“If you’re a poet of right mind, you never expect [your book] to take off,” says Ocean Vuong, the author of the critically acclaimed book of poetry Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016). “I was more than happy to just have an ISBN and call it a day.” But when Vuong’s poems, which fiercely take on the big subjects of race, war, grief, memory, and sexuality, struck a chord with audiences around the world, the writer exploded into the literary arena the way few poets do, triggering the question of what he would write next.
“I started to have this very real confrontation with our capitalistic anxiety of the writer’s career,” says Vuong, who spent eight years—practically his entire adulthood—writing Night Sky, which he published when he was 27. “You spend your whole life asking these inexhaustible questions and then you’re asked to do a whole other book within four or five years with a different set of questions,” he says. “I thought maybe I can bypass this negotiation, this conundrum, by asking the same questions I did in Night Sky in a different genre. And then the question was: Would that new genre offer me any surprises? Would I be satisfied with where it was taking me? The experiment was that if at any given time it became redundant, or I became bored with it, then I would stop.”
The experiment did not fail. Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is gorgeous in itself, and like his poetry (the title is borrowed from one of his poems), it takes on race, war, grief, memory, and sexuality. Through inhabiting an epistolary form, a young man nicknamed Little Dog writes to his illiterate mother a series of letters exploring their conflicted family history rooted in Vietnam and his own abuse and isolation through growing up “small, poor, Asian, and queer” in Hartford, Connecticut. Influenced by Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Franz Kafka’s Letter to His Father, Vuong’s charged, revelatory addresses break down the walls of storytelling by leaving behind the traditional formal constraints of the novel. Instead, the reader is entangled in the cathartic acts of confession, discovery, and creation of a survivor making peace with the world:
You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty. Opening the front door to the first snowfall of my life, you whispered, “Look.”
The novel unfolds in a series of vignettes that move between scenes of war in Vietnam to American nail salons to the private abuse at home and then publicly at school and to a tobacco farm where Little Dog falls in love with a tortured teenager. Through all of these weighted moments, one of the most powerful tensions of the novel is the fact that the intended recipient will not read what is being shared. “But there’s power in articulating it anyway,” says Vuong. “There’s agency in saying it, and I think that’s what the book negotiates. What happens if nobody hears us—is it still worth it to say what we want to say? And I don’t know if I truly answer that even for myself, but as an artist, I wanted to see what it felt like to live in that architecture.”
Even within the intricate building of this novel’s brilliant architecture, Vuong confronts limitations of the form—two-thirds of the way through, the prose collapses into poetry. In a heightened sequence of grief over the loss of a first love, Little Dog’s capacity for language fails, and he must recalibrate how he sees the world:
I never wanted to build a “body of work,” but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.
Take it or leave it. The body, I mean.
Take a left on Harris St., where all that’s left of the house that burned down that summer during a thunderstorm is a chain-linked dirt lot.
The truest ruins are not written down. The girl Grandma knew back in Go Cong, the one whose sandals were cut from the tires of a burned-out army jeep, who was erased by an air strike three weeks before the war ended—she’s a ruin no one can point to. A ruin without location, like a language.
Through arriving at the luminous in such brutal moments, Little Dog continues forward with addressing his mother and the past. “The biggest challenge in all writing—and maybe in living—is what do we with joy? How do we find it? What does it mean? I wanted to write a book that was not a utopia of joy but one where joy is central, but without forsaking the pain it takes to arrive at such joy,” says Vuong. “Survival is a creative act. That to survive something regardless of what it is—is an art—it takes innovation—it takes presence—it takes mindfulness—and these characters attempt to—sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail—to do that.”
As much as it is a privilege to be so intimately inside Little Dog’s interrogation of humanity, Vuong also confronts the impossibility of translating a unique experience, and he rejects the notion that his novel may be read as truth. “Often times as writers of color, queer writers, even women writers—when we write things, we could be perceived as a conduit, or merely a conduit of an exotic epicenter, an anthropological truth. Tell us about what it’s like over there—tell us the truth,” says Vuong. “When that happens, we lose sight of the craft. The person is merely a bridge or a tour guide as opposed to a maker. It was important for me to hold my agency as an artist.”
Bridgette Bates’ poetry collection, What Is Not Missing Is Light, is the recipient of the Black Box Poetry Prize.