Ocean Vuong and the Power of Loss

Ocean Vuong made a name for himself even before he earned his MFA from NYU. In 2016, his first book of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, was published during his second year as a graduate student. That same year, Vuong won the prestigious Whiting Award. One of the poems in this vital collection is called “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” He has now drawn on that phrase to serve as the title for his first novel, just out from Penguin Press. In this exquisite book, a narrator called Little Dog looks back on his upbringing as a Vietnamese immigrant in Hartford, CT, raised by two women: a single mother who works at a nail salon and his schizophrenic grandmother. The epistolary book is a one-sided conversation with his illiterate mom, and addresses the ramifications of war, sexuality, desire, addiction, life, and death. “I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours,” Vuong writes. “Which is to say, I am writing as a son.”

Perhaps because Vuong is a poet, the novels lithe sentences seem to take in Whitmanesque multitudes. “A “hummingbird’s whirring sounds almost like human breath.” “To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones.” These moments abound: I fan through my copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and my marginalia and underlining is an extension of the text, bold blue ink standing out from the typeface.

There’s a splintered quality to Vuong’s way of getting at the story, purposefully so: “I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck—the pieces floating, lit up, finally legible,” he writes.

“The novel was an elongation of the line breaks that I navigated in poems,” Vuong told me in a phone interview shortly before the novel’s publication. ” I set out to write a ghost of a novel, not necessarily something complete, but something that was purposely fractured, consciously fragmented, and that disjointment was actually a method,”. That’s part of what makes On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous haunting: the juxtaposition of different memories from Little Dog’s life unfolding in bursts of sensory details. A sex scene between Little Dog and Trevor, a coworker he meets while working at a tobacco farm as a teenager, told next to a death scene where Little Dog describes his grandmother’s body shutting down, her feet turning purple, — the color reminding him of the flowers she once asked him to pick from the side of the highway. Vuong draws out tensions via proximity, moments that bleed into each other just as life does.

There’s an underlying ache at the heart of this story. “Desire is often tied to power, particularly a sense of power, what it means to be powerless in the wake of desire,” Vuong says. “I was informed by many things, many moments of being raised by women. Particularly immigrant refugee women, working class women [where] English isn’t their first language. And often the world they are in that is America has rendered them powerless in many senses.”

That powerlessness, paradoxically, gives rise to a particular kind of energy. “I wanted to capture desire that could not expend itself,” Vuong told me. “We often think of desire as a force of movement, but when one is often powerless, desire becomes a static force, it becomes an inner force. You can’t really move, but you feel it. I tried to elongate desire as a force of feeling when you cannot act, when you don’t have the agency or the means to act on your wishes, then you must site with desire, and desire moves within you. It’s like a storm in a mason jar, you have to be there with it.”

The first chapter of the book was published as an essay in The New Yorker. Vuong started writing the novel while at the Civitella Ranieri residency, in a 15th century castle in Italy. The power went out during a thunderstorm, and Vuong’s laptop battery died. Without electricity for days, he wrote by hand, and the episode, he says was transformative.. He had to sit with the images for a longer amount of time. “It felt like I was thinking and discovering while writing, whereas on the computer I was merely recording what I wanted to say.” In this painstaking and somewhat experimental fashion, Vuong set to apply the same questions he had posed in his poetry collection to a narrative mode.

“It was important to expand on American identity beyond American soil,” Vuong says. “Perhaps for Little Dog, his Americanness did not begin when he set food in Hartford on American soil, but it began with American policy. Fifteen years before he was born, there were bombs falling in Vietnam… In a way Little Dog’s life was always around the subject of violence. And so the question is how do we heal, how do we save one another, how do we be happy in the midst of that?”

While aspects of the book are autobiographical, Vuong made a deliberate choice to enter the fictional realm. “I wanted to write a novel grounded in truth but realized by the imagination,” he says. “If we think about Western literature, we have the Woolfs and the Tolstoys and their milieu was mostly the aristocratic classes, white. I wanted to insist that these poor white yellow brown bodies are inspiring bodies, they’re not just victims of a geopolitical plight. They have inspired this novelist to see them worthy of literature with a capital L…. I wanted them to participate in the legacy of American literature.”

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous thrums with the complicated rhythms of life. A son provides a testimony for his mother, despite the fact that she can’t read it. But this testimony is a gift. “It is no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus—that curve of continuation,” Vuong writes. “We were all once curled inside our mothers, saying, with our entire curved and silent selves, more, more, more. I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more of it?”