Memory Can Be a Second Chance: Ocean Vuong’s ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’

August 22, 2019 | 2 books mentioned 6 min read

“What happened happened–but it isn’t fixed in the ongoing story of our lives,” Jeanette Winterson wrote of regret, recollection, and lost love, “Memories can be tools for change. They don’t have to be weapons used against us or baggage that we drag around.”

Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong stakes his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, on a similar premise: the hope that, in the writer’s own words, “Memory can be a second chance.”

Thoughtful and tender, this autobiographical novel is framed as a letter from a son, Little Dog, to his illiterate single mother, Rose. Across three expansive parts Little Dog reflects on his turbulent youth spent in Hartford, Connecticut, and hopes that the act of remembering family history through writing might heal longstanding wounds and bring parent and child closer together. Sketching a moving portrait of a fraught bond, Vuong meditates on the powers of storytelling and reckons with the legacy of collective trauma.

“Dear Ma,” Little Dog begins, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” A quick procession of vignettes follows: the narrator’s mother stares in horror at a taxidermy buck, she shops with him at a 50-percent-off sale at Goodwill, she beats him at age 13 for the final time. Lasting at most a few paragraphs, these scenes of affection and abuse detail the nuances of the pair’s bond, and they alternate with Little Dog’s reflections on literature, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the migratory habits of monarch butterflies.

As a mosaic of portraiture, self-representation, and philosophical musing, the opening chapter signals what lies ahead: a fragmented, elliptical text that moves around in time and considers the emotional toll of war and displacement upon Vietnamese Americans. In poetic prose, Little Dog’s letter charts not just his coming-of-age story but also the sorrows and desires of those closest to him.

In the book’s first part, which focuses on his childhood, the narrator brings to life the personalities of his separated grandparents. Across chapters he recalls how his grandmother Lan showered him with warmth and stories about her life in Vietnam, “tales cycling one after another.” He also recounts the long summer days he spent in Virginia gardening with his grandfather Paul, a “white man with watery eyes” and a “shy and sheepish” personality. Paul and, especially, Lan acted as guardians for the lonesome and fatherless child, whose mother ceaselessly worked at the local nail salon. The pair’s acts of kindness and family lore helped the boy navigate a childhood fraught with intergenerational trauma, guiding him toward an understanding of his place in history as a first-generation Vietnamese-American immigrant.

Through the lens of his grandparents’ relationship, Little Dog examines the history of the Vietnam War. At the height of the conflict, the two met by chance in a bar and found common ground, “both having been brought up by the ‘sticks’ of their respective countries.” Little Dog avoids addressing why they separated, mystifying their backstory. He instead records at length the memories they shared with him of the harrowing time; through writing, he lends their stigmatized love a second life, and testifies to the damage the imperialist war wrought upon Vietnamese society.

Roam among other recollections as he might, Little Dog returns again and again to the intense bond between him and his mother. “In Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you,” he notes, “Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through acts of service.” While Rose exceled at providing for her son, she rarely verbalized her love, and her fits of rage scarred him. With words, an adult Little Dog drains those memories of their power to wound him, recognizing his mother’s abuse as having been rooted in the trauma of growing up in a war-torn country.

So, too, does Little Dog seek solace in the knowledge that he helped his mother endure life in America. Having immigrated to the States as a toddler, Little Dog found himself playing the role of the “family’s official interpreter,” forced to “fill in our blanks, silences, stutters, whenever I could.” Compelled to code switch and traverse cultures, the boy learned to expertly wield English for his mother’s sake as well as his own: school bullies mocked him as effeminate and foreign, until he started to speak up.

“Memory is a choice,” the narrator asserts as he shifts to the letter’s second part, in which he recounts his first romance. If domestic drama and a fierce attachment to family defined his youth, he opts to frame his adolescence in terms of an attempt to escape a home full of pain and a history soaked with violence.

The summer he turned 14, Little Dog remembers, his sexuality blossomed after he found his first job on a tobacco farm. He quickly fell in love with Trevor, the rough-edged grandson of the farm’s owner, who worked the field to escape his “vodka-soaked old man” and dilapidated mobile home. The narrator constructs his first experience of love and labor as inextricable from each other. Together, work and romance introduced him to a seductive new world, promising independence from his mother’s outbursts and his bigoted classmates’ taunts.

