotion and narrative be conveyed through letterforms alone?

Ocean Vuong’s autofiction novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous explores the experience of growing up in the United States as an immigrant, grappling with generational trauma, racism, and sexuality. I was particularly drawn to a passage where the narrator’s mother could not communicate effectively in English while at a grocery store. The mixed feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment he felt witnessing the miscommunication were startling in its relatability.

“You turned to me, your face wet, pleading. “Tell them. Go ahead and tell them what we need.” I didn’t know that [...] was called oxtail. I shook my head, shame welling inside me. The men stared, their chortling now reduced to bewildered concern […] None of us spoke […] our words suddenly wrong everywhere, even in our mouths.

[…] That night I promised myself I’d never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you. So began my career as our family’s official interpreter. From then on, I would fill in our blanks, our silences, stutters, whenever I could. I code switched. I took off our language and wore my English like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.”
p. 32

I wanted to explore that difficulty of cultural translation—the idea of wearing “English like a mask” as a front, to both hide away ‘other-ness’ and to present ‘American-ness,’ creates a juxtaposition with the tension of silence.

︎ Creating a literal gap in language, failing to see through the words in a foreign language, “so that they would see my face, and therefore yours.”