On Beauty and Being Just

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

“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.

While 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.

A Year in Reading: Sarah Smarsh

Inauguration Day was, in the eyes of most people I know, a horrifying day. The poison of hate had taken control of our political system, and it touched us whether we voted for it or not. Thus, the year that followed was for many—even those who sprang into civic action on the right side of history—lived in a state of foul bitterness.

In precise tandem with that political trauma, I happened to receive a shock to my physical system. Hours after the inauguration ceremony, which I had refused watch, I was in an emergency room with a rare, painful infection that progressed far enough to initiate liver failure. I fully recovered from that weeks-long illness, but it set the tone for the resistance I would undertake for the rest of the year. My scary hospitalization was a reminder, for me, that living to fight—to write—another day is reason to not just resist but to be glad.

In the face of such an assault on decency as the current political leadership, there is perhaps no greater act of resistance than to appreciate our lives, even as we fight back against the forces that tear at us. To see beauty in this place called Earth and the broken beings with whom we share it for a short while. To read and write the books that the most corrupted of them would burn.

Here is what I read or re-read this past year. It is a list in which I now see the simultaneous peaceful reveling and spirited reckoning that I hope might save this democracy in peril in 2018.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang

Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander

Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love by Zack McDermott

Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens by Marianne Williamson

Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry

PrairyErth: A Deep Map by William Least Heat-Moon

Revolution by Russell Brand

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression by Dale Maharidge

Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy

The Dorothy Day Book: A Selection from Her Writings and Readings, edited by Margaret Quigley and Michael Garvey

The Editor and His People by William Allen White

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang

The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream by Studs Terkel

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by Barbara W. Tuchman

The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree

The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers 2 by Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe

The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis

Women as Healers: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Carol Shepherd McClain

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Magazine Subscriptions:

Columbia Journalism Review
Creative Nonfiction
Dissent
Harper’s
In These Times
No Depression
Poetry
The Believer
The Lion’s Roar
The New Territory
The New Yorker

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Beautiful Babies

Last week my husband and I were having breakfast with our seven-month-old baby, sticking bits of fruit into her mouth and prattling inane words of love. For a couple of months now the baby has been smiling big, open-mouthed smiles that show her two teeth and animate her entire body; her feet kick and her chubby hands wave and the recipient feels the smile like the warmth of a cheerful little sun on a minor planet. “Pretty baby,” my husband said to her that morning, when she beamed thus at him. “What a pretty little girl.”

There is a common evocation of beauty during the very new newborn period. Babies emerge as slightly mottled fruits that have been sitting in their syrup too long. But if you are very lucky and the things happen that are supposed to happen, they unfurl and dry off and fill out and within a few days or weeks they’ve become those velvet-skinned, bright-eyed beings in the first and most tender season of human beauty.

I never recoiled, in that first season, to hear the nice people on the bus say “beautiful baby,” to us in reverent tones. It’s a thanksgiving for safe passage, a prayer for all new defenseless things. In any case, the adjective is usually invoked without its invoker seeing much more than a scalloped ear or a tiny scrumpled face. And even if the baby alarms you with its rawness, “beautiful baby” is really the only thing to say. The new mother doesn’t need to hear “Nice prune,” or “You must have squeezed ‘er good coming out.”

But after a few months have passed, when the word “newborn” must be set aside with the tiny hats and receiving blankets and impossibly small onesies, faint suggestions of the adult visage emerge. Friendly strangers and the baby’s own parents and relatives eagerly fixate upon recognizable features. And if you have a girl, the specter of beauty, or the looking-for-it, begins to hover.

