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An Extract from On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Posted on 27th August 2020 by Anna Orhanen

Ocean Vuong's mesmerising debut On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous was one of the most acclaimed novels published last year and is now out in paperback. Composed as a young Vietnamese man's letter to his mother who cannot read, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an initimate portrait of love, identity, forgiveness and finding yourself through words.

An Extract from On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

There is so much I want to tell you, Ma. I was once foolish enough to believe knowledge would clarify, but some things are so gauzed behind layers of syntax and semantics, behind days and hours, names forgotten, salvaged and shed, that simply knowing the wound exists does nothing to reveal it.

I don’t know what I’m saying. I guess what I mean is that sometimes I don’t know what or who we are. Days I feel like a human being, while other days I feel more like a sound. I touch the world not as myself but as an echo of who I was. Can you hear me yet? 

Can you read me?

When I first started writing, I hated myself for being so uncertain, about images, clauses, ideas, even the pen or journal I used. Everything I wrote began with maybe and perhaps and ended with I think or I believe. But my doubt is everywhere, Ma. Even when I know something to be true as bone I fear the knowledge will dissolve, will not, despite my writing it, stay real. I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else— where, exactly, I’m not sure. Just as I don’t know what to call you— White, Asian, orphan, American, mother?

Sometimes we are given only two choices. While doing research, I read an article from an 1884 El Paso Daily Times, which reported that a white railroad worker was on trial for the murder of an unnamed Chinese man. The case was ultimately dismissed. 

The judge, Roy Bean, cited that Texas law, while prohibiting the murder of human beings, defined a human only as White, African American, or Mexican. The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.

To be or not to be. That is the question.

When you were a girl in Vietnam, the neighborhood kids would take a spoon to your arms, shouting, “Get the white off her, get the white off her!” Eventually you learned to swim. Wading deep into the muddy river, where no one could reach you, no one could scrape you away. You made yourself an island for hours at a time. Coming home, your jaw would clatter from cold, your arms pruned and blistered— but still white.

When asked how he identifies his roots, Tiger Woods called himself “Cablinasian,” a portmanteau he invented to contain his ethnic makeup of Chinese, Thai, Black, Dutch, and Native American.

To be or not to be. That is the question. A question, yes, but not a choice.

“I remember one time, while visiting you all in Hartford— this must be a year or two after you landed from Vietnam— ” Paul rests his chin on his palm and stares out the window, where a hummingbird hovers at the plastic feeder. “I walked into the apartment and found you crying under the table. No one was home— or maybe your mom was— but she must have been in the bathroom or something.” He stops, letting the memory fill in. “I bent down and asked you what was wrong, and you know what you said?” He grins. “You said that the other kids lived more than you. What a hoot.” He shakes his head. “What a thing to say! I’ll never forget that.” His gold- capped molar caught the light. “'They live more, they live more!’ you shouted. Who the hell gave you that idea? You were only five, for Christ sakes.”

Outside, the hummingbird’s whirring sounds almost like human breath. Its beak jabs into the pool of sugared water at the feeder’s base. What a terrible life, I think now, to have to move so fast just to stay in one place.

After, we go for a walk, Paul’s brown- spotted beagle clinking between us. It’s just after sunset and the air’s thick with sweetgrass and late lilacs frothing white and magenta along the manicured lawns. We veer toward the last bend when a plain- looking lady, middle- aged, hair in a blond ponytail, approaches. She says, looking only at Paul, “I see you finally got a dog boy. Good for you, Paul!”

Paul stops, pushes his glasses up his nose only to have them slide back down. She turns to me, articulates, “Welcome. To. The. 

Neighbor. Hood.” Her head bobs out each syllable.

I hold tight the dog’s leash and step back, offering a smile.

“No,” Paul says, his hand raised awkwardly, as if waving away cobwebs. “This is my grandson.” He lets the word hover between us all, until it feels solid, an instrument, then repeats it, nodding, to himself or the woman I can’t say. “My grandson.” Without a beat the woman smiles. Too widely. “Please remember that.”

She laughs, makes a dismissive gesture before extending her hand to me, my body now legible.

I let her shake my hand.

“Well, I’m Carol. Welcome to the neighborhood. I mean that.” She walks on.

We head home. We don’t speak. Behind the row of white town houses, a column of spruces stands motionless against a reddish sky. The beagle’s paws scrape the concrete, its chain clinking as the animal pulls us home. But all I can hear is Paul’s voice in my head. My grandson. This is my grandson.


Glenys Radcliffe

This beautifully written book is on my Wish List. View more

Glenys Radcliffe
8th September 2020
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