On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel. It is a beautiful novel about confronting past trauma and difficult memories. “Memory is a choice,” Rose once told Little Dog, but he can’t help but remember. The speaker, Little Dog, decided to write a letter to his mother, Rose, after rereading Mourning Diary, Roland Barthes’s examination of his own mother after her death. The difference, of course, is that Little Dog is writing while his mother is still alive.
At five years old, Rose watched as her schoolhouse in Vietnam was burned to the ground after an American napalm raid. Rose never returned to school, and she never learned to read. The son knows that chances are slim that his mother, whose grasp of English is limited, will actually read his confessional missive. However, rather than direct conversation, he is trying to break free by writing.
Little Dog once read that those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder are more likely to abuse their children, and Rose was, and is, coping with her own trauma. He knows her abuse is tied to PTSD, but adds, “You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I, which is why I can’t turn away from you. Which is why I have taken god’s loneliest creation and put you inside it.”
Although schizophrenic, his grandmother Lan is frequently his protector. When he tries to run away at 10, she tells him, “She love you, Little Dog. But she sick. Sick like me. In the brains.” As payment for plucking the grey hair from his grandmother’s hair, she tells him stories. He learns that he’s called Little Dog because “To love something … is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched — and alive.” She tells him how, after leaving her arranged marriage at 17, she was rejected by her mother; desperate, she became a sex worker for American GIs. Little Dog’s mother, born when Lan was 28, had an American father — though not the kind Virginia farmer he grew up thinking was his grandfather.
At 14, Little Dog gets his first job on a tobacco farm on the outskirts of Hartford, Connecticut, where he gets nine dollars an hour cash. Most of the farmhands are migrant workers from Mexico and South America, except for Trevor, the grandson of Buford, the owner of the farm. Trevor lives with his weepy, alcoholic father in a mobile home behind the interstate. Little Dog learns during the course of their relationship, which spans years, that “Sex can get you close to a boy. But language ….. gets you deeper.”
Rose once asked Little Dog what it is like to be a writer, and he is trying explain. He is giving her a “mess”, he knows, but it is all he has. His letter isn’t really a story, Little Dog says, “it is more of a “shipwreck—the pieces floating, finally legible.” Little dog does want his mother to read his book. He knows that there is only slight chance his mother will read his letter. He truly hopes reincarnation to be real. So that maybe his mother will have a chance to read his book in her another life in a country not touched by war.
About the Author
Ocean Vuong is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. He is also the winner of the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. His writings have also been featured in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.