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On Earth we’re briefly gorgeous

Ocean Vuong was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1988, and moved to the United States at the age of two, where he now lives. He has won several awards for his poetry and his first novel is also much-lauded. On Earth we’re briefly gorgeous is a dramatic coming-of-age story interlaced with family trauma, and a letter to the mother of the now-adult narrator.

The narrator, affectionately called “Little Dog” by his mother and grandmother – themselves named after flowers –  grows up with the two women, who fled to the U.S. from the war and its aftermath in Vietnam and who, at least at first, still believe in the American dream. The novel runs its course very poetically, combining intermittent flashbacks to the grandmother’s earlier life, with Little Dog’s childhood and adolescence. Yet the gentleness of the language does not mask the degree of brutality that characterizes the lives of the characters.

Little Dog remembers the stories his grandmother told him about leaving her family and a bad marriage behind, giving herself a new name, prostituting herself, and entering into a relationship during the war with a U.S. soldier, who later reappears in Little Dog’s life in the U.S. as “Grandpa.” Rose, his mother, will never be able to read Little Dog’s letter because she is illiterate. She works herself to death in a nail salon, struggles with the new language, and violently takes out her regular fits of rage, brought on by past traumas and the difficult living conditions in the U.S., on her son. Though the retrospective narrative style often seems cool and cautious, the precision with which the narrator repeatedly reflects his understanding of violence as affection is incredibly moving.

Violence also characterizes the narrator’s relationship with his white trash boyfriend Trevor, whom he meets as a teenager during a summer holiday job on a tobacco plantation. In sexual submission, the narrator now recognizes another quality in violence. In this respect, the book conveys a nuanced and exceedingly ambivalent understanding of violence.

What impressed me as I read were the narrator’s observations of social positions: the privilege the white Trevor enjoys in contrast to the narrator, even though Trevor lives in relative poverty in a trailer and later slips into drug addiction; how far the narrator, who ends up studying literature in New York, distances himself from the reality of his illiterate mother’s life; how he gets to the bottom of shame. The book, in form of a letter to the mother, is a careful, linguistically beautiful, and frighteningly brutal self-reflection of the homosexual child of immigrants. This retrospective itself shows connectedness and disconnection, and in this way, a certain resistance to restrictive social structures.

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