Book Notes: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Book Cover: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

PublisherPenguin Press Books (2019)

ISBN-13 : 978-0-525-56202-3


Quick Thoughts

The book received rave reviews (and I believe it’s being made into a movie). It’s a beautifully written book but it’s not for me. I do enjoy poetry, and I thought the language in the novel was beautiful. But, it sometimes felt strained and affected, as if Vuong is overcome by preciousness.

The book does have interesting and important things to say: about mental illness, war, violence,  and trauma, addiction, race and racism, the power of memory, language, and storytelling, beauty, the alienation involved in coming of age as a gay Asian American minority, and so on. But, it’s very fragmented. There is a cohesive narrative, but it was too disjointed for me to be able to fully grasp and enjoy it.


Ocean Vuong is a poet, a professor at UMass, an immigrant from Vietnam, and grew up in Connecticut, the state where I currently reside. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is his first novel. It’s an immigrant novel, and semi-autobiographical.

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is an epistolary novel in which a Vietnamese American man, nicknamed Little Dog, writes a letter to his mother, Rose. It’s a letter that she will never read because she is illiterate. Rose grew up in Saigon, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War, the daughter of a Vietname sex worker and an American soldier. Little Dog’s letter recounts his mother and grandmother’s experiences during the war, their eventual arrival in America in 1990, and his own first relationship, at age 14, with Trevor, a troubled white teenage boy.


Little Dog

Little Dog is the novel’s narrator. He is a gay, Vietnamese-American. Little Dog is a writer. He also suffers from bipolar disorder. He narrates the novel’s events in the form of a letter of a son writing to his (illiterate) mother, Rose. At the time of the letter, he describes himself as 28 years old, 5ft 4in tall, and 112lbs.

He says “I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.”  (10)

He is nicknamed “Little Dog” by his grandmother Lan to protect him from evil spirits. We’re never actually told what Little Dog’s real name is. Only that it means “Patriotic Leader of the Nation”, and is bestowed upon him by a shaman in Vietnam to appease his father. ****

Little Dog arrives in America from Vietnam with his family in 1990. He is primarily raised by his mother and grandmother, Lan. His relationship with his father appears non-existent. At age 14, Little Dog begins his first relationship with Trevor, a white teenage boy he meets while at his first job working tobacco on a farm outside Hartford, Connecticut.


Rose is Little Dog’s mother. Rose is born in Saigon, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War, and is of mixed race, the daughter of Lan and a white American GI. Her mother, Lan, works as a prostitute, and her father is a nameless “American john”. Rose is described as light skinned, with skin so fair that she could almost pass for white. Growing up half-white in Vietnam, Rose is teased and bullied for her skin color and white heritage.

Rose is illiterate. Her formal education ends when she is five years old after her school is firebombed during a napalm raid. Rose marries a physically abusive man, Little Dog’s father. Together, Rose, her husband, Little Dog, Lan, and Mai (Rose’s half-sister) immigrate to the US in 1990 after leaving the Philippines, where they’d been living as refugees.

Shortly after they arrive in Hartford, Connecticut, Rose’s husband, Little Dog’s father, is sent to prison for domestic violence. Together, Rose and her mother, Lan, raise Little Dog.

In America, Rose works as a manicurist in a nail salon. Traumatized from her experiences during the Vietnam War, she suffers from PTSD. Although she loves Little Dog, she also physically abuses him, sometimes for no reason.

Grandma Lan/Lily

Lan is Rose’s mother, and Little Dog’s grandmother. At age 17, Lan runs away from Go Cong, her hometown, from her arranged marriage to a man three times her age.

Lan is born into poverty, and names herself  “Lan meaning Lily. Lan the name she gave herself, having been born nameless. Because her mother simply called her Seven, the order in which she came into the world after her siblings.” (32)

After running away, to support herself, Lan works as a prostitute during the Vietnam War, serving deployed American servicemen. Lan is 28 when she gives birth to Rose, the product of one such union. Lily also has another child, Mai, her daughter from her arranged marriage.

Lan meets and marries Paul, an American soldier in 1967. Although she is already four months pregnant when they meet, Paul claims Rose as his daughter and Little Dog as his grandson. Rose’s biological father is an unknown, nameless American john. When Paul goes to the US to vist, he is unable to return to Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and the Vietnam War’s end in 1975.

After immigrating to the US in 1990, Lan and Rose raise Little Dog together. She is loving and protective of Little Dog, even protecting him from his mother’s physical abuse. She tells Little Dog stories about her past, providing him with the memories, family stories, and histories that link his present to the past.

