A Self-Reflection, A Book Review: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
by Vivian Le
I have carried a 40-minute-long voice recording of a conversation with my mom on my phone since I was seventeen. Every new device I get I always make sure the recording safely transfers to the next.
My mother immigrated to Des Moines, IA from Biên Hòa, Vietnam when she was fifteen. Born a year after the fall of Saigon, she grew up in a country divided by ideology and fear, which fueled her unstable upbringing. With a brief stop in the Philippine Refugee Processing Center to learn English and become vaccinated, she finally arrived in the U.S. in 1991. By the time she was nineteen, she was engaged to a boy from Huế she met at bible study. At the time, waves of Southeast Asian refugees flooded into Iowa as part of Governor Robert D. Ray’s resettlement initiative and many Christians opened up their homes. She came from a Buddhist family, but part of American assimilation was to attend church. At twenty, she was married. At my current age of 21, she gave birth to a baby girl and gave her a name abstracting all her desires and ambitions: Mỹ (English: America).
I remember the day I recorded her voice. I remember coming into her room and sitting next to the bed asking if I could interview her for a class project. It was the afternoon, and she had just woken up from sleeping most of the day. My mother, Dũng, has worked the night shift at every job she’s ever had since I could remember. Growing up, I knew better than to wake my nocturnal mother while the sun was up. The feeling of the last strike to my cheek always fresh in my memory. My father, Hiệp, worked during the daytime at a nail salon. She and my father only saw each other around 6:00 AM and 8:00 PM when they handed off my brothers and I like batons. We’ve somehow avoided paying for childcare my whole life this way.
Looking back, the interview feels very anthropological. In the recording, I asked my mother questions in English while she answered in Vietnamese. I asked her to detail her life in Vietnam and her journey to the United States. I asked of her wounds and the trauma she felt before leaving, since leaving. I remember I felt entitled to her story. I remember I felt like her life was just as much mine as it was hers. It’s a communal selfishness that I share with many other children of immigrants. As if we can excavate memory from our families, gouge with our Western hands and eyes for substance, for writing, for art.
I never used the recording because I couldn’t quite learn how to balance myself into her narrative. I am a symptom of a diaspora. A child that may never understand.
A few weeks ago, I came across poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous at Prairie Lights Books. My weekly trip to the bookstore is always before a serving shift at the restaurant next door. It includes a matcha latte in hand and a lazy, passive glance at the new arrivals for 15 minutes. I was struck by Vuong’s book when recognizing the Vietnamese name, and purchased it. I drove home immediately after work to read it. I read the book aloud to myself while tears welled in my eyes, and thought about my mom. I thought about the protagonist, Little Dog—how I knew him. How I was him.
The coming-of-age novel follows a son, Little Dog, and mother, Rose whose relationship is muddled by their differences rooted in their background as Vietnamese immigrants to a country that disregards broken people. It’s a semi-fictionalized letter to the author’s mother who is illiterate. It’s a letter she will never be able to read.
“I am writing to you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.”
The novel is filled with vignettes of Little Dog’s childhood, which contain quick and jarring moments of abuse from his mother. However, before one might paint Rose as a villain, the author counters each blow of a hand with a moment of tender and earnest vulnerability from Rose. In one charged incident, Rose picks up a knife. Realizing how dangerous her actions could become, she quickly puts it down and screams at her son to leave. He runs. He is ten. Another time, Little Dog waits for a train in New York City when he sees the face of his cousin who died in a car wreck. He becomes distraught. He calls his mother and she consoles him by humming “Happy Birthday” because it’s the only English song she knows. She is doing the best that she can.
In another incident, she hits him for not defending himself from the bullies at school. She reminds him that she cannot protect him: “You have a bellyful of English… You have to use it, okay?”
“I read that parents suffering from PTSD are more likely to hit their children. Perhaps there is a monstrous origin to it, after all. Perhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war.”
The love and care between Rose and Little Dog is something they negotiate with each other, and also with the world they live in. While Vuong bridges every idea and every experience with a purpose, he also writes to break the cycle of violence that he knows too well. Vuong has repeated in interviews and at readings that he uses Kishōtenketsu, which is a narrative technique that lacks a main source conflict, “because I refuse to repeat American violence,” he says.
Little Dog and Rose’s dynamic represents something much bigger: what does it mean to be American? Vuong dissects and heals this question like a wound, like a womb.
Little Dog develops a relationship with his boss’s grandson while working on a tobacco farm: a white boy named Trevor. Trevor represents another dynamic of affection and violence in Little Dog’s life, one that is established in the brutal history of America. This becomes how he realizes that he cannot extract the two from each other.
Vuong writes, “What if the body, at its best, us only longing for a body? The blood racing to the heart only to be sent back out, filling the routes, the once empty channels, the miles it takes to take us toward each other? Why did I feel more myself while reaching for him, my hand midair, than I did having touched him?”
Little Dog’s relationship to Rose is further complicated because he is gay. Vuong writes about how the Vietnamese word itself, bê đê, comes from the French pédé which is short for pedophile. While Rose might not understand, she never denies Little Dog because he is all she has. She is all he has.
Vuong does what I could never do—what I never thought about doing. He speaks to his mother, not about her, in his writing. Not once does he turn her into a caricature or extract her intricacies as a person for shock value. He leaves room for fragility. His mother is not a chess piece; she was someone before him, and she is someone after.
Vuong encompasses the conflicts that I have felt and experienced with my own mother and father. It is true: I also grew up experiencing brutal punishments and flesh-breaking criticism. Still, I am not the victim. I am not better. I have also been the source of Western violence that subjected my parents to shame. I’ve begged for us to be more American. “We are no longer in Vietnam,” I’ve told my mother in an argument. Us children can also wield abuse. Our parents are not protected by their relation to us. Being both Vietnamese and being American is to mean that we are always at odds with ourselves and with each other.
Vuong’s prose is stunning. As the 2017 winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for his poetry, Vuong knows how to bend language to his will, making every syllable of English and Vietnamese stretch into double meaning. Vuong evocatively states Little Dog’s feelings when he learns of Trevor’s death through a Facebook post.
“I am broken in two, the message said. [...] Into—yes, that’s more like it. As in, Now I’m broken into.”
Vuong’s poeticism affects every moment of blistering tragedy with an aching, yet illuminating gracefulness.
I am still unsure of how to fill the gaps of information and history that has been influenced heavily by social conditioning and indoctrinated with western perception. How to resolve our family’s story. Yet, there is a balance that Vuong masters in the novel. Every emotion he provokes is a direct missile that seems terrifying and suffocating as it launches. When it finally lands, the feeling mushrooms into a realization, an ability to identify myself in his experience. I see my mother in these pages and feel an exchange of sadness and relief. I can breathe, because I feel we’re not so alone anymore.