“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong
review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
“Because something in him knew she’d be there. That she was waiting. Because that’s what mothers do. They wait. They stand still until their children belong to someone else.”
Ocean Vuong’s memoir is equal parts harrowing and gorgeous, as evident in its title. I was drawn to Vuong’s work after hearing the poet interviewed on a podcast. His memoir reads much like his whispery voice sounds, echoing with truth and faint optimism yet immersed in layers of oppression. Born in Vietnam, but raised in Hartford, Connecticut by his mother and grandmother, Vuong struggles to manage his loved ones’ mental illnesses. His mother suffers from PTSD due to the American napalm raids on Saigon in her childhood, while his grandmother Lan battles schizophrenia. Though Vuong does not shy away from the grisly details of such a tenuous upbringing, the resounding emotion of this complicated dynamic is love, deep familial love. The author explores the tension of loving someone deeply while coming to terms with how and why love often hurts.
The memoir delves back in time, narrating the story that preceded his birth, showing the hardships the Vietnamese encountered during the war and the lasting scars that afflicted the generations that followed the survivors. The memoir is written to his mother in a letter, ironically one she can’t read due to her illiteracy. In the opening scene, Vuong and his mother stop at a gas station to relieve themselves and his mother stares at the taxidermy buck above the restrooms, shocked at the permanence of such a practice, idolizing the death of a hunted animal. Vuong returns to this theme of the hunted throughout the memoir, relating it to the plight of immigrants in America, longing for freedom but confined by economic and social restraints. The author longs for visibility, to be seen instead of stereotyped, craving the individualism long denied the othered. To be Vietnamese in America is to be defined by somewhere else, a cage of sorts, that one forever tries to escape. As an outsider, Vuong views the idea of American exceptionalism from the perspective of the unaccepted: “Too much joy, I swear, is lost in our desperation to keep it.”
This book wrecked me in a soul-filling way. I read it in pieces, as each anecdote required time and reflection to fully digest. I kept thinking about the difference between sympathy and empathy, feeling for someone as opposed to feeling with them. Vuong’s writing submerses readers in the experience, never letting them up for air. He forces us to contemplate what it means to find hope and purpose amidst suffocation. This love affair with language on the page, as only a poet can manifest, weaves tragedy and beauty in this stunning articulation of generational trauma.
“Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”