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A lyrical memoir that blurs the line between reality and imagination

  • Published at 12:53 pm December 14th, 2019
Ocean Vuong's Novel

Review of Ocean Vuong's novel 'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous' 

Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is a confessional journey, through which he hopes to reach his mother, even though each word he puts down further widens their distance, given her poor grasp of English. On the journey, Vuong explores what it means to be an immigrant in the USA and recalls his family’s past in a war-torn Vietnam and how the war shaped them. 

In his household, he is referred to as Little Dog, which is “as thin as air, can also be used as a shield”, since in Vietnamese culture, naming one’s children after despicable things can apparently keep ill forces at bay. His grandmother, Lan, suffers from schizophrenia. His mother, Rose, cannot read. Being an immigrant in a city that speaks a completely alien tongue, Little Dog, who knows little English, helps his mother run her many errands and also during her work hours at a beauty parlor. His mother’s poor grasp of the language doesn’t allow her to perform ordinary tasks, for which she needs Little Dog’s assistance. She orders lingerie by asking him to talk to the salesperson. He thus becomes the official interpreter of the family, leaving the comfort of his mother tongue and swimming in the waters of a foreign one, so that his family can exist and have their say in a world where their tongue is obsolete. 

Rose, who was bullied as a child for being too white, or chased by kids who wanted to drain the yellow out of her skin, is, at times, an abusive mother. In one instance, she locks up her son in the basement for wetting the bed. Rose has spent a portion of her life with a violent husband, and it is through Rose, to whom the whole novel is dedicated in the form of a poignant letter, Ocean positions the narrative of domestic violence in the thread of the novel. It is also through her that he vividly paints the boundaries/barriers of a language—Vietnamese being obsolete in the US.  To calm Little Dog during a panic attack after his cousin’s death, she hums the melody of Happy Birthday, not knowing what the song is about, firm in her conviction that it can soothe his nerves. 

It is because of the barriers posed by a language that he seeks refuge in the warmth of the written words, bunking his classes to spend time in New York Library, diving into the works of those who had, in all likelihood, had never imagined that their words would save a boy of Vietnamese origin. Soon it turns out that his delving into the books is also spurred by his fascination with the English language.

Much like Rose, his grandmother Lan, who “paid him in stories”, is also significant in his life, and hence, in the novel. He plucks grey hairs out of her head while she narrates stories to him. Old stories from her past with little modifications, or sometimes, with drastic changes. He knows the stories by heart—how they end, as though they are movies that have invaded every point of blankness in his mind. Storytelling, therefore, is the basis of his relationship with Lan, and because of all the storytelling sessions, he is able to represent the turbulence of her stories in his words. In a city ravaged by war, “It was her body, her purple dress that kept her alive.” Fleeing from her home (that disowns her after she runs away from her doomed first marriage), she decides to sexually entertain the American GIs in a room by the river. It was her hapless situation that led her to this path of survival; nevertheless, Lan was verbally abused by people who once knew her—fragments of which deeply affect Rose later. 

Mostly, Ocean, Rose and Lan’s life events charge the pages of this autobiographical novel. Other significant characters populate the narrative too. Like his grandfather, Paul, and his transient lover, Trevor. Altogether, Ocean’s experiences with everyone and everything form the novel’s plank, portraying what it means to be an American for an immigrant. It challenges the rosy vision surrounding the American dream, with the fiery presence of migration, racism, homophobia, identity crisis, and war in Ocean’s life.

Bits of wisdom, expressed through lyrical verses, can barely be overemphasized in the construction of the novel. Among other magical qualities, presence of those lyrical verses is what makes the novel stand out: 

“What is a country but a life sentence?”

Ocean suggests that to speak in his mother tongue also means “to speak entirely in war”. Here, he evokes the sense that a language can lead one to the days of war when the sky is riven by napalm and fighter jets, and bombs nestle themselves into the earth. The war in Vietnam ended his mother’s education. He compares this particular experience of his mother with his mother tongue being an “orphan” and works out the irony of how a mother tongue can arouse the sentiments of being an orphan

He makes the reader see a war by creating scenes where monarch butterflies overcome the napalm clouds, unaffected, with their “fireproof” wings. 

Because war is present, Ocean also deploys his unique use of language to arouse the sentiments related to migration. He writes about monarch butterflies and bulls and the thrill of their journey, the intoxicating way many of them die and some survive. The symbolism is magical and recurring throughout the novel. He uses language as a flexible tool to flex his imagination and give them home inside every heart. 

In his language, death and destruction are poetic, tinged with beauty and formidable yet exciting imagination. It’s as though they occur in close proximity to each other. Like a flight off this life to another, a Napalm cloud swallowing everything, a macaque being skinned alive.

As James Baldwin says, “Don’t describe it, show it.” Ocean Vuong accomplishes that feat remarkably in this book.


Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a writer. Email: [email protected]

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