I am writing to reach you–even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, pg. 3.
Little Dog is writing letters to his mother who is illiterate. He writes to go back to places that he remembers through memory, which “is a choice” (pg. 75). Memories he writes about include his birthplace in Vietnam, how his grandmother and mother survived death in such a war-torn country. Little Dog writes about experiencing homophobia, his first love–a boy named Trevor–his past, and his family.
Armed with poetry, Vuong writes of Little Dog’s first love, familial abuse, and what it means to grow up Vietnamese and gay. “You’re already Vietnamese,” his mother reminds him several times over. Little Dog knows this, and yet, despite this mantra of differentness, he finds a friend (and first love) in Trevor. They ride their bikes together, stopping on a hill that is overlooking the city of Hartford-Connecticut:
But for now, the city brims before us with a strange, rare brilliance–as if it was not a city at all, but the sparks made by some god sharpening his weapons above us.
“Fuck,” Trevor whispered. He put his hands in his pockets and spat on the ground.
The city throbbed, shimmered.On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, pg. 151
This scene evokes finding something beautiful amid the ordinary. The curse fuck emitted by Little Dog and Trevor makes me realize that these teenagers haven’t come across something beautiful like this in a long time, probably forever. They are coming to realize that their city is beautiful, even gorgeous despite what they are going through.
Little Dog’s letter are confessional. He continues to admit to his mother that he’s gay. In one particular letter, he again bares his soul to his mother, who might not be able to read what he’s written about his sexuality:
Then I told you the truth.
It was a grayish Sunday. All morning the sky had threatened downpour. The kind of day, I had hoped, where the bond between two people might be decided on easily–the weather being so bleak we would see each other, you and I, with relief, a familiar face made more luminous than we had remembered in the backdrop of dreary light.
Inside the Dunkin’ Donuts, two cups of black coffee steamed before us. You stared out the window. Rain slashed down the road as the cars came back from church service on Main St. “People seem to like those SUV things these days.” You noted the caravan of cars at the drive-thru. “Everybody wants to sit higher and higher.” Your fingers thrummed the table.
“You want sugar, Ma?” I asked. “What about cream, or actually, maybe a doughnut? Oh no, you like the croissants–“
“Say what you have to say, Little Dog.” Your tone subdued, watery. The steam from the cup gave your face a shifting expression.
“I don’t like girls.”
I didn’t want to use the Vietnamese word for it–pe de–from the French pede, short for pedophile. Before the French occupation, our Vietnamese did not have a name for queer bodies–because they were seen, like all bodies, fleshed and of one source–and I didn’t want to introduce this part of me using the epithet for criminals.
You blinked a few times.
“You don’t like girls,” you repeated, nodding absently. I could see the words moving through you, pressing you into your chair. “Then what do you like? You’re seventeen. You don’t like anything. You don’t know anything,” you said, scratching the table.
“Boys,” I said, controlling my voice. But the word felt dead in my mouth. The chair creaked as you leaned forward.
“I can leave, Ma,” I offered. “If you don’t want me I can go. I won’t be a problem and nobody has to know….Ma, say something.” In the cup my reflection rippled under a small black tide. “Please.”
“Tell me,” you said from behind the palm on your chin, “are you going to wear a dress now?”
“They’ll kill you,” you shook your head, “you know that.”
“Who will kill me?”
“They kill people for wearing dresses. It’s on the news. You don’t know people. You don’t know them.”
“I won’t, Ma. I promise. Look, I never wore one before, have I? Why would I now?”
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. I know that. When?”On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, pgs. 129-131.
Little Dog experiences homophobia from his mother. He experiences homophobia from his boyfriend, Trevor, who says that he doesn’t want to bottom because he’ll feel “like a bitch.” There’s signs of homophobia in the notion itself that Little Dog fully accepted by his mother: She doesn’t want him to leave because she loves her gay son, but because she doesn’t have anyone else in her life. She wants him to stay because she’ll be alone if he leaves.
Little Dog tells his mother, “In college, a professor once insisted, during a digression from a lecture on Othello, that, to him, gay men are inherently narcissistic, and that overt narcissism might even be a sign of homosexuality in men who have not yet accepted their ‘tendencies.’ Even as I fumed in my seat, the thought won’t stop burrowing into me” (pg. 138). This passage not only is glaringly wrong, but points out the professor’s own ignorance on what it means to be a gay man. His error is that he believes that only gay men can be narcissistic, or that narcissism is a latent sign that a man is homosexual.
Little Dog ends this particular letter with the confessional that yes, he wore a dress more than once.
We leave the Dunkin’ Donuts heavier with what we know of each other. But what you didn’t know was that, in fact, I had worn a dress before–and would do so again. That a few weeks earlier, I had danced in an old tobacco barn wearing a wine-red dress as my friend, a lanky boy with a busted eye, dizzily watched. I had salvaged the dress from your closet, the one you bought for your thirty-fifth birthday but never wore. I swirled in the sheer fabric while Trevor, perched on a stack of tires, clapped between drags on a joint, our collarbones lit sharply by a pair of cell phones placed on the floor dusted with dead moths. In that barn, for the first time in months, we weren’t afraid of anybody–not even ourselves. You steer the Toyota home, me silent beside you. It seems the rain will return this evening and all night the town will be rinsed, the trees lining the freeways dripping in the metallic dark. Over dinner, I’ll pull in my chair and, taking off my hood, a sprig of hay caught there from the barn weeks before will stick out from my black hair. You will reach over, brush it off, and shake your head as you take in the son you decided to keep.On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, pgs. 139-140.
Little Dog’s story is one of hardships and moments of beautiful honesty. He is a strong man, strong in the ability to overcome what’s thrown at him. Little Dog is a thoughtful person; in his poetic letters, he’s always thinking. As a writer, he wants to overcome his tenuous relationship with his mother. He asks his mother, “Can you hear me yet? Can you read me?” (pg. 62).
He is filled with something every writer, and every person, struggles with: doubt.
When I first started writing, I hated myself for being so uncertain, about images, clauses, ideas, even the pen or journal I used. Everything I wrote began with maybe and perhaps and ended with I think or I believe. But my doubt is everywhere, Ma. Even when I know something to be true as bone I fear the knowledge will dissolve, will not despite my writing it, stay real. I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else–where, exactly, I’m not sure. Just as I don’t know what to call you–White, Asian, orphan, American, mother?On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, pg. 62.
I love this novel; it’s full of poetic sentences, something I crave when reading books. It’s hopeful and devastating. By writing his letters to his mother, Little Dog is trying to connect with his mother, to patch their shaky bond.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a harrowing novel of tenderness and rough edges. If you like honesty, poetry, and novels about sticking true to yourself, then this novel is something you should pick up.