I first heard of Ocean Vuong through Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being. There was so much to absorb, I couldn’t do it in one listen, and repeated it a few days later. Here was a young man, brought to the US from Vietnam at the age of two by his family. His father left them and, as Ocean says, he was raised by women — his mother, grandmother, and an aunt. He suffered the consequences of their PTSD, the inheritance from war, and all were illiterate.
Ocean was the first in his family who learned to read — at age eleven. In 2019, he was awarded the “Genius Grant” by the MacArthur Foundation. Other prestigious poetry and fiction awards preceded that one, beginning in 2014. At age thirty-three, he has racked up serious outside praise few can claim.
But I suspect that, had he not personally gone through heartbreaking trials and tragedies, and somehow digested them, Ocean would not have been able to translate, at the level he has, what it means to be an immigrant merged with a gay coming-of-age story. When I read his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I listened to the audiobook first. It was narrated by the author. I wanted to take it in through the voice I heard in the interview — compassionate, vulnerable, and distinctly observant — fragility imbued with strength. Then I read it. I wanted to linger over the words of wisdom that emerged from one so young and his accurate criticisms of our culture.
I was also reading Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge at the time, which had the same pull on me Ocean’s did. Both were clearly framed from the authors’ own lives. The only question remained: how little was fiction.
Ocean’s main character is known as Little Dog, the name representing something subhuman and insignificant, an old leftover practice from the village, meant out of love. In this way, it’s hoped he will not stand out and instead will be protected. Every morning his mother reminds him before he ventures out of his home, now in Hartford, “Don’t draw attention to yourself. You’re already Vietnamese.”
Reading that line truly distressed me. It makes a sad but unignorable statement on the resident bias running through American culture. I’m ashamed of it. In an interview, Ocean spoke about first-generation immigrants coming from war or extreme violence who sought to be invisible. Every day opens framed through fear. While he said, the second generation wants to be visible and express their freedom.
Pay attention and notice the compassion and astute understanding set into dialogue in his writing. Little Dog and his grandmother Lan are watching a nature show where a whole herd of buffalo, each following the one immediately in front of them, ultimately leap off a cliff. Lan exclaims, “Why do they die themselves like that?” Little Dog replies, “They don’t mean to, Grandma. They’re just following their family. That’s all. They don’t know it’s a cliff.”
It’s often said that Ocean focuses on violence and tragedy. But he also has the gift of transmuting it into elements of beauty. This, too, is a form of moving beyond mere survivorship. Little Dog and his mother Rose had just come back to their dingy hotel from the Saigon cemetery, having laid Lan’s burial urn to rest. They’d carried it all the way from Hartford. Rose is disoriented. Little Dog says her name.
“Only when I utter the word do I realize that rose is also the past tense of rise. That in calling your name I am also telling you to get up. I say it as if it is the only answer to your question — as if a name is also a sound we can be found in. Where am I? Where am I? You’re Rose, Ma. You have risen.”
I haven’t been so taken by a novel in quite some time. The book was named one of the top ten books of 2019 by the Washington Post and retains a long list of awards. A film adaptation is in the works.
This review first appeared on Medium.