- America, through Little Dog’s eyes
- Proximate bodies: labor and intimacy, pleasure, violence, risk
- Genre (Vuong was first known as a poet) and the novel’s epistolary form
- Language: English and Vietnamese, plus Little Dog’s descriptions of writing
- Imagery, in general and in the family’s names: plants, animals, insects. “Monkeys, moose, cows, dogs, butterflies, buffaloes. What we would give to have the ruined lives of animals tell a human story—when our lives are in themselves the story of animals.” (242)
JOIN US FOR OUR VIRTUAL BOOK CLUB MEETING
While we’re unable to meet in the theater, we’re taking our book club online. We hope it’ll be a great way to read new books and stay connected. The event for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous will be Friday, April 10 from 5-6pm on Zoom. RSVP here to receive the link.
ABOUT THE BOOK
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
the body what it knows
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ocean Vuong is the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, out from Penguin Press (2019) and forthcoming in 26 languages worldwide. A recipient of a 2019 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, he is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, his honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he serves as an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass-Amherst.
Get Into It
The Paris Review
Interview with Ocean Vuong
“I think that’s what a novel is, at its core, one person trying to know themselves so thoroughly that they realize, in the end, it was the times they lived in, the people they touched and learned from, that made them real.”
I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey. (4)
I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful. If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink of an eye, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly. Like right now, how the sun is coming on, low behind the elms, and I can’t tell the difference between a sunset and a sunrise. The world, reddening, appears the same to me—and I lose track of east and west. The colors this morning have the frayed tint of something already leaving. I think of the time Trev and I sat on the tool shed roof, watching the sun sink. I wasn’t so much surprised by its effect—how, in a few crushed minutes, it changes the way things are seen, including ourselves—but that it was ever mine to see. Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted. (238)
Once, at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched gold with ‘Nam Vet 4 Life, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it.
But why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration? (178-9)
When I first started writing, I hated myself for being so uncertain, about images, clauses, ideas, even the pen or journal I used. Everything I wrote began with maybe and perhaps and ended with I think or I believe. But my doubt is everywhere, Ma. Even when I know something to be true as bone I fear the knowledge will dissolve, will not, despite my writing it, stay real. I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else—where exactly, I’m not sure. Just as I don’t know what to call you—White, Asian, orphan, American, mother? (62)
You asked me what it’s like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess, I know. But it’s a mess, Ma—I’m not making this up. I made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball. And you look through it and see the thick steam in the all-night bathhouse in Flushing, where someone reached out to me once, traced the trapped flute of my collarbone. I never saw that man’s face, only the gold-rimmed glasses floating in the fog. And then the feeling, the velvet heat of it, everywhere inside me.
Is that what art is? To be touched thinking what we feel is ours when, in the end, it was someone else, in longing, who finds us? (189)
What if the mother tongue is stunted? What if that tongue is not only the symbol of a void, but is itself a void, what if the tongue is cut out? Can one take pleasure in loss without losing oneself entirely? The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level.
As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again.
Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all—but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.
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. (31-2)
Two languages cancel each other out, suggest Barthes, beckoning a third. Sometimes our words are few and far between, or simply ghosted. In which case the hand, although limited by the borders of skin and cartilage, can be that third language that animates whether the tongue falters.
It’s true that, in Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you, and when we do, it is almost always in English. Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through service… Lan called to me, “Little Dog, get over here and help me help your mother.” And we knelt on each side of you, rolling out the Hardie red cords in your upper arms, then down to your wrists, your fingers. For a moment almost too brief to matter, this made sense—that three people on the floor, connected to each other by touch, made something like the word family. (33)
In Vietnamese, the word for missing someone and remembering them is the same: nhớ. Sometimes, when you ask me over the phone, Con nhớ mẹ không? I flinch, thinking you meant, Do you remember me?
I miss you more than I remember you. (186)
4. “DELAYING SADNESS”:
Later, I would learn that this was a common scene on a Saigon night. City coroners, underfunded, don’t always work around the clock. When someone dies in the middle of the night, they get trapped in a municipal limbo where the corpse remains inside its death. As a response, a grassroots movement was formed as a communal salve. Neighbors, having learned of a sudden death, would, in under an hour, pool money and hire a troupe of drag performers for what was called “delaying sadness.”
In Saigon, the sound of music and children playing this late in the night is a sign of death—or rather, a sign of a community attempting to heal.
It’s through the drag performers’ explosive outfits and gestures, their overdrawn faces and voices, their tabooed trespass of gender, that this relief, through extravagant spectacle, is manifest. As much as they are useful, paid, and empowered as a vital service in a society where to be queer is still a sin, the drag queens are, for as long as the dead lie in the open, an othered performance. Their presumed, reliable fraudulence is what makes their presence, to the mourners, necessary. Because grief, at its worst, is unreal. And it calls for a surreal response. The queens—in this way—are unicorns.
Unicorns stamping in a graveyard. (225-226)