On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I loved listened to Ocean Vuong talking about writing, he’s an incredibly articulate speaker and an accomplished poet, his writing sophorific and it is easy to be lulled into it’s cadence and rhythm. I am the kind of reader who often prefers a poet’s prose to their poetry, easily swayed by the poet’s promise of enrapture in the long form.

I loved the premise of this novel, a letter to an illiterate mother, a lofty intellectual promise, a notion that allows for a lack of self consciousness, a daring fearlessness of judgment, knowing she can and will never read it.

This was my second attempt to read fiction after a long pause, and with hindsight, it was not the best choice. I was lured into reading it looking for something other than what I found, or did it lose sight of itself and its intention, a letter to a mother, is it fair that we come to it with expectations? I can only ask that question now with some distance from the narrative because at the time of reading, it was too raw.

For me, it too often felt like the letter writer, the narrator was looking at himself, reliving intimate experiences and I wondered why it was he felt a mother needed to be witness to all of that, in such detail. Yes, it is a beautifully written account, and many have and will read it with little recollection of its purpose and find only beauty in its construction.

The parts I enjoyed most were the recounting of aspects of Ma (Rose’s) and Lan’s lives, the comparison of the nail salon to the tobacco fields, the sacrifices one generation makes for another, the divide between the educated and the uneducated, families fragmented by an internal cultural divide, a sense of loss, the necessity of letting go.

Somehow he managed to survive his proximity to drugs and addiction, thanks perhaps to his intelligence or ambition to express himself, perhaps I wanted less poetry and more story around community and the connections that lifted him out of becoming another statistic. I look forward to seeing what comes next, how he chooses to uses his gift. It is beautifully written, in a lyrical flow, a coming of age incantation, an author to watch.

I was sad to read that the author’s mother passed away in November 2019 at the tender age of 51, Ocean Vuong shared this news and a photo of her on his Instagram page, honoring her, and all working class mothers who had put their heads down through decades of back breaking work so their children could hold their heads up.

Born in war but having lived in peace, she now begins her journey through the bardo. What can a son say to the great loss from which he owes his own life? Only that my world has changed forever. it can never be what it was. it is absolutely less—and yet perennially more because of what you have given me, Ma. you taught me that our pain is not our destiny—but our reason. you gave me all the reasons. thank you. i bow to you. i will see you again. every word was always for you. every sentence a life (- giving) sentence. Ocean Vuong

Further Reading

The 10 Books I Needed To Write My Novel – Ocean Vuong on Herman Melville, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, James Baldwin, lê thị diễm thúy, and More

Interview: War Baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet by Claire Armistead, Guardian

10 thoughts on “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

  1. I recall hearing an audio review of this book on Radio 4 at the time of its publication and thinking it sounded very lyrical…It’s difficult to know what to read right now as we try to navigate a new world with various restrictions and challenges. I often turn to fiction as a means of escape, a return to a time when life seemed simpler and less demanding (although not without its own drawbacks and dangers). That said, non-fiction is also calling me at the moment, maybe as a contrast to some of my usual reading

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    • Yes, this is one I read back in January, and even then for me it was difficult to know what would nourish me.
      Now, I think I’ve found a reasonable balance, I’m reading Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing which is absolutely wonderful, I’ve had to pause halfway as I want to dwell a while in the one longer essay I’ve just read.
      I start my day reading something more philosophical/spiritual, I’m finding that reading like this before even checking messages or anything else that is unknown, feels like a soulfully rewarding better start to the day for me. And in the afternoon I read fiction, I’m reading The Adventures of China Iron at the moment and enjoying its playfulness and references to other literature. One of those is Far Away and Long Ago by W.H.Hudson, which was just recommended to me here a few days ago on my nature-inspired list of books, so I’m planning to read that as well, especially given it’s connection to my current read. I highly recommend adding in some good narrative nonfiction reads.

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    • I agree, I think I read it at a time where I found that difficult too and as a result it didn’t really stay with me. I’m enjoying The Adventures of China Iron at the moment, I think it’s the unexpected humour and the subversive retelling, it’s a wonderful translation, it’s informative and references some interesting titles, but has me laughing at the eccentricity and daring of it!

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  2. That’s beautiful, Claire. I totally understand your point about if he lost his way in the narrative. I felt that a bit, too. But, like you, felt the prose lovely and deep. I wondered if the “letter to Mom” was simply a tool, rather than making it purely an autobiography.

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    • Yes, I think it was a clever narrative device, but one that some readers take to heart, and other’s had completely forgotten about. I spoke to someone recently who said it was one of her favourite books of the year and when I explained my issue with it, she hadn’t even remembered it was written as a letter – but then neither as she a mother, so that just became an irrelevant detail I guess. We all bring our own perspective to any narrative don’t we.

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  3. Thanks for the balanced review—I’ve also read so many rave reviews. I’ll probably still read it as one of my favorite podcasters recommended it. That being said I’m on a very very long wait list at my local library to get a digital copy, so who knows when I’ll actually read it.

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