Girl babies grow and the observations about their looks are freely traded — comments about eyes and future heartbreaking. At a certain point a more furtive category of looking makes itself felt. When Cal Stephanides, the hero/ine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s wonderful novel Middlesex recalls his dark-eyed, aquiline-nosed loveliness as a young girl, it is not the beauty that is remembered so much as the world’s response to it:
I can only remember a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went. Most of the time they were camouflaged, like the closed eyes of green lizards in green trees. But then they snapped open — on the bus, in the pharmacy — and I felt the intensity of all that looking, the desire and the desperation.
When Callie enters adolescence — before her male secondary sexual characteristics manifest — she undergoes a subtle transformation that likewise transforms her way of being in the world:
To paraphrase Nietzsche, there are two types of Greek: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I’d been born Apollonian, a sun-kissed girl with a face ringed with curls. But as I approached thirteen a Dionysian element stole over my features. My nose, at first delicately, then not so delicately, began to arch. My eyebrows, growing shaggier, arched, too. Something sinister, wily, literally ‘satyrical’ entered my expression.
Like most brilliant novels, Middlesex manages to describe a very particular set of circumstances — the sex misidentification and eventual transformation of Callie to Cal Stephanides — in a way that highlights their universality. When Callie describes her turn to the Dionysian, she is contrasting her elfin looks with those of the “normal” girls growing breasts all around her. But the feeling she described is familiar to me from girlhood — that feeling of change from being a beautiful baby, petted and cooed over, into something crooked and frizzed and untoward, requiring braces and other, more secret interventions.

And before long, the eyes are back. If you are Callie, switched over to Cal, they come from a predatory subculture that looks for runaway waifs in highway truck stops. If you are a young woman, your new, marginally adult female body becomes public property, free for comment by men and other women alike. Lest you think I’m in the middle of an extended humblebrag about my own looks, recall The Blind Assassin, wherein Margaret Atwood’s wizened narrator identifies the appeal of very young women, whether they are celebrated as beauties or not: “The three of them were beautiful, in the way all girls of that age are beautiful. It can’t be helped, that sort of beauty, nor can it be conserved; it’s a freshness, a plumpness of the cells, that’s unearned and temporary, and that nothing can replicate.”

In this conception of beauty, we might see parallels to the reverence for the newborn — the instinctive and uncheckable response of humanity to its own most new and unsullied, and then its most fertile, members. You might say that there’s a purity to this response, the way that there’s a purity, at the most basic level, to youth. But as Atwood’s narrator goes on to point out, there is the essential beauty of youth, and then there is the ideal of beauty that interferes with a woman’s view of herself: “None of them was satisfied with it, however; already they were making attempts to alter themselves into some impossible, imaginary mould, plucking and pencilling away at their faces. I didn’t blame them, having done the same once myself.”

In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine’s Scarry’s short, poetic refutation of the “political critique of beauty” — and the title inspiration for Zadie Smith’s On Beauty— Scarry states that “the moment of perceiving something beautiful confers on the perceiver the gift of life.” Her “something,” in this formulation, can be a person, or not a person: “faces, flowers, bird-songs, men, horses, pots, and poems.” Human beauty is merely one “site” of beauty; it has, in Scarry’s reckoning, “site-specific” attributes that cause us to keep it separate from pots and bird-songs, and in doing so wander into ontological errors about beauty. These errors, Scarry argues, make people want to expel beauty — that is, the acknowledgment and discussion of beauty — from our classrooms and lecture halls.

It was this current against which On Beauty and Being Just was penned. A major beef of the anti-beauty brigade, says Scarry, is the “gaze” (as in “the male gaze”) — the idea that “when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.” Scarry argues that it is a mistake to take this negative, “site-specific” byproduct of human beauty and apply it to the entirety of the humanities, or to “a mourning dove, or a trellis spilling over with sweet pea, or a book whose pages are being folded back of the first time.” According to Scarry, the rejoicing in the beauty of our little baby is motivated by the same benevolent and generative impulse that causes people to “get upset about the disappearance of kelp forests they have never even heard of” — a net positive.

Scarry’s book is a work of philosophy, a discipline in which I am not at home, and she writes in theorems, which are likewise alien. It is also not addressing itself to the problems of female subjugation, but to the role of aesthetics in scholarship. In one sense I found On Beauty and Being Just to be a sort of refreshing bath for the mind; it sluiced away the noise and arterial plaque of the day-to-day and affirmed, for example, my love of books or paintings. But I’m a woman, and not a pot or a bird-song, and as such I have a special relationship to those “site-specific” problems of human beauty, the pursuit of which makes Atwood’s cellularly plump sprites whittle away at themselves. Site-specific things are on my mind right now, more than university debates between desconstructivists and positivists. People who have grievances dislike for their grievances to be disappeared by thought-exercises, even highly successful and elegantly composed ones.

