Dear Ocean Vuong, Your Writing Is Gorgeous

By Charlina Strelow

Is it okay to dog-ear or write in your books? This ques­tion remains a heat­ed top­ic among read­ers. I always thought it was stu­pid to care what oth­ers did with their books but pre­ferred to leave mine in their orig­i­nal state.

This all changed for me when I start­ed read­ing Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gor­geous. Vuong’s words were so beau­ti­ful­ly con­struct­ed that sim­ply read­ing them didn’t feel enough. I want­ed to force myself to linger. I want­ed to embrace the parts that had touched me, want­ed to firm­ly secure the pas­sages I’d lat­er return to.

Or, less dra­mat­i­cal­ly, I want­ed to mark my book.

And I want­ed to do it with an orange pen, one that would match the cover’s autumn leaves. Ever since acquir­ing said pen, I haven’t stopped talk­ing about the writing.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gor­geous con­sists of a let­ter writ­ten by Lit­tle Dog, the pro­tag­o­nist. It’s addressed to his illit­er­ate moth­er. There­fore, a letter’s typ­i­cal pur­pose, reach­ing the recip­i­ent, is doomed to fail from the start. At its core, it’s a sto­ry about lan­guage – and its lim­i­ta­tions. I believe the best way to intro­duce the book’s plot is less by describ­ing it and more by show­cas­ing Vuong’s words instead. Yes, that means there are minor (!) spoil­ers ahead.

  1. Lit­tle Dog is Viet­namese Amer­i­can, his fam­i­ly had to flee the Viet­nam War. From then on, it was Lit­tle Dog’s job to learn Eng­lish and com­mu­ni­cate for his moth­er. Mas­ter­ing the lan­guage nec­es­sary for sur­vival: “I am writ­ing because they told me to nev­er start a sen­tence with because. But I wasn’t try­ing to make a sen­tence – I was try­ing to break free. Because free­dom, as I am told, is noth­ing but the dis­tance between the hunter and its prey.”
  2. Lit­tle Dog’s moth­er start­ed hit­ting him at the age of four. At some point, years lat­er, she says out of nowhere: “I am not a mon­ster. I’m a moth­er.” Lit­tle Dog replies: “You’re not a mon­ster.” He then goes on to say: “But I lied. What I real­ly want­ed to say was that a mon­ster is not such a ter­ri­ble thing to be. From the Latin word mon­strum, a divine mes­sen­ger of cat­a­stro­phe, then adapt­ed by the Old French to mean an ani­mal of myr­i­ad ori­gins: grif­fin, satyr. To be a mon­ster is to be a hybrid sig­nal, a light­house: both shel­ter and warn­ing at once.”
  3. Anoth­er impor­tant sub­ject is men­tal health, espe­cial­ly as it relates to addic­tion. “It’s the chem­i­cals in our brains, they say. I got the wrong chem­i­cals, Ma. Or rather, I don’t get enough of one or the oth­er. They have a pill for it. They have an indus­try. They make mil­lions. Did you know peo­ple get rich off of sad­ness? I want to meet the mil­lion­aire of Amer­i­can sad­ness. I want to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and say, ‘it’s been an hon­or to serve my country.’”
  4. Lit­tle Dog falls in love with Trevor, a guy he meets at work. Includ­ing a pas­sage from the book would not be pos­si­ble spoil­er-free, but here’s how Vuong describes their rela­tion­ship in inter­views: “From a queer per­spec­tive, queer peo­ple under­stand that fail­ure is the begin­ning of their iden­ti­ty. They fail to fit in. They see fail­ure as the first stage in a cul­ture that sees fail­ure as the last and final grave­stone to a project. This is two peo­ple try­ing to find plea­sure for each oth­er in a world that would pre­fer that they vanish.”
  5. To round up the quotes, here’s the pas­sage that inspired the book’s title: “I am think­ing of beau­ty again, how some things are hunt­ed because we have deemed them beau­ti­ful. If, rel­a­tive to the his­to­ry of the plan­et, an indi­vid­ual life is so short, a blink of an eye, then to be gor­geous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gor­geous only briefly. The sun­set, like sur­vival, exists only on the verge of its own dis­ap­pear­ing. To be gor­geous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”

These snip­pets don’t do jus­tice to the book in its entire­ty; nonethe­less, I hope they pro­vid­ed a lit­tle insight of what to expect. Enjoy the read, and I’ll leave you with Ocean Vuong’s recita­tion of his poem, “Noth­ing.”

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While Char­li­na likes her major, cul­tur­al stud­ies, as a whole, she’s most pas­sion­ate about lit­er­a­ture. Cur­rent­ly, she’s try­ing to read one book from every coun­try in the world. So far, her favorites are from Turkey, India, and Vietnam.