On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
As writers, we play with words and punctuation so much that we start to see the world in a string of letters and dark dots. In Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, language and life become one. The book is a letter, addressing a mother that could not read English, hence a letter never sent. Language sets them apart, yet sometimes it is the unsaid, the untold that matters. Vuong’s novel is a collection of memories about the narrator’s Vietnamese family, fleeing their war-ravaged motherland, his first love, Trevor, a white boy whose life is taken away by the prescription of Oxycontin, and ultimately about the narrator’s journey toward adulthood. The novel explores the intersectionality of race, sexuality, disability, refugee diaspora and inter-generational trauma and it challenges the limit of language in its representation of queer Asian American experience.
In narrator’s eyes, autumn leaves become commas, each drop a silent exclamation. Fetuses are commas that grow bigger and ultimately lose their tails: “a comma forced to be a period.” In a few occasions, we see words achieve what human life rarely achieves— that by “simply being,” they can “tell all of [themselves].” We see words inhabit spaces our bodies fail to fill. While physical bodies have boundaries, words bear fewer boundaries and travel more freely. Yet language also has its own limitations, and its inadequacy resembles life itself. Following Vuong’s narration, we see words become fragmented, their flow disrupted, grammar rules neglected, and logical connection defied. By the end of Part II, prose becomes poetry. The lines become sparser and shorter, and the increasing blankness of pages signals the failure of conveyance. Yet words, even in their most powerless and helpless state, like a bird with one wing, incapable of flying, still manage to move us.
The first lesson the Vietnamese refugee family learns when they set foot on America’s shores is “the [new] rules of color,” that color itself carries power. We start to see this world in the hierarchy of color. It makes the daily routine of drinking milk, “the American milk,” become an act of empowerment: both the narrator and his mother hope that “the whiteness vanishing into [him] would make more of a yellow boy.” The mother also gives her son a lesson about survival: “don’t draw attention to yourself. You’re already Vietnamese.” The book reminds me how—being yellow, a color that deviates from whiteness— we already have a scarlet letter seared into our skin and there is no way to hide it. How can we hide our skin color when the color itself is our own state of being? To hide our color is to annihilate our own existence.
Anyone who has engaged in a non-hegemonic intimate relationship knows that we love at the same time as we fear, and it is sometimes hard to tell which one outweighs the other. Even in the deserted barn, a safe haven Trevor’s whiteness brings, we see fear shadowing every movement for the two teenage boys: when they kiss, when they fumble, and when they make love to one other. The fear that “they will get us before they get us” permeates the scenes. This kind of relationship seems doomed from the start; we suspect it will not last. They would not allow it. Yet, we start such relationships anyway. Endurance, we find, is what makes meaning, and we continue to live, to love, to suffer, and, ultimately, to be. Each of us a small “kipula,” a survivor of “our own aftermath.”
LI ZHUANG is a Chinese international student pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University. In May, 2019, Li graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in The Madison Review, The New Engagement, The Collapsar, etc.