On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

“You once told me 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.”

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to his illiterate mother. Written when the narrator, Little Dog, is in his twenties, the letter brings to light a family's history that began before he was born - a history whose epicentre 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. 


"Dear Ma" Little dog writes in the letter to his mother, Rose, at the beginning of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. He writes to go back in the passage of time, referring to a rest stop in Virginia, "when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hung over the soda machine by the restrooms, its antlers shadowing your face." Little Dog couldn't understand why his mother would want to display death in such a way.

He remembers when he was just a boy, four years old, in their small Connecticut apartment, the first time his mother hit him. There was the time with the kitchen knife, too. Rose yelling, "Get out. Get out." Little Dog was ten then. 

He remembers better times, too, like the time Rose rode the Superman roller-coaster with him at Six Flags, or when she tried on a fancy dress at Goodwill, her asking him in Vietnamese, "Do I look like a real American?"

Rose bought another dress at Goodwill, and Little Dog, wanting to look more like his mother, put it on. Just then, a neighbourhood boy rode by on his bike and saw him wearing it. At school the kids taunted him, calling him a "freak, fairy, fag." 

In an earlier draft of his letter to Rose, he explained how he had become a writer, but since discarded it. He doesn't think it matters. The only thing that matters now is the letter itself, even though she isn't likely to read it. When his mother was five, she watched her schoolhouse in Vietnam burn to the ground after an American napalm raid, and she never returned to school, never learned how to read.

There's so much Little Dog wants to tell his mother.

What I thought

Although this book was originally published in 2019, there's still a lot of buzz around it, and now I can see why. The paperback is coming out June 1st, so the buzz is back! It's also extremely quote-worthy, with an absolutely beautiful prose, so there's a huge social media captioning frenzy.

It definitely wasn't what I was expecting, with it being told in more of a poetic format. It was different, and took some getting used to, but I liked it.

Some sentences were so entirely raw and powerful that they felt like physical pricks to my skin, leaving me stunned and in awe. At times, I would have to break for a while, go away to digest what I had read and come back to it again.

The book was emotionally supercharged, with themes of war, trauma and abuse at it's core, and undertones of drugs and addiction at the surface. 

Vuong is an incredibly talented poet and writer, which he's proven not only through this book, but also through his other work, and the awards he's received. 


Ocean Vuong by Tom Hines

Born on a rice farm in Ho Chi Minh City, Ocean Vuong arrived with his family as a two-year-old refugee to the United States, settling in Hartford, Connecticut. After spending some time at community college, he enrolled then at Brooklyn College, where he received a B.A. in English, then went on to receive his M.F.A. in poetry from NYU. 

His poems have been published by various media outlets including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Rumpus

Vuong has won a number of prestigious awards for his work including the Dylan Thomas Prize (2020), MacArthur Fellow, and the T.S. Eliot Prize. 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his debut novel. 

“I miss you more than I remember you.”
- Ocean Vuong, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is available at Indigo and on Kobo. Check Penguin Random House Canada for other retailers.

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