Capturing the Essence of Survival: A Review of Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an autobiographical novel, best described by Vuong himself, who said “This book would be founded on truth, but realized by the imagination.” Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese American poet, essayist and most recently a novelist. Vuong’s family fled Vietnam as refugees and settled in Hartford, Connecticut where he would spend his formative years, before leaving to attend various post-secondary institutions in New York.

I prefer to sit on a novel for a couple of days before writing a review. It has been over a week since I finished On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and I still am not sure what to say. One of the members of my book club articulated this perfectly, they said, “there is less to say when the book is so good.” I will start with the most basic facts about the book. The hardcover makes the book look bulkier than it really is, I finished the book in two and a half days. The novel is written in the form of a letter from a son to his illiterate mother. Similar to Vuong, the narrator and author of the letter, Little Dog and his family settled in Hartford, Connecticut after fleeing Vietnam, where Little Dog spends his formative years before relocating to New York as an adult.

(Image taken from Amherst Bulletin)

Vuong is first and foremost a poet, and he remains loyal to the medium that has served him best. His poetry is enchanting, and I’m sure very carefully placed even though I don’t fully understand it. That is perhaps the most important thing there is to know about this book, you will need to return to it many times. I think poems have gained popularity in recent years because we are able to publicly acknowledge that a poem is beautiful without ever understanding it. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous has returned me to the place of a scholar. There are references to texts like Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author. Vuong brings an incredible beauty back into the study of poetry and into the writing of poetry, that is not witty one-liners, but stanzas that cannot be understood in isolation so you must commit to the study of this work and the world in which that work is created, in its entirety.

Maybe the marvel and gorgeousness is having lived rather than in actual experiences of happiness.

To be honest my initial impression of the book was less positive. Although Little Dog’s relationship with his mother is the primary focus of the letter, his relationship with a white farm boy named Trevor also dominates the latter part of his childhood years. I found it difficult to embrace the discomfort of Little Dog’s intimate relationship with someone so unlike him, politically and socially. I know that discomfort came from a place of not understanding. This is a barrier I am overcoming. I relate to many aspects of the novel, but in other parts of the novel I found myself saying, “I don’t relate to this; therefore, this part of the story is irrelevant or unrealistic.” The truth is we meet people in these intersections of desperation and oppression who are different from us. There’s something beautiful about that. This is also true for Little Dog’s relationship with his mother and his “grandfather” Paul.

(Image taken from McArthur Fellows Program)

In her profile of Ocean Vuong, Kat Chow of The Atlantic said, “Vuong knows how to capture the essence of survival in his work,” (which is where I derived the title of this review). In the same article, Vuong states that he has been asked to write about things other than “war, violence, queerness and immigration. But he felt he wasn’t finished asking questions about those themes – all integral to understanding American identity.” The title of the novel is ironic, because for queer, racialized, immigrant, low-income bodies, life is often brief but rarely gorgeous, that is the nature of survival. You existed. Maybe the marvel and gorgeousness is having lived rather than in actual experiences of happiness. There is something cruel and privileged about asking Vuong to write about other things because the reality is that we live, we laugh, we exist and we love in war, queerness, violence and immigrance. To cease to write about these issues erases the people who exist in these spaces. In Little Dog’s story the tragedy and brevity of life is also realized in the Opioid epidemic that threatened to consume him and his community in his teenage years. It reminds me of something Little Dog says, “I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful.”

Naturally, I wondered why Little Dog chose to write a letter to his illiterate mother, she cannot read it. Only Little Dog knows why. I have my suspicions. I was a child myself. I have had to re-examine childhood experiences, formative relationships and the like. We all ask these questions, to which there are no answers and to which there are difficult answers. The healing, the remembering and the compassion occurs in the asking that the answers become less important.


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