Updated: Dec 31, 2020
by Ariel Kim
A young Vietnamese mother wrapped in a sky blue shawl tightly presses her baby against her chest beneath the shuttering bulb of a small US military base. White men, eyes bulging with drunkenness, bustle around a table where a live macaque monkey is struggling against the taut confines of a leather rope. The mother shields her baby’s eyes as the men carve open the monkey’s skull — yet they cannot escape the sounds of brain-slurping and racist jeers.
This is the story of Lan, a Vietnamese war survivor. She is the grandmother of Ocean Vuong, author of the novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. In this novel, Vuong explores his family history, the generational transmission of violence, and his identity as a gay immigrant — in the form of a letter to his mother who cannot read.
By blurring the photographic clarity of poetry and the lyrical evanescence of prose, Vuong successfully transports the reader into multiple narratives and perspectives weaving his letter together. I highly recommend On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous because it skillfully fuses poetry and prose to allow the reader to empathize with these diverse and often underrepresented narratives.
I first encountered Vuong’s work at the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop last summer in the form of spoken word. His lines of poetry, vibrant with metaphorically significant imagery, reverberate through my head to this day. When I discovered that he had recently published a novel, I was both surprised and intrigued. I wondered if his experience as a poet would contribute to his style as a novelist, and this proved to be true.
Vuong’s novel is a coming-of-age story that deals with the aftermath of trauma and the struggle of a young Vietnamese American to find his place in his family and the world. It’s told in the form of a letter to his illiterate mother. He knows that his mother most likely won’t actually read his narrative or understand it. Thus, rather than a means of communication, this novel is a chronicle of Vuong’s efforts to explore and enunciate difficult feelings and experiences. In the beginning of the novel, Vuong confesses: “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.”
I relate personally to this effort because many of my works of poetry and prose reflect my confused interaction with the world around me. When attempting to understand my parents, I often write from their perspective. Although it would be great if they were able to read and understand my writing, I mostly use my writing as a vessel for my own understanding.
Reflecting his poetic background, much of his novel uses significant metaphors, imagery, and repetition to convey his thought process and experiences. For example, he describes the nail salon where immigrants like his mother work as “a place where dreams become calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones — with or without citizenship — aching, toxic, and underpaid.” When he speaks of Tiger Woods, “a mixed-race byproduct of the Vietnam War,” he references the village where he used to live as a place “where fathers were phantoms, dipping in and out of shadows and their children's lives.” Thus, he is able to immerse the reader in a vivid setting which represents a social commentary on the living situation of various narratives.
Some of Vuong’s sentence structures are also more experimental, which is likely a remnant of his free verse poetry. He also speaks in metaphors, weaving some of the most brilliant, tangible imagery as significant representations of raw feelings and emotions. For example, in a scene where he speaks of encountering his flaws in a new light, he remarks: “I let the mirror hold those flaws — because for once … they were not wrong to me but something that was wanted, that was sought and found among a landscape as enormous as the one I had been lost in all this time.” Although some may say that this mish-mash of poetry and prose writing is a weakness as it can detract from organization and clarity, I think this actually served as a strength. When he merged this sort of style with prose writing, he was able to construct a narrative that more closely resembled the inner workings of a tumultuous mind which is not necessarily subject to the conventions of English academic grammar.
In reflection of his grandmother’s experience with the monkey brains, Vuong states that this story is “A mother and a daughter. A me and a you. It’s an old story.” This quote is the essence of what makes On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous so special. Vuong harnesses his vivid imagery to transport his readers in a state of mind and place so accurate to the heart and senses that it makes them feel as if it’s their story. And that’s the thing — it is. By including the ups and downs of seemingly alien lives, Vuong humanizes lives that often lack representation in popular media and challenges the reader to empathize on a different level.
Through reading the intimate narratives featured in Vuong’s novel, I felt that I had a more tangible grasp on commonly estranged experiences of Vietnam War survivors, LGBTQ+ members, and psychologically unstable families. Most of all, the depth of language and literary techniques used to describe the setting and perspectives allowed me to truly empathise with the different perspectives featured in the novel. Overall, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous can’t be described as anything but… gorgeous.