Diversify Your Bookshelf: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

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‘Let me begin again. 

Dear Ma,

I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are’.

So begins – or indeed, restarts – Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a painful letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. For such a small novel – 242 pages – it is huge in its scope, exploring a family history fragmented by dislocation, war, and loss with poignancy and urgency. 

The novel is a meditation on both the power and inadequacy of language. At five, Little Dog tells us how Rose’s schoolhouse is bombed in an American napalm raid and her education stunted. Forced by the Vietnam War to migrate to Hartford as a young woman, Little Dog’s mother is therefore not only illiterate, but unable to communicate in English. Like the Mexican workers with whom Little Dog works on the tobacco farm, her identity remains tethered and tenuous in an America where the ability to speak English means visibility. In a painfully bittersweet episode, Rose is forced to impersonate an oxtail in a supermarket by ‘twirling and mooing in circles’ when she is unable to describe what she is looking for, her ‘words suddenly wrong everywhere, even in [her] mouth’.  

The novel is a meditation on both the power and the inadequacy of language

Bowing his head in shame, Little Dog vows to ‘never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you’ again. Yet he is faced with countless instances where his clever linguistic tricks betray him and his words are met with agonising silence or awkward, broken laughter. While quotations from the literary critic Roland Barthes pepper the novel, hinting at Little Dog’s escape from the illiteracy that defines his mother, we are left wondering whether language can ever do justice to lived experience. Subsumed by grief, Little Dog discovers that not even Shakespeare and Homer, the ‘masters of death’ and language, can teach him ‘how to touch [his] dead’.  

Little Dog’s first love is Trevor, grandson of the tobacco farm owner Burford and full-blown drug addict. Trevor appears to be the epitome of everything that Little Dog is not – white and American – yet it is with Trevor that Little Dog feels he is ‘seen’ after a lifetime of being invisible. Vuong explores their relationship with real tenderness and honesty, questioning what it means to be both Vietnamese and queer in America.  

The novel’s strength lies in its attention to minute detail. Vuong paints a vivid image of the nail bar in which Rose works with compelling conviction, describing the toxic smells of ‘formaldehyde, toluene, acetone, Pine-sol and bleach’ mingling with the wafting aromas of ‘cloves, cinnamon, ginger, mint and cardamom’. His language is highly lyrical and the narrative fragmented, mirroring the repetitive stories Little Dog’s schizophrenic grandmother Lan tells him about life in war-stricken Vietnam. It is not surprising, then, that Vuong is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. As Little Dog himself recognises, the novel is not so much a story written in prose as a “shipwreck” of highly poetic narratives. 

Vuong reaches a level of emotional intensity precisely because the letter Little Dog writes is pointless: the chances of illiterate Rose being able to understand her son’s writing are non-existent. The ravine between mother and son, between one experience and another, remains deep. Nonetheless, the letter is testament to the deep need for meaningful communication and the human desire to be understood. It is this which makes On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous a staggering achievement and a book that must be read. 

Image: Fang Wei Lin via Unsplash

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