Lan suffers from schizophrenia. Later, getting to the end of the book, she is also diagnosed with terminal stage four bone cancer. After her death, Rose, Mail, and Little Dog return her ashes to her hometown in Vietnam.


Trevor is 16 years old when he and Little Dog first meet. He is the grandson of Buford, the owner of the tobacco farm where Little Dog works his first job.

Trevor lives with his father in a broken down mobile home in Hartford. His father is alcoholic and abuses Trevor, including shooting him with a nail gun. His mother left years ago. Trevor begins working on the farm mainly to escape from his alcoholic father.

Trevor is Little Dog’s first relationship, his friend and his lover. They are together for almost three years until Little Dog leaves to go to college. Raised to be macho, tough, and masculine, Trevor is ashamed of his sexuality. He views his sexual exploration with Little Dog as a phase that will eventually end.

Trevor is a drug addict. At age 15, he becomes hooked on OxyContin after a knee injury. He later graduates to cocaine, heroin, and eventually dies at age 22 from an overdose from heroin laced with fentanyl.

“Trevor was a boy who had a name, who wanted to go to community college to study physical therapy. Trevor was alone in his room when he died, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin. Trevor was twenty-two. Trevor was”. (128)


Paul is Lan’s ex-husband. He is a young white American soldier who meets Lan in 1967 while stationed in Cam Ranh Bay with the US Navy.  Paul is from Virgina, and volunteers for the Vietnam War at age 19. He enlists mainly to escape his father, who tears up his application for music school.

He and Lan meet at a bar in Saigon. Lan is a prostitute, but Paul is never one of her clients. They date, fall in love, and get married, a year later, in Saigon’s central courthouse.

Paul is not yet 23 at the time of his marriage, and Lan is five years his senior. She is already pregnant with Rose, and mother to twelve-year-old Mai from her arranged marriage.

After his mother fakes being ill with tuberculosis, Paul leaves Vietnam to visit his family in the US. After his arrival in the US, Paul is unable to return to Lan in Vietnam, due to the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. He becomes separated from Lan, and her letters to Paul are intercepted and hidden from him by his brother. By the time he receives word about Lan in 1990, he has been married to another woman for nearly 10 years.

Nonetheless, Paul claims Rose as his daughter, and Little Dog as his grandson, even though Rose is not his biological daughter. He and Lan’s wedding picture hangs on Paul’s living room wall in Virginia. When Lan dies, Paul is heartbroken, and asks to say goodbye to her grave in Vietnam through a video call. He apologizes for not waiting long enough for her.


Mai is Rose’s half-sister. Little Dog’s aunt. She is Lan’s daughter from her first arranged marriage in Vietnam. She also immigrates with the rest of her family to the US in 1990. After initially also sharing an apartment with her mother and sister in Hartford, Mai eventually leaves to live with her abusive boyfriend, Carl, in Florida. Mai briefly returns to be with Lan in her dying days


Race and Racism

  • And then there was the school bus. That morning, like all mornings, no one sat next to me.
  • Knowing the face I possess, its rare features in these parts, I pushed my head harder against the window to avoid them.
  • That’s when I saw a spark in the middle of a parking lot outside. It wasn’t until I heard their voices behind me that I realized the spark came from inside my head. That someone had shoved my face into the glass.
  • Lan, who, back in Vietnam, was considered dark, was now lighter. And you, Ma—so fair you would “pass” for white, like the time we were in the Sears department store and the blond clerk, bending down to stroke my hair, asked you whether I was “yours or adopted.”
  • Paul finishes his portion of the story. And I want to tell him. I want to say that his daughter who is not his daughter was a half-white child in Go Cong, which meant the children called her ghost-girl, called Lan a traitor and a whore for sleeping with the enemy. How they cut her auburn-tinted hair while she walked home from the market, arms full with baskets of bananas and green squash, so that when she got home, there’d be only a few locks left above her forehead. How when she ran out of hair, they slapped buffalo shit on her face and shoulders to make her brown again, as if to be born lighter was a wrong that could be reversed.
  • When you were a girl in Vietnam, the neighborhood kids would take a spoon to your arms, shouting, “Get the white off her, get the white off her!”
  • He was white, I never forgot this. He was always white. And I knew this was why there was a space for us: a farm, a field, a barn, a house, an hour, two. A space I never found in the city, where the tenement apartments we lived in were so cramped one could tell when a neighbor had a stomach flu in the middle of the night. To hide here, in a room in a broken-down mobile home, was, somehow, a privilege, a chance. He was white. I was yellow.

