Last year, acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong published his critically acclaimed novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous and was awarded a MacArthur grant. He also teaches at the University of Amherst's graduate program in fine arts.
Which is all pretty impressive for someone who only recently turned 30.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is Vuong's first novel. The narrative chronicles the salient moments in a young Vietnamese-American man's life, as well as the lives of the women who raised him. It is an ambitious work, exploring themes of war, generational trauma, social class, masculinity and the experiences of Asian-American immigrants who do not quite slot neatly into the category of "model minority". It is a poignant, complicated, experimental work that blends poetry and prose beautifully.
I'm going to be honest here. I am a Biology and Psychology double major. Vuong himself has an MFA in poetry from NYU and a MacArthur "genius" grant to his name. The back cover of the collection feature comments from the likes of Celeste Ng and Ben Lerner. Evidently, a great many people with a great many more qualifications than myself have said much of what has been said about this collection. But I will presume to add my own humble opinion.
This book is a sucker-punch of a piece of work. What I've always admired about Vuong is his ability to find metaphors in the most mundane scraps of existence. Everything from a pair of light-up sneakers to a glass of milk, monarch butterflies to a taxidermied deer, of all things, becomes something significantly greater in the span of a few sentences. The narrative also deftly creates a portrait of a few figures. The narrator himself, struggling to balance his identities in turn-of-the-millenium America. Then there are the histories of his mother, grandmother and country of birth, as well as short snippets into the mind of his first love.
The narrative also deftly creates a portrait of four figures. The narrator himself, struggling to balance his identities in turn-of-the-millenium America. Then there are the histories of his mother, grandmother and country of birth.
I am not sure how apt a comparison this is, but the interweaving of historical events into such a personal first-person narrative reminded me a bit of comedian Trevor Noah's autobiography, Born a Crime. Both authors use a single life as a starting point to slip in bits of the larger sociopolitical histories that shaped the life. While their individual poetic and comedic voices, respectively, come through, there is the common theme of how all human lives are intricately bound up in the larger contexts wrought by time and location.
I will say here that is important to remember that Vuong's novel is fiction, and not an autobiography, no matter how tempting it would be to confuse the fact. But it was written with his own mother in mind, a sort of love letter.
On a softer note, Vuong also describes the everyday events of living in a multigenerational Vietnamese household, cared for by a mother and grandmother in a country that could be as foreign to them as they were to it. He makes a point of discussing the power of words, the way language can forge relationships and break them. The importance of language to identity and expression of identity.
One of the definitions of "motherland" is "land where something originates". For many immigrants, America is an adoptive mother, a source of succor when the places of our birth cannot care for us in the ways we need. It is a second chance at a brighter, more hopeful future. The origin of a better life than the one they left behind.
But this novel is not a feel-good, rags-to-riches immigrant story. This novel is equal parts a love letter and aching exploration of what it can mean to feel alienated in your motherland – and your mother's home.