Ocean Vuong (2019) On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a book worth reading more than once—I won’t, of course, too many other books to discover and read, but sometimes we need to pause. The mark of a wonderful book is you can open it any page and learn something. Here’s the start, which is so important (as us writers know) for setting the tone.

‘Let me begin again.

Dear Ma,

I am writing to reach you—even if each word put down is one word further away from where you are. I am writing to go back to that time…’

First-person narratives draw the reader in. A cosy arrangement, saying you can trust me. We all love our mum right?

Who are you, becomes what are you? Here Vuong is a dutiful son. His father Paul, an arthritic, pot-smoking Vietnam veteran is not his father. His mother Rose’s real name is not Rose, but an aid agency contacted him in the nineteen-eighties after he’d been married eight years telling him he’d a wife and son in a Philippine refugee camp. She cannot speak English, neither can her sister, or her mother Lan, Vuong’s grandmother.

Vuong inhabits two worlds, a child of immigrants, he is there voice to the English speaking world. There face is his face. A face that does not fit inside the eyes that look back at him.

His mother finds work in the toxic environment of a nailbar. They are the lowest of the low. His mother has no health insurance and psychotic episodes. Grandmother Lan flings a hand over Ocean’s mouth, whispering for him to keep quiet when fireworks go off, or the mortars will find them.

Normal life for Voung is Lan calling him ‘Little Dog’ to confuse the spirits that might blight his life if they believed he was someone important.

Vuong inhabits there world of ghosts and demons and boys at school who bully him.

‘That time at the nail salon, I overheard you consoling a customer over her recent loss.

“I lost my baby, Julie. I can’t believe it, she was my strongest, my oldest.”

“It’s okay,” you said in English, don’t cry. You’re Julie…how she die?”

“Cancer…and in the backyard too.”

“My mom, too, she die from cancer.” The room went quiet. You’re co-workers shifted in their seats. “But what happened in the backyard, why she die there?”

The woman wiped her eyes. “That’s where she lives. Julie’s my horse.”

You nodded, put on your mask… “ A fucking horse you say in Vietnamese.”.’

Contrast 1964 and 1997 when Tiger Woods wins his first Major’s golf tournament.

Back then: General Curtis Le May “promised to bomb the Vietnamese back to the Stone Ages”.

The US military would end up releasing over ten thousand tons of bombs in a county no bigger than California—surpassing the number of bombs dropped in all of World War II combined.’

Rose and Lan’s experience was of being hunted. Their experience of being in America is to keep their heads down. And reminding Voung that being Vietnamese is enough of a burden and he must remain invisible.

Voung makes a comparison with Tiger Woods to make the immigrant experience more understandable to outsiders. Earl Woods names his son after a Vietnamese comrade who saved his life on his final tour of duty. Lieutenant Colonel Dong Vang Phong—“Tiger Phong”, Earl had named him because of his ferocity in battle. Earl had married a Vietnamese women and had his apartment vandalised with slogans painted on the walls.

Ocean Voung makes a literary joke about this experience, playing his mother’s lack of English against her, telling her that it was a message of support. As evidence he pointed out red paint was used, a propitious colour.

Ocean also falls in love with Trevor, who like many of his friends living in a mobile park-land, was hooked on Oxycontin after an injury and then heroin.

‘First developed as a painkiller for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, Oxycontin, along with its generic forms, was soon prescribed for all bodily pains: arthritis, muscle spasms, and migraines.’

Horror story, hearing Trevor’s voice… four years after he died.

He’s singing “This Little Light of Mine” again, the way he used to sing it—abrupt against lulls in the conversation, his arm hanging out the window of the Chevy, tapping the beat on the faded red exterior.

Ocean Vuong offers an insider story of an immigrant’s experience, a marginalised outsider, in the so called land of the free.  Not exactly a fuck you, because that’s too simplistic, too black and white, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’. Read on.

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