On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong

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

Though I expected to love this book, honestly I was a little disappointed. I loved the elegiac writing that winds a story around the reality of intergenerational trauma, but I felt the ending was a little disjointed — I lost too much of the magic there. Written in the form of a letter from a young man Little Dog to his illiterate mother, he recounts his experiences growing up with his mother and grandmother, refugees from Vietnam still scarred by the war though they now live in Hartford, CT. Little Dog’s abusive father is largely absent from the story, aside from a few violent memories. His mother one day tells him the man who he believes to be his grandfather actually met Little Dog’s grandmother when she was already four months pregnant by a different soldier. “Your grandfather is nobody.” Though his mother clearly loves him, she also sometimes throws things at him, and he intuitively understands this is the result of her experiences: “Perhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war.” His grandmother tells him stories, including the one about how he got his name: “To love something … is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched — and alive.

As a teenager, he begins working on a tobacco farm outside of the city, which allows him to begin defining himself and his own place in the world. He starts a relationship with the farmer’s grandson, Trevor, a troubled working class white boy addicted to pain medication, who is attracted to Little Dog but at the same time is insistent that he’s not gay. But eventually Little Dog moves on from all of this to New York City to become a writer, and the final pieces of the story are fragmented between these areas of his life that feel disparate. But these juxtapositions are also just a potential reality of an immigrant’s life and learning how to inhabit a life far from your beginning. Maybe on a future reading I will find more connections with this part of the book.

I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck — the pieces floating, lit up, finally legible.

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