We Were Born From Beauty

Each of us has a story to tell. This is a mantra we often hear or encounter time and time again. We have a history that has made a mark on who we are. The person we are today is the product of experiences and lessons that we have learned along the way. In each of us is a survivor; we hide our scars and battle wounds, but they are testimonies of our inner strength. In the pandemonium of the world we are living, these wounds are our beauty marks. They are the indelible marks that make us who we are.

This extraordinary beauty is one of the central themes in Vietnamese-born poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Portrayed through the complicated relationship between a mother and her son, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a vehement display of literary magnificence that didn’t fail to rivet from the onset. It is the captivating tale of individuals who were caught in between dire and different circumstances.

“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, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” ~ Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.

Little Dog’s relationship with his mother, Rose, is marred by the past. Caught in the crossfires of the Vietnam War, Rose lost her innocence at a young age. Even though she has migrated to the United States with her mother and sister, the vestiges of the war and its horror left an indelible marked on her mind and heart. She is irreversibly damaged by her past. The memories of the past resulted to a great chasm between mother and son.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Little Dog’s letter to his illiterate single mother. This letter is Little Dog’s reflection of his turbulent youth and the rocky relationship he had with his mother. But the letter is more than just a reflection, it aims to bridge the gap between him and his mother. The letter carries with it Little Dog’s hope; the hope that writing about his family’s history would eventually mend longstanding wounds.

Digressing from the typical narrative structure, Ocean Vuong chronicles the story of people caught between disparate worlds. Rather than a complete novel, the reading journey felt more like reading snippets comprised of wonderfully conceived passages. When taken together, these snippets capture pivotal and tender moments. Vuong made the readers lose themselves in the visceral beauty of his writing that even when Little Dog’s story gets convoluted at times, they didn’t mind.

To complete his debut novel, Ocean Vuong drew elements from his life. What he conjured is a coming-of-age story that deals about a bevy of subjects and themes such as the search for one’s identity, the varying definitions of masculinity, racial migration and the dire consequences of memory. Interwoven into the tale are finely textured historical contexts that compliments the texture and complexion of the novel.

“You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.” ~ Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Beyond the tenderness, what captivates the reader is the raw honesty in Vuong’s writing. This honesty made emotions flow like an aqueous presence. The reading journey is neither too nauseating nor too overpowering. On the contrary, it is rollercoaster ride that is both beautiful and compelling, appealing to the reader’s deepest emotions. Vuong’s nostalgic writing has a penetrating quality that softens even the most hapless of hearts.

More than anything else, the beauty of the novel lies in its fervent portrayal of that beautiful once in a lifetime moment when we experience a different kind of blossoming. These are very rare moments captured on the peripheries of our quotidian existence. These are brief but gorgeous moments which are difficult to replicate. We can never replay nor reexperience them, but they are forever etched in our hearts. Unfortunately, we cannot carry forward these moments into the hubbub of adult existence.

These nostalgic moments are trite setups in literature, something that Vuong is cognizant of. He further elevated the narrative by capturing its antithesis through the experiences of Rose and Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan. Their unglamorous life in Vietnam, their ungorgeous youth, their war trauma and their tenacity to survive are in stark dichotomy to the subtle moments captured by Little Dog’s experiences of love and acceptance.

“Because something in him know she’d be there. That she was waiting. Because that’s what mothers do. They wait. They stand still until their children belong to someone else.”  ~ Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Vuong summarily captures the essence and the spirit of the novel with this amazing passage:

“All this time I told myself we were born from war – but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence – but that violence, having through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is peppered with amazing and original passages that reflect realities in its different forms. It is a novel about our varied experiences and the different relationships that define us and has left imprints on us. Vuong captured these moments with vivid acuity and raw honesty. There is a different kind of pall that hovers above the narrative, but it was barely noticeable because of the swirling beauty of Vuong’s writing.

Ocean Vuong’s stellar prose is promising and sets him apart from his fellows. No superlative will suffice to justify his debut novel’s lyrical quality. The diaphanous flow of words is unmatched. His masterstroke aroused a spectrum of emotions that leaves the readers breathless. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, as the title goes, is brief but gorgeous.

Rating:

95%

I have some slight misgivings about the book but man, was it lyrical and poetic. The words flowed and what came out of it is an enchanting tale about a son’s journey for his mother’s love and acceptance. It had tinges of history and is laced with poignant memories which were cohesively drawn and sewn together by Vuong’s capable hands. Moreover, Vuong’s poetry translated very well in his first novel.

Little Dog’s experiences, insights and feelings were carefully developed by Vuong. They are all very relatable. The passages were pitch perfect and resonated with so much emotions that it gutted me. I originally gave it a lower rating but after some careful reconsideration, I felt that it didn’t justify the novel’s unmatched beauty.

Book Specs

Author: Ocean Vuong
Publisher:
Arcade Publishing
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 264 pages
Genre: Bildungsroman

Synopsis

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born – a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam and spans to Hartford, Connecticut – and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but udergirded by compassion and tenderness, it is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

About the Author

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Photo by Celeste Sloman for the New York Times

Ocean Vuong (Vương Quc Vinh) was born on October 14, 1988 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

With his six relatives, Vuong immigrated in 1990 to Hartford, Connecticut, United States after spending a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines. At Brooklyn College, Vuong studied under poet and novelist Ben Lerner. Vuong received a Bachelor of Arts in Nineteenth Century English Literature. His writing career begun with several poems and essays which were published in various journal and magazines.

Vuong’s first chapbook, Burnings, was published in 2011. He followed it up with his second chapbook, No, in 2013. Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016) was his first full-length collection. In June 2019, his first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published by Penguin Press. Vuong is also the recipient of different awards such as the 2017 T.S. Elliot Prize, the 2015 Narrative Prize, and the 2014 Pushcart Prize.

Vuong is a Kundiman fellow and is currently an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Writers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Openly gay, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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