Culture Editor Rebecca Scott reviews the debut novel from renowned Vietnamese-American poet, Ocean Vuong.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the triumphant debut novel from Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong, written in the form of letters from a son to his illiterate Vietnamese mother. Instantly drawn to the novel from its eloquently existentialist title, as well as being a fan of Vuong’s previous poetry, I was eager to check this one out.
The novel, which closely mirrors Vuong’s real life, follows a character known to the reader only as Little Dog - an affectionate nickname given to him by his mother - and his navigation of a tumultuous youth. Following a non-linear, fragmented narrative, Vuong explores Little Dog’s experience of moving from Vietnam to the northeast United States with his mother and grandmother, neither of whom speak English.
The heart of On Earth… focuses on the theme of migration; the novel itself opens with Little Dog telling a story of Monarch butterflies migrating south for winter. He explains that the places we’re from are inherent within us, even after we leave; the Monarchs can find their way from Mexico back to Michigan, just as we can find our own way back home if we do enough self-reflection. After moving from Vietnam as a young child, Little Dog has no choice but to become the voice of his family, learning English in school whilst his mother works at a nail salon. It is Little Dog, then, who is responsible for communication between his family and the predominantly white residents of their American town. His acute awareness of this leads to a stressful and anxious youth, only amplified by racist aggression and targeted bullying from school peers.
Vuong explores another side of prejudice in Little Dog’s adolescence through detailing his first love with an all-American country boy. These sections about Little Dog’s relationship include some of the most beautifully articulated sex scenes I’ve ever read, bathed by Vuong in a nostalgic golden light that I feel one can only truly appreciate having had a similar experience in one’s own youth. Despite their gorgeously detailed relationship and the tenderness with which he describes his love, the nexus of homophobia and racism plaguing Little Dog is shockingly brutal and, unfortunately, all too real. Upon coming out, Little Dog’s mother condemns him: “When did all this start? I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy.” The reader feels this societal rejection alongside Little Dog, particularly as he assures his illiterate mother that the graffiti ‘FAG4LIFE’ scrawled upon their front door is a holiday greeting as opposed to a homophobic attack: “It says ‘Merry Christmas’, Ma. See? That’s why it’s red.”
Little Dog spends the majority of On Earth... reckoning with the familial trauma inherited from his family’s experience of the Vietnam war. These sections are the most graphic and starkly detailed of any within the book, allowing for the magnitude of the family’s experience with the war to be given sufficient gravitas.
Throughout the letters to his mother, Little Dog weaves in tales of his grandparents and their Vietnamese heritage, exploring the gruesome reality of forced abortions and the decimation of Vietnamese communities by US forces. As Little Dog grows up, he learns more and more of his family history and the struggle through which his ancestors went in order for him to be where he is today. As someone who doesn’t know all too much about the Vietnam-US war - state schooling failed me - Vuong’s detailing of the conflict had me at a loss for words. It opened my eyes to the horrific extent of the US forces’ attacks upon Vietnamese communities, and the enduring trauma that has been inflicted upon subsequent generations - even those not raised on Vietnamese soil. The hard-to-stomach nature of these sections of Little Dog’s letters made getting through this novel a genuine struggle at times, however exposure to the lived experience of such conflict is of great benefit to the readers’ understanding of contemporary Vietnamese culture and communities.
Throughout On Earth..., it’s clear to see the effect that Vuong’s tenure as a poet has had upon his writing style; the novel is raw and powerful, and Vuong’s tendency to describe Little Dog’s life through a peripheral lens makes for a genuinely moving reading experience. There is seldom the bluntness of an event being described plainly or through layman’s terms; rather, Vuong’s utilisation of imagery and language is reminiscent of pointillist artistry, wherein individual details are imprecise and even vague at points, but the pattern in which they are recounted makes for the creation of something astonishing. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous felt like a true masterpiece being crafted before my eyes, and I was devastated to see the novel draw to a close.
I truly can’t recommend this book highly enough – I don’t remember the last time I was so floored after reading something that I had to take the rest of the day off speaking to family. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a passionate, eye-opening journey, and is most certainly one to be added to your lockdown reading list.