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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: book review

TW- bullying, drug abuse, PTSD, War conflict

My way of coping with things is that I write them down on paper. I do a lot of journaling and this book is like that. Like I refer to myself and my tragedies and achievements, this book does the same too. Little dog, a Vietnamese immigrant boy, writes this “letter” to himself and explains to us through these disjointed texts, his mental state, his agony, his pain.

The narrator writes a long, beautiful, emotional, and at times brutal “letter” to his mother despite knowing that she is unable to read English. He pours his heart out as he shares tales of his life. He writes about the traumatic experience of being bullied for being a Vietnamese immigrant in a white American society, for being gay, for being attacked a million times by his own mother as she suffers from PTSD due to her fair share of past experience of living in Vietnam as a mixed Vietnamese and a white girl. Her white skin is a symbol of being a traitor in a country that fought a long ugly battle with the US. He shares stories of how her mother and grandmother still get flashes of a war-torn country. He didn’t fail to acknowledge that love was always there, even after having an abusive relationship with his mother.

Talking about abusive relationships, he has a pseudo-relationship with a white guy named Trevor who although agrees to be his partner but also fails to acknowledge Dog’s sexuality. Trevor and he get involved in drugs too. Trevor here is present as one more wound in an already injured body. The letter shifts from one topic to another in a very abrupt manner at times, ranging its focus from the post-war crisis in Vietnam, collateral damage that war does on a micro-scale, dividing families, how it takes a toll on mental health, drug abuse, death, bullying, sexuality. Hiding behind a letter, the book is more like a memoir that opens to oneself more than it does to others.

The underlying pain that swims in this book is too difficult to neglect. As he shares how the language barrier made his mother and grandmother so hard to communicate with locals in Hartford, it reminds me of my personal experience where I have to often be the translator between my mother and Hindi-speaking people. The helplessness both the mothers feel is too personal for me to avoid. Ocean Vuong used all the knives he had in his sleeve to tear my heart apart. Like a poem, he uses a lot of negative space and silences in between words and verses, and this silence and the pauses narrate more than the written text.

Reading this piece of art was a thought-provoking, emotional ride for me but the disjointed nature of the writing style and sudden shift of topic made it difficult to fully immerse into it. One moment the plot intensified and the writer excused himself into something else. As if he got up from his chair and when he came back to sit down to write it, he completely forgot what he was writing! The writing style is as par “Girl, Woman, other” by Bernardine Evaristo when it comes to the same lyrical note and poetic style. In a way, the book is more like an experimental piece when it comes to execution, rather than a full-scale novel.


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 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, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to the American moment, immersed as it is in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one's own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.


Ocean Vuong is the author of the debut novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, out from Penguin Press (2019) and forthcoming in 15 other languages worldwide. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, his honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize. Vuong's writings have been featured in The Atlantic, Harpers, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a 2016 100 Leading Global Thinker, alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon, and Justin Trudeau, Ocean was also named by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers” and has been profiled on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” PBS NewsHour, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Fantastic Man, and The New Yorker. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he serves as an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at Umass-Amherst.

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