On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Written by Ocean Vuong
Review by Hadassah Grace
“A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore no flight. And yet we are moved.”
I have this thing with Lupita N’Yongo. Sometimes no matter how good the movie is, or how wonderful her acting is, I can’t concentrate because she’s so goddamn beautiful. Inevitably my mind wanders into thinking, “My god, this woman. And from this angle too! The way she catches the light! What a face!”
I felt this way reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, too. Ocean Vuong is a poet at heart, and there were many times I had to stop and just think about how incredible his writing is. I would find myself re-reading paragraphs just for the pleasure of it. Saying certain phrases out loud just to feel them on my tongue. A few chapters in, I had to stop bookmarking sections I loved because there were several on every page.
I want to take a bath in Vuong’s words. I want to bite into them, like a ripe peach, and let them drip down my chin. I want to read them for the first time, again and again.
How can I describe this book? It will break your heart. More than your heart, it will break you wide open. This book is a scalpel, the tip of an arrow, a bullet wrapped in silk. You’ll find yourself turning to your partner in bed with tears in your eyes, asking if you can please just read them something. You’ll find yourself wishing you owned more copies so you can lend it to everyone you know.
“The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level… As a girl you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid… Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.”
In a world scarred by callousness, racism, and homophobia, the story of an immigrant family’s survival feels impossibly important. Spanning generations, and both Vietnam and America, it tells a journey of grief, PTSD, and self discovery. Generational trauma is written on every page, but written with such tenderness that somehow hope of healing never feels far away, even if it isn't reached. It’s a parable about love in spite of not truly feeling heard, addressed to a mother who can’t read.
Look, I know I’m gushing. I know I’m a depressed poet who sits in bed drinking cold coffee and brushing crumbs off my boobs, so of course, of course, I would love an elegiac book that makes me cry. I had to message a friend who had already read this book for advice before writing this, because after I put it down all I wanted to write was LOOK JUST READ IT OK, YOU JUST NEED TO READ IT TRUST ME AND READ IT. But I honestly think everyone should. It’s a book that engenders compassion, and that’s something everyone could use more of right now.