On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a wonderfully rich story, in the form of a letter, written by a Vietnamese son to his mother who will most likely never read it. She is illiterate and has had a difficult life of her own, which has influenced her parenting skills and contributed to her mental health. Overloaded with the burden of abuse, feeling like an outcast not being a white American and battling with his own sexuality, the adult son comes to terms with his vulnerability, his abusive and unreliable upbringing, his first intimate relationship and his feelings for his mother and grandmother, all while he fearlessly and unapologetically tells the story of his childhood and his search for acceptance.
In the form of a letter to his mother, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous has many tangents that accommodate the author’s trains of thought. It is self-reflective and written poetically, infused with insight gained with age. As the narrator looks back, he describes in detail how kids picked on him, and his mother could not help him because she didn’t speak English. She hit him until he was 13 years old; her violent tendencies possibly due to mental illness. He describes in detail, play by play, his first sexual encounter with another young boy. Expertly conveying the roughness and the tenderness, he reveals his vulnerable and insecure self with no apologies. So much of what he shares is painful and sad, yet we witness glimmers of self-acceptance at his personal turning point when he looked in the mirror and saw something someone could love.
“To be gorgeous (like sunset), you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”
The author makes interesting structural choices in his novel. He used Moby Dick by Herman Melville as a guide; exploring tangents surrounding the main story to give background and context. The letter format of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous allows the writer to say whatever he chooses without having to worry about a beginning, middle and end, a character arc or a formal conclusion.
Ocean Vuong is a poet and his book is autobiographical in many ways, although we don’t know all of what is fact or fiction. In the end, it doesn’t really matter because he takes us on a unique and beautiful journey; one of a life that is not easy. He nourishes the actual happenings with details of family, tradition, superstition and cultural history which enhance our understanding of this boy. The writing is rich and vibrant, the subject matter excruciatingly painful at times; an unusual combination that makes this a slow, fully absorbing and fulfilling read.
My book group enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous; some of us listened to it and enjoyed the author’s voice and emotion while others preferred to read so they could take the time to absorb the beautiful language. We found it challenging in our discussion to keep the author and the narrator separate – drawing the line between truth and fiction was murky but in the end we all appreciated the writing and the story. Check out Ocean Vuong’s late night conversation with Seth Meyers to get a feel for what he is like!
About the Author:
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.