Intoxicated with nostalgia, Little Dog reveals to Rose how he and Trevor trekked about the margins of Hartford for the next two years, connected to each other through their shared status as outsiders as well as their hatred of their absentee fathers. At a mesmerizing pace, Little Dog speeds through memories of late-night strolls, inexhaustible conversations, covert sex, and hits of weed and cocaine. Embedded within the narrative are bittersweet, lush descriptions of Hartford’s countryside. Just as a common rural background facilitated Lan and Paul’s romance in Vietnam, the boys bonded over their exclusion from and anger toward their town’s well-adjusted white suburbs.

The narrator makes clear that oppression and internalized shame still shadowed the relationship. Under the sway of Hartford’s toxic masculinity, Trevor conflated bottoming with femininity, femininity with weakness, weakness with all that wasn’t white and male; he demanded Little Dog always assume the submissive role in sex, insisting, “it’s for you. Right?”  Little Dog’s hope that queer love might prove a shelter from abuse collapsed; his community’s rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia thoroughly shaped his bond with Trevor. “I had thought sex was to breach new ground,” Little Dog regrets, “that as long as the world did not see us, its rules did not apply. But I was wrong.” The pain of the scene is palpable, as it is when Trevor hopes they’ll “be good in a few years,” transformed from melancholic queers into happy heterosexuals.

As Little Dog prepares for college, the fantasy of first love collapses, though the boys part amiably. Only in the book’s final part, when Trevor starts to abuse opioids, does the relationship spin out of control. Mapping out the bond’s complexities through language, Little Dog makes peace with its alternately euphoric and sorrowful prime as well as its tragic end.

Nightmarish memories of abuse endured during childhood punctuate these sections. In an especially brutal passage Little Dog, now referring to himself and his mother in the third person, describes the time he forgot to clean up his plastic toys, for which she “blasted the side of his head.” That distressing interludes such as this occur so frequently gestures toward the long-lasting aftereffects of the narrator’s early trauma.

“And then I told you the truth,” Little Dog notes at the novel’s midpoint. On a rainy day inside a Dunkin’ Donuts, near the end of high school, he confessed his sexuality to his exasperated mother, who responded in turn, “You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s just you and me, Little Dog. I don’t have anyone else.” The coming-out scene is literally centered in the narrative, but it occurs chapters before the climax; resisting the conventions of the go-to queer narrative, the novel refuses to conflate coming of age with coming out. Over the course of the letter’s second half, Little Dog shifts to reflecting on how he and Rose began to repair trust in the revelation’s wake.

Little Dog’s musings are tinged with sadness. The letter is explicitly framed as an attempt to heal wounds between mother and son and bring them closer together, and heartbreakingly, he’s sharing with Rose for the first time the secrets of his relationship with Trevor, one of his most important teenaged bonds.

coverWhile rarely citing his sources, Little Dog navigates troubling topics by using as guideposts the works of a diverse mix of writers. In a discussion of beauty, memory, and hope, for instance, he refers to the thesis of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just: “I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing.” Through such allusions he frames himself as curious, open minded, and in conversation with a vast body of literature.

As one of this decade’s only works of fiction written by a queer Vietnamese-American author and published by a large press, the novel offers a viewpoint long underrepresented in mainstream American fiction. The work registers frustration with the limitations of white literary standards, pointing out that hegemonic standards of taste prescribe, “to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless, ‘raw,’ and empty.”

As with the autofiction of Qiu Miaojin, epigraphed in the front matter, the epistolary novel blurs the line between art and life. Like Little Dog, the author grew up in Hartford, attended Brooklyn College, and recently reached the end of his 20s. The text invites readers to identify Little Dog as a fictionalized version of Vuong, even as it leaves unanswered the question of how “constructed” the story really is.

“By writing,” the author-narrator posits to his mother, “I change, embellish, and preserve you all at once.” Regardless of the truth-value assigned to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the work’s an affecting meditation on immigration, violence, family, and love, as well as a thoughtful exploration of the ways in which writing can reshape the self’s relationship to others and the past. With grace and insight, Vuong contemplates how memory can act as a tool for change, and establishes himself as a promising novelist.

is a freelance editor living in New York. A recent graduate of the University of Michigan, he writes regularly for sites such as Lambda Literary.

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