To love someone is to also help process that person’s trauma with them. That is the vantage point from which Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, begins, as Little Dog, a queer Vietnamese American refugee, attempts to write a letter and explain who he has become to his mother, who cannot read. His mother, Rose, we are told within the first several pages, would rather stay illiterate than suffer the shock of being taught a skill by her son—a reversal of their familial power dynamics. The only school she attended was razed by an American napalm raid when she was 5. What she instead acquires over the years is an education in survival, a sensibility hardened by the Vietnam War and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. “Memory is a choice,” she tells Little Dog. It becomes exceedingly clear she means that memory entails violence and that the latter is one of the most effective means of instruction.
She hits Little Dog from ages 4 through 13, until he stands up to her; she throws a box of Legos at his head, threatens him with a knife, and slaps him for crying when he tells her about being bullied. As he recounts, this is altogether not unusual in the world of his adolescence in Connecticut. His Hartford is a landscape of immigrants and refugees and low-income households in tenement apartments, tobacco farmhands shooting up fentanyl, and abusive fathers attempting to bribe cops. In his house, as in many of his peers’, kinship is “both shelter and warning at once,” a calculated brutality to “prepare him for war.” “To love something, then,” Little Dog writes, “is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched—and alive.” Cruelty in his world is at the same time its opposite: an act of love.
The impetus for the letter, Little Dog says, is Roland Barthes’s aside in Mourning Diary, a collection of fragments the latter collected in the wake of his mother’s death. “I have known the body of my mother, [Barthes] writes, sick and then dying. And that’s where I stopped [reading]. Where I decided to write to you. You who are still alive,” Little Dog writes. But unlike Barthes’ mother, whose body is wrecked by the inevitability of old age, Rose’s body is devastated by the exploitative labor (a stint in a clock factory, years in a nail salon) she undertakes to keep Little Dog and her own mother alive. From a young age, he will come to know Rose’s pain intimately, working at her sore muscles and watching her fall asleep in the bathtub after a long day at work.
Practices of care give form to love and desire, but both are structured, according to Little Dog, by his family’s history of sexism, racism, dispossession, and myriad kinds of violence. The unspoken concern that he grapples with throughout his letter is whether he can live a life that deviates from what he knows—to experience something besides love as deprivation, care as hurt, inheritance as debt, and kinship as keeping score. Right as he delves deeper into his first romance with a local boy named Trevor, Little Dog recounts how he came out to Rose in a Dunkin’ Donuts, preemptively offering to leave home:
You stared at the two holes in my face. “You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s just you and me, Little Dog. I don’t have anyone else.” Your eyes were red.… “Tell me,” you sat up, a concerned look on your face, “when did this all start? I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy. When?”
It becomes immediately clear that, for Rose, the reason Little Dog was born “healthy” and “normal” in the first place is that she endured unfathomable sacrifices for him. Amid the ravages of war and starvation, his father and his family had forced her to abort what would have been his elder brother four months into her pregnancy. (He was “scraped [out of her], like seeds from a papaya.”) “Unlike your brother,” Rose tells Little Dog, “you were not born until we knew you’d live.” She doesn’t say it outright, but her counterconfession acts as a reproach to his ostensible deviations: His existence is the product of her suffering, and yet he couldn’t like girls, as other boys did. His queerness becomes legible only as a personal failing, another debt he can never repay, and what was supposed to be a moment of asserting who he is as a person (very, very gay), he gets pulled back into Vietnam, subsumed into the ethnos.
Little Dog says he becomes a writer to make himself legible to Rose, fully cognizant of the fact that his intended audience cannot ever access him through his writing. Vuong has commented that he wants the reader to be “eavesdropping” on the dialogue between Little Dog and Rose. But the point of a letter you write to people who can’t read it is that you can confess without needing to deal with their response. “Don’t draw attention to yourself. You’re already Vietnamese,” she reminds Little Dog as he grows up. But he is also already queer, accumulating new names at school—“freak, fairy, fag.” She may have refused his disclosure, but he can stage himself the way he knows best: on paper, not ceding ground to either white supremacy or heteronormativity. It can be only at a distance, in writing, that he can start to see his life story cohere.
Like Little Dog, Vuong is a gay Vietnamese American, a writer, a Hartford boy from a working-class refugee family. He incidentally is also already wildly famous. His first collection of poetry, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, hurled him to critical acclaim, snagging him the Whiting Prize, among other accolades. Shortly after On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published, he was named a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship. But as Little Dog hints, acclaim is not the same thing as respect or care. “They will write their names on your leash and call you necessary, call you urgent.” he writes in an uncharacteristically acerbic aside.
Reading reviews of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, you can’t help feeling that Little Dog has a point. Many are able to point to the character’s Vietnamese upbringing, his feeling stranded from Americanness, his ethnic difference, but very few note just how gay this book is. Most if not all reviews discuss his first love as an afterthought, despite it being the emotional crux of the novel. As poet Paisley Rekdal argued in a sharp critique of a review of Vuong’s poetry, plenty of critics don’t know what to make of Vuong’s work precisely because they measure his craft by appraising the extent to which his work actualizes circumscribed performances of his identity as Vietnamese American—as refugee. “This conflation between poet and poem,” Rekdal writes, results in “a simultaneous and paradoxical widening and narrowing of poetry for writers of color, as the wide critical acceptance of certain poets and poetries…finally stultifies our reading of similar subject matters and identities.” The same holds true for his prose. The lived, felt experience of writers of color becomes reducible to trope and caricature; literary fiction read in this way is not unlike reading genre fiction for the fulfillment of archetype.
