All this time I told myself we were born from war - but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty.
The incredibly talented Ocean Vuong's first book has been nominated for the prestigious Dublin Literary Award. Winners will be announced on Thursday May 20.
On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is just that. A gorgeous story written with the most beautiful imagery I've read in a while.
It's a memoir: Little Dog, now a grown man struggling to be a writer, writes about his life in a letter to his mother, who will never read English, and as tribute to his dying grandmother.
And an eventful life it's been so far.
"I'm not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck - the pieces floating, finally legible." (p.190)
Little Dog's mother, Hương (Rose) and his grandmother, Lân (Orchid), both married American soldiers after the second Indochina, or Vietnam War, which lasted twenty years. When their home burned, they made their way to the U.S. to find their men and end up working in sweat shop conditions to live. Little Dog's mother spends her life in a nail salon:
A new immigrant, within two years, will come to know that the salon is, in the end, where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones – with or without citizenship — aching, toxic, and underpaid. (p.81)
There are many strong themes in this dream-like book: identity, memory, addiction, love, loss, language, war and the relativity of freedom, the experiences of representation in writing, interracial marriage, racism and coming out.
Vuong also describes how post traumatic stress disorder can affect both soldiers and victims of war: bad dreams, fear of loud noises, dementia and abuse - which is visited on Little Dog.
I remember the sidewalk. How it started to bleed...How there was a trail of blood ahead of us. And behind us. Someone must have been shot or stabbed the night before. How we kept going. You said, "Don't look down, baby. Don't look down." I remember Red. Red. Red. Red. I remember you saying, "Little Dog, look up. See? Do you see the birds in the trees?" I remember it was February. The trees were black and bare against an overcast sky. But you kept talking: "Look! The birds. So many colors. Blue birds. Red birds. Magenta birds. Glittered birds." ...I remember staring and staring at the end of your finger until, at last, an emerald blur ripened into realness. And I saw them. ...How they flourished like fruit as your mouth opened and closed and the words wouldn't stop colouring the trees. I remember forgetting the blood. I remember never looking down. (pp.230-231)
Through the character of Little Dog, given a tough name to protect him from the attention of bad spirits, Vuong shares the experience of being an immigrant in a strange land, learning quickly to speak English to become an interpreter for his family. The narrator's mastery of the written word is an irony: his family did not speak English well.
Little Dog's identity is his experience, his name and his place - "Where were you before you were here? "I think I was drowning." (p.237).
The family settles in middle America; the Hartford - "of Mark Twain...and Harriet Beecher Stowe, writers whose vast imaginations failed to hold, in either flesh or ink, bodies like ours..." (p.214)
Bullied at school, Little Dog finally finds acceptance working among Spanish tobacco workers, and in an intense love affair with his friend, Trevor - a blond, devil-may-care farm boy who becomes addicted to cocaine and oxycontin - a painkiller originally prescribed to cancer sufferers.
Little Dog's story runs parallel to the life of Tiger Woods, whose ethnicity and experience bear similarities to the young protagonist's own life. Tiger's father was an African-American Vietnam Vet who fought alongside a Vietnamese soldier, South Vietnamese Colonel Vuong Dang Phong - known as Tiger. His mother was Thai.
"...Tiger Woods called himself 'Cablinasian,' a portmanteau he invented to contain his ethnic makeup of Chinese, Thai, Black, Dutch, and Native American." (p.63)
If Tiger is the mirror, then 50 Cent's album, Get Rich or Die Tryin' is the soundtrack to this recollection of the effects of war, love and loss and sheer hard work; "Many men, many many many many men. Wish Death 'pon me. Lord I don't cry no more, don't look to the sky no more. Have mercy on me."
In circular fashion, Little Dog returns to Vietnam to bury his grandmother. He compares his family's fate to that of Macaque Monkeys, ill-fated Buffalo herds flowing off cliffs, and Monarch Butterflies:
Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life and food supply. ...The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return: only the future revisits the past. What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life? ...What is a country but a life sentence? (pp. 8-9)
For a first novel, this book is profound, philosophical and poetic. I found myself imagining it as a film.
Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence - but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it. (p.231)