Something beautiful happens when a poet writes prose. What happens is, the rules are thrown out the window. The past, the present and future become one. What happens is storytelling unlike any other. It’s beautiful, confusing imagery. It’s chaos masked as storytelling, unlike anything we’ve ever read before. It’s poetic prose on steroids.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this book puts the creative in “creative writing.” I highlighted so many words and entire paragraphs that, once I had finished reading, the book started to look like my Bible.
On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is a book, is a letter, is a poem, is a thought, a one-sided conversation, a story about death. Little Dog, son of Rose, grandson of Lan, writes to his mother in this narrative, all the things he wishes she would have heard him say or maybe it’s the things her absence allows him to say. Little Dog writes about his love, writes about his pain, his hate, his hurt, his not belonging, his wanting to, wanting to be anything other than himself. He writes about his sexuality, about Vietnam and war, about Tiger Woods and identity. Little Dog writes about his being.
The book begins,
“I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.”
It proceeds to take us on a journey, a journey of pain and… just… more pain. I’m not joking guys. This book is a drawn out descrescendo. You literally descend into this book and all you want to do is give this Vietnamese-American boy a hug.
Part one of this novel introduces us to Little Dog’s world in Hartford, Connecticut, a part of which is his schizophrenic grandmother, Lan.
“Lan meaning Lily. Lan, the name she gave herself, having been born
nameless. Because her mother simply called her Seven, the order in which she came into the world after her siblings.”
Lan met Paul–an American soldier stationed with the US Navy–in Saigon, Vietnam. At the time, Lan was pregnant with a child who’d be named Hong, meaning Rose in Vietnamese (Little Dog’s mother). Lan and Paul would eventually get married, and this marriage and the evidence of a Viet-American child, is what saves them (Lan and her daughter) when Saigon is taken by war.
Part two is centered on Little Dog’s teenage love, a white boy named Trevor, and the destructive relationship he shares with his mother. His mother, Hong, whom he is writing to in this book, is also mentally ill. She is worse off than Lan, because she has had to endure an abusive relationship with her husband. She suffers the plight of most American immigrants, working herself to the bone to keep her family afloat while harboring all that one does when they’ve fled a place of war. There are parallels between Little Dog’s relationship with his mother and Trevor, because that too is just as much destructive.
In part three, Little Dog is depicted more as his grown self. He’s a writer now, a college graduate, the first of his family, but even that, that small glimmer of hope, of some form of the “American Dream” is blighted by loss and grief and want.
As a reader, this book filled me with wonder. It made me wonder about the things I never thought I needed to wonder about. Like sunflowers and how they look animated, standing almost as tall as humans. Like the sun, and how Cleopatra and people from hundreds of years ago, too, stared and marvelled at it’s blinding bright. Like beauty, and how it only exists outside of itself.
As a writer, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is a jewel. It’s an embodiment of what happens when a writer pours his/her heart into their work, forsaking the rules and all the fences. I read Ocean’s work, and all it was telling me as a writer is Write! Write your heart out Amarachi! Write it all! Write the things you’ve wanted to say! Look at me! I am what happens when you do that!
Worth the read!