Ocean Vuong creates a new wave with his book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Review by Mulan Matthayasack
Poet Ocean Vuong has seen the world from both ends: Saigon and New England. He’s also seen it from different perspectives: through the eyes of a young Vietnamese boy assimilating American customs, and through the eyes of his mother. He takes these perspectives, these experiences, these family encounters, and he melds them into his first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to define not only what it means to be the son of an Asian immigrant, but also what it means to be human.
Vuong opens the book as a letter written to his mother. The prose is lyrical and reads like poetry—instance after instance, memoir after memoir that captivates, compels, resonates, and challenges. The words are sharp but smooth, the images are clear and vivid, as if he is back in Vietnam with his family. He tells of their history prior to their migration and compares their journey to monarch butterflies flying south. He describes his mother as beautiful and strong but also delicate—a rose, like her name.
Vuong expresses what he has learned he must do to “be a man.” He’s scolded by his mother for not being the bigger person even though he was bullied in school for being the smallest. He watches as she struggles with English every time they are at a store, and that triggers him to better himself, to be the family interpreter “so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.” He has to be a man because he is the only man in his family.
Vuong also addresses the problems Asian women face through the experiences of his mother and grandmother. His mother is discriminated in the States for being yellow, but back in Vietnam, was discriminated for not being yellow enough because of her white father. This is relevant to current generations, because it’s a common issue most children of interracial couples have. Likewise, his grandmother was shunned by her own mother for not sticking to tradition, for leaving an arranged marriage, because “a girl who leaves her husband is the rot of a harvest.” It may seem like another tale of an ungrateful, unhappy girl, but with Vuong’s words, readers understand it’s actually a sad reality.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a powerful book that makes us consider our relationship with our own mothers, and asks us not to take even the smallest things for granted. “Care and love,” Vuong writes, “are pronounced clearest through service.” The novel makes us recognize the concerns nearly every immigrant family has, and makes us question what we can do to resolve them. But most importantly, it makes us want to not repeat history, but also not erase it.
“Maybe then … you’ll find this book and you’ll know what happened to us. And you’ll remember me. Maybe.”
Published by Penguin Press on June 4, 2019