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Daily Helping for September 5th, 2021 – Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

A close up photo of the cover of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

This book had been on my to read list basically since it came out. Ocean Vuong is a poet whose work has been lauded for years. Although, I must admit that I have yet to read any of his poetry. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel, and someone described it to me as a book for anyone who is a fan of words that are arranged beautifully. That’s all I needed to hear. There’s nothing I love more than words that are arranged beautifully, so I picked up a copy as soon as I could. That being said, this book came out over two years ago, so as soon as I could wasn’t quite as soon as I would have liked. But it was well worth the wait. Ocean Vuong absolutely knows how to arrange words beautifully, and the result is an exquisitely beautiful read.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter written from a son to his illiterate mother. He freely admits that it is highly unlikely that his mother will ever see these words, much less read them. Which is why he can be honest in his writing. However, as he traces their family history, from his grandmother’s experiences in the Vietnam war to his own childhood as an immigrant in America, you can sense a yearning for his words to be seen. That even though he knows his mother will not be able to read them, he still wishes that she could.

And she should, because it is an important story that her son is telling. This book touches on so many issues of identity and belonging. What it means to be a son, an immigrant, a person of colour, a gay man. How generational trauma can impact people’s lives decades after the events that caused it. This book is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and it examines aspects of relationships and love that are not often depicted in cultural works. In particular, the relationship between the narrator and his first love, a co-worker named Trevor, is particularly raw in its telling. It is clear that this relationship is doomed, but you still can’t help but believe that these two young men will find a way to rise above the social constraints and addictions holding them down. But they can’t. And it is shattering.

And yet, it is also beautiful. As I said, Ocean Vuong knows how to create beauty with his words, even when those words are wielded like a gut punch. It’s what I’ll remember the most about the experience of reading this book. How I lost count of how many times a sentence left me breathless in its beauty. I wouldn’t say that this was a happy book, but the act of reading it was glorious.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!