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My Inner Anthology: On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong 

Written by Rachael Norris, 16th September 2020

In this feature we're thinking about which bits of literature – whether that be in the form of poems, novels, essays, or plays – we would like to carry around inside ourselves for future reference. This week Learning and Quality Leader, Natalie Kaas-Pontoppidan, recommends On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

I was immediately drawn to this book because of the title and the front cover. The image of someone hugging – or is it clinging to? – another person. The ‘briefly’ really got to me. It made me think about the transience of everything, and how so much of life is about finding the best bits in it and then holding onto them for a little while longer. That’s also what the ‘inside’ of this novel is about. 

It’s written in the form of a letter by a Vietnamese American son, nicknamed Little Dog. He is writing to his illiterate mother, and there’s something so heart-breaking about the fact that his main means of expression – writing – is the very thing she will never be able to access. In his letters, he writes about his grandmother Lan, who becomes a prostitute during the Vietnam War but eventually marries an American soldier with whom she has a child: Little Dog’s mother. Little Dog recounts how they flee to Connecticut and how the three of them try to rebuild a life in the US. It somehow seems easier for Little Dog. He quickly gets to grips with the language, and he falls in love with an American guy, Trevor. 

The relationships in this book are beautifully described and they hold so many nuances. Yes, Little Dog recalls his mother’s abuse, but also what she has had to live through in order to create a life for him. One of my favourite quotes in the book captures exactly that: ‘That reading is a privilege you made possible for me with what you lost.’ If you’d like to hear Ocean Vuong read aloud from the book you can play the video below.

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