And in my site-specificity, I can rejoice in the beauty of the kelp, but fear the implications of human beauty. Beauty obligates, either in its presence — wherein it is the obligation of the beautiful one to be looked-upon, and to retain her beauty — or in its absence, in which case it must be perpetually sought. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s penniless mother reminds her daughter of this obligation:
Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian; and she tried to instil into the latter a sense of the responsibility that such a charge involved.
In Scarry’s section on the effect of the “gaze,” she argues, rather speciously, that the gazer is as affected by the gazing as the gazee: “It is odd that contemporary accounts…place exclusive emphasis on the risks suffered by the person being looked at.” After all, she points out, Plato sees a beautiful boy and “shudders and shivers.” Dante Alighieri, laying eyes on Beatrice, feels his “senses go into a huddle.”

And those things do sound hard, but I doubt that two drunken 20-something men ever crabwalked over to 14-year-old Dante and his buddy on the metro and argued freely over which one was “the hot one.” I doubt one of Plato’s male friends told him when he was 15 that “some of the boys in school think you’re really ugly, but some of them think you’re really hot.” When Dante was in college and unhappy and padded with Keystone light and cheeseburgers, it’s unlikely that a male visitor to his room looked at his prom photo and marveled at how hot he “used to be.” Plato didn’t try Zumba and Body Jam and Cardio Kickboxing and Barre Method and Dailey Method and Cardiobarre, or give up beer for months before his wedding. Dante never sorrowed over the absence of his thigh gap, or purchased Groupons for laser hair removal and teeth whitening.

To conflate human beauty with rape is to make the same error as conflating rape with sex; rape is about power and ownership and rage. But all of these things are knotted together in a way that makes it difficult to disentangle the skeins. The artist Eric Gill wrote that “the beautiful thing is that which, being seen, pleases, and it is man that is pleased.” You know what else Eric Gill did? Molested two of his daughters. You know who else “shivered and shook” from the effects of his gazing? Humbert fucking Humbert.

But back to my baby. It’s currently my job, along with her father, to mediate the world for her until she’s old enough to do it herself. So I’m, obviously, her gravest liability, the one most likely to do damage by loading her up with a bunch of my own baggage. And she is a lovely little baby, with big blue eyes, eyes with no bearing on her father’s brown or my own brindled orbs. I exhort her father not to call her pretty, but I look at her and find myself knocking wood, saying mashallah to ward off the evil eye in a way that is in itself a recognition of beauty.

But I want her never to feel that she is with all of womanity on a ladder that equates beauty with worth. I want her never to join the oppressors by talking casually about her friends’ looks, or to instinctively perform a half-predatory, half-defensive assessment of every other woman within a 100-yard radius. And yet I want her to appreciate the many modes of human beauty — not only the boobs and butts and legs of Garry Winogrand’s deceptively titled Women are Beautiful, but the unexpected lines of an eyebrow or a hand. I want her to feel unencumbered by anyone’s opinion of her beauty or lack thereof. And yet I also want her to feel beautiful, to wear whatever she wants, to luxuriate in a sense that her chosen mate finds her irresistible, to never fear a dressing room or bathing suit or florescent light.

And I want somehow for all this to be accomplished without conferring those heavy, killing, Lily Bart obligations.

So that morning at breakfast, I panicked and chastised my husband for an innocent remark, one that people will make again and again about my baby, as they will do about any woman’s baby. And then I fumbled around in my psyche and pulled out something worn and démodé — highly problematic, in its way, but functional and attractive, like an ivory crochet hook or a whalebone stay. I looked at my seven-month-old and spoke into her uncomprehending face that almost-true thing that people have only ever said to women: “Pretty is as pretty does.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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