Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a meticulous portrait of brokenness. I’ve found few novels so willing to embrace that brokenness for what it is, to tell a story about trauma without sensationalizing it. The very first pages detail the abuse of a child—Little Dog, the narrator of the novel, which is framed as a letter sent to his illiterate mother. Raised by two generations of Vietnamese immigrants, Little Dog must navigate the effects of abuse, war, and poverty in a drug-riddled Connecticut. Vuong captures these snapshots of trauma so well, but what makes his writing come alive is how closely he pays attention to joy.
Little Dog became a constant voice in the back of my head, whispering of light and sorrow, passion and bitterness. His forgiveness struck me most of all—his refusal to pin blame or point fingers at those who hurt him. He doesn’t antagonize the people around him but war, grief, and brokenness. Through Little Dog, Vuong deftly explores the contradictions and nuances of a “broken” family, which is perhaps not so broken at all.
Vuong, who also grew up in Hartford as a child of Vietnamese immigrants, drew inspiration from his background to create Gorgeous, though it isn’t strictly autobiographical. “I started with truth and ended with art,” he often says in interviews. Gorgeous is in part novel, poem, memoir, and photograph, creating stunning vignettes of a life half-lived by Vuong himself. It was immediately magnetic to me, the idea of taking shades from your own life and creating something new. School taught me to be impersonal with my writing, to view the books I read with a certain disconnect. Writing was a dissection, not a baring of the soul. Vuong’s prose, however, didn’t commit to a genre or format, painting new love with strokes of chaos and fragmented sentences. He borrowed pieces of his world to create a new one, and reading it, I felt as though I had been cheated by the teachers who had stripped prose of its emotion. When I read Gorgeous, Little Dog’s world was both claustrophobic and wide open, a celebration of both fact and fiction. Vuong’s deep, precise use of language made me wonder how many stories each of us can excavate from our pasts.
Vuong’s obsession with language, both as an escape and a cage, propels the novel forward. For those who did not grow up learning English, such as Little Dog’s mother, language becomes not just a barrier but a sign of weakness: when Little Dog uses English at home, it’s often to hide from his mother, to remind her that she will never fully understand him. As Little Dog grows up, that same language becomes punishing, alienating; he’s looked down upon for his broken English. Speaking and writing in a country that shuns you is an act of survival, laid bare in the work of so many writers of color. It forced me to confront my own privilege as a white writer, to face the complexities of writing in a language that may never feel completely like one’s own. Because Gorgeous is written by and about those who must fight to keep their voices from being silenced, it’s necessary for those with privilege to listen. I used to think I could understand a different perspective based purely on Twitter posts and news clips, but it wasn’t until reading memoirs and novels from marginalized writers that I began to truly internalize it. Gorgeous is a book that balances history and intimacy, at once a paean to identity and a diary entry.
In the end, the magic of Vuong’s writing is its ability to extend past the page. Long after I read the last words, the book still kept its heartbeat. Vuong reminds us to find understanding in our trauma, if not forgiveness. To find worth in the cages we live in, if not beauty. When we accept the truth of our past and build off it, we acknowledge its role in shaping us without letting it control us. Like Vuong, Little Dog lives and works as a writer—they both draw from their lives, but they press on into the unknown. There’s a thin line between moving on and forgetting, though. Little Dog’s mother asks him if he “remembers” her, rather than misses her, and he cannot come up with a response. Can we trust our memories when it comes to who we’ve loved? I can’t help but wonder how I’ll carry my trauma moving forward, how I’ll cope with it as I become an adult. Inevitably, I will write about it. Like Vuong, I will start with truth and end with art, just as so many young creatives are beginning to do. But how do we move forward from our pasts without completely letting go? doesn’t fully answer that question—but it doesn’t have to.
By MJ Brown