On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a transformative and inspiring book. The author, Ocean Vuong, was born in Saigon, was not literate in English until age 11, and yet has wrote some of the most eloquent poetry and fiction in the language over the past five years. On Earth is Vuong’s first piece of long-form fiction, yet it reads as a real-life memoir of a coming-of-age son writing a letter to a powerful yet distant mother. Vuong creates imagery so jarring and punctuates the scenery with emotion so intense that you cannot help but feel that this is only part fictionalized and that the author draws heavily from his own past in its creation.
Vuong’s main character is known as Little Dog, and the beginning words (“Let me begin again…”) suggest that this version is not his first attempt to convey his feelings. The audience is his mother, yet he reveals that he can only be so open with the stories set to flow out of his soul onto the paper because he thinks there is very little chance she will ever read it. (Ma, as Little Dog calls her, does not grasp English.) He traces his history from the Vietnam War, where his Vietnamese grandmother Nan meets Paul, a white American soldier. It is revealed in the book that Paul is not his true grandfather, but Little Dog insists he is truly family “through action.” This past coincides with Vuong’s real life, where his grandmother and grandfather truly do meet because of the Vietnam War. (In a poetry piece from 2016, Vuong writes No Bombs=No Family=No Me.)
As Little Dog traverses the various components of coming-of-age in America, we are introduced to factors that make his experience unique. The strands of homosexuality, the immigrant experience, and class conflict are woven together to form a mosaic of obstacles in Little Dog’s life, yet the words that flow from his pen evoke emotions of a reluctant embrace of his lukewarm standing in the world. He seems to never be an ostracized outcast because he oscillates between worlds, yet never fully accepted because he can’t plant both feet on the ground.
As Little Dog deals with the complexities of his haphazard sexual, racial, and economic standing in late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century Hartford, we see other perils of modern society develop around him – opiate addiction, the absence of health care, violence, and a gay sexual tension hidden to those around him. It is through these trials that Vuong evokes the mastery of the English language, describing feelings and emotions in a poetic prose that pulsates with beauty and wonder from paragraph to paragraph. Sometimes it is tragic (“I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck…”), sometimes profound (“To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”)
The persistent theme throughout the Little Dog’s journey is that we are constantly in a sort of transition – from place to place, form to form, being to being, life to life. Vuong remarks that we often think of things as their briefest yet most beautiful (or ugly form) form (a bloomed rose, an uncocooned butterfly, a firing squad) yet the process that results in those things can be just as profound as the final product – their true nature just a fleeting moment in a greater scheme of transition.
Towards the end of the book, Vuong punctuates this point by describing death in Saigon. When death occurs at inopportune times and city coroners can’t immediately come pronounce a death, there is a limbo where the person is neither alive nor officially dead. Neighbors of the deceased developed a tradition of hiring drag dancers to “delay sadness” and to attempt to heal. In a world where being queer was still a sin, for a short while, these otherwise taboo dancers became an appropriate response to an unreal state of being. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a testament to this transitory nature – leaving the reader to ponder beauty, growth, decay, and rebirth through what we value and cherish or lose and mourn.