Vuong is above all interested in the emotional aftermath of experiencing care as a kind of failure and in understanding desire as where personal history and the world converge. The novel’s title can be traced to a poem of the same name in Night Sky With Open Wounds, and one can read the novel as its fuller articulation. The father figure in the poem “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” hits the mother, destroys a kitchen table, then retreats to a bathroom, where the speaker hears “his muffled cries through the walls.” The speaker concludes, “And so I learned that a man, in climax, was the closest thing / to surrender.” Orgasm, the fulfillment of sexual desire, becomes linked to unfettered rage and its companion, guilt—all of which is made possible only by hurt.
This scene is but an interlude in a longer entreaty to a now-lost lover, whose “name / is only the sound of clocks / being set back another hour.” Halfway through the novel, as he recounts his time with Trevor, Little Dog writes, “I never wanted to build a ‘body of work,’ but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.” In Vuong’s case, Trevor—his body, his gestures, the actions that make him up—is embedded pretty much in all of his writing. In both the poetry and the prose he is marveling and mourning and making sense of this beloved boy.
Trevor, a dirt-poor white kid whom Little Dog meets at the tobacco farm where they work, shows the latter that love and tenderness can teach us grace. The first time they have anal sex (without lube or any sort of preparation), Little Dog inadvertently defecates midway through. Shame and fear overtake him—he worries about the possible violent consequences of having “tainted [Trevor]”—but Trevor leads Little Dog out to the river for the two of them to wash themselves, insisting that he shouldn’t worry. When Little Dog doesn’t respond and moves back to shore, Trevor kneels in the shallows and fellates him, and “the sudden, wordless act, willed as a balm to [his] failure in the barn.” The depth of his love transforms care into service, and a simple blow job becomes an act of generosity without qualification.
And yet Trevor, within his deeply internalized homophobia, denies Little Dog the reassurance they both need as teenagers figuring out their sexuality and their capacity for love. Anxious about his masculinity, Trevor treats being gay as a contagion, insisting he would be “good in a few years,” diminishing his relationship with Little Dog as a dalliance. Trevor makes half-hearted apologies for his family’s racism toward Little Dog but tells him to not feel upset over it. Over the course of their relationship, Trevor develops an opioid dependency, the consequence of an injury sustained in a car accident, and his addiction further alienates Little Dog. In making space for both Trevor’s tenderness and casual cruelty, Little Dog realizes this one truth: that between his mother and Trevor, it has become impossible for him to stake a claim to his own desires. So he leaves Hartford, returning only when he learns of Trevor’s untimely death.
When Little Dog poses the rhetorical question “What is a country but a life sentence?” after a scene in which Rose quips about how roasted pork ribs they’re buying look like a burned human being’s, one sometimes gets the sense he believes his fate is sealed—caught between the trauma of his mother and of living as a queer person of color in America. This sense of futility is even more pronounced in the book’s disquisitions about language: What is the point of artistry, when, as he points out, the current president wants to deport his friends? What is the point of writing when the loss of his mother tongue, Vietnamese, is what makes his mastery of English possible? (Little Dog “wore [his] English, like a mask, so that others would see [his] face, and therefore [his mother’s],” an apt description of the kinds of intercession immigrant children are forced to perform on their parents’ behalf.)
Neither Vuong nor Little Dog has any delusions about literature as a replacement for collective action, but the book finds itself defending the inherent value of aesthetic experience, even as it explicitly rejects the idea that there is no political import to art. Throughout the story, Little Dog argues that writing is a kind of freedom, one that he is denied because of his marginal position in American society. “They will tell you that great writing ‘breaks free’ from the political, thereby ‘transcending’ the barriers of difference,” he says later on. “As if how something is assembled is alien to the impulse that created it.” For him, the impulse to create is just this: “I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more of it?” He continues the thought in the last parts of the book:
All this time I told myself we were born from war—but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty.
Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but rather, that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.
For Little Dog, beauty—aesthetic experience—is a way of constructing meaning in the shambles of history, which is another way of saying that he is a writer. Aestheticizing his trauma provides him with the distance necessary to understand, even find his life livable. Why write a letter that won’t be read by its intended recipient? Perhaps the truth is that his letter is not really for his mother or even for Trevor. If Rose cannot understand and care for Little Dog in the ways he needs her, then perhaps readers, who by dint of theirher position have to observe him from this distance, can perceive his totality in precisely the ways that he has been denied. The letter, in challenging readers to hold Little Dog in theirher mind’s eye as this singular, wounded, beautiful creature, in preserving his contradictions, ends up making the novel a kind of Künstlerroman. Consider this book his artist’s statement.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, in making Little Dog’s life the object of his aesthetic practice, Vuong asks us to consider reading as an act of service. Reading the novel, one becomes imbricated in the violent dialectic of care and deprivation that Little Dog experiences throughout his life. In the end, Little Dog still needs a reader, someone with enough distance, to legitimate his life, to see this queer Asian boy confronted with both love and violence. Beauty, then, is not only a means of self-realization for the artist but also an offering to the reader, service in exchange for the work of comprehension. Art, like living, always comes at a price.