War, Trauma, Abuse

  • The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.
  • The time, at thirteen, when I finally said stop. Your hand in the air, my cheek bone stinging from the first blow. “Stop, Ma. Quit it. Please.” I looked at you hard, the way I had learned, by then, to look into the eyes of my bullies.
  • I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves—but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom.
  • By then, violence was already mundane to me, was what I knew, ultimately, of love.
  • All this time I told myself we were born from war—but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.


  • “Hello,” he says, without turning his head. We had decided, shortly after we met, because our friends were already dying from overdoses, to never tell each other goodbye or good night.
  • Trevor was put on OxyContin after breaking his ankle doing dirt bike jumps in the woods a year before I met him. He was fifteen.
  • After a month on the Oxy, Trevor’s ankle healed, but he was a full-blown addict.
  • The official cause of death, I would learn later, was an overdose from heroin laced with fentanyl.


  • When we arrived in America in 1990, color was one of the first things we knew of yet knew nothing about.
  • A new immigrant, within two years, will come to know that the salon is, in the end, a place where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones—with or without citizenship—aching, toxic, and underpaid.
  • The most common English word spoken in the nail salon was sorry. It was the one refrain for what it meant to work in the service of beauty….In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I’m here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon, one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.
  • And you were kneeling on the sidewalk tying my powder-blue shoes, saying, “Remember. Remember. You’re already Vietnamese.” You’re already. You’re all ready.


  • I was seen—I who had seldom been seen by anyone. I who was taught, by you, to be invisible in order to be safe.
  • I remember it. I remember it all because how can you forget anything about the day you first found yourself beautiful?
  • It was an accident, my beauty revealed to me.
  • Because the thing about beauty is that it’s only beautiful outside of itself. Seen through a mirror, I viewed my body as another, a boy a few feet away, his expression unmoved, daring the skin to remain as it was, as if the sun, setting, was not already elsewhere, was not in Ohio.
  • I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing, whether it’s a vase, a painting, a chalice, a poem. We reproduce it in order to keep it, extend it through space and time.
  • I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication.
  • Yes, there was a war. Yes, we came from its epicenter. In that war, a woman gifted herself a new name—Lan—in that naming claimed herself beautiful, then made that beauty into something worth keeping. From that, a daughter was born, and from that daughter, a son.
  • To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.


  • Little Dog was what Lan called me. What made a woman who named herself and her daughter after flowers call her grandson a dog? A woman who watches out for her own, that’s who.
  • in the village where Lan grew up, a child, often the smallest or weakest of the flock, as I was, is named after the most despicable things: demon, ghost child, pig snout, monkey-born, buffalo head, bastard—little dog being the more tender one. Because evil spirits, roaming the land for healthy, beautiful children, would hear the name of something hideous and ghastly being called in for supper and pass over the house, sparing the child.
  • “Seven,” her mother said through a crack in the door, “a girl who leaves her husband is the rot of a harvest. You know this. How can you not know?” And then the door closed, but not before a hand, gnarled as wood, pressed a pair of pearl earrings into Lan’s grip.


  • But what if the mother tongue is stunted? What if that tongue is not only the symbol of a void, but is itself a void, what if the tongue is cut out? Can one take pleasure in loss without losing oneself entirely?
  • As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all—but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.
  • The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level.
  • That night I promised myself I’d never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you. So began my career as our family’s official interpreter. From then on, I would fill in our blanks, our silences, stutters, whenever I could. I code switched. I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.
  • It’s true that, in Vietnamese, we rarely say I love you, and when we do, it is almost always in English. Care and love, for us, are pronounced clearest through service: plucking white hairs, pressing yourself on your son to absorb a plane’s turbulence and, therefore, his fear.
  • A work of myriad communications, I learned to speak to the men not with my tongue, which was useless there, but with smiles, hand gestures, even silences, hesitations. I made out people, verbs, abstractions, ideas with my fingers, my arms, and by drawing in the dirt.
  • I only have the nerve to tell you what comes after because the chance this letter finds you is slim—the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it possible.


  • What I felt then, however, was not desire, but the coiled charge of its possibility, a feeling that emitted, it seemed, its own gravity, holding me in place.
  • He was a boy breaking out and into himself at once. That’s what I wanted—not merely the body, desirable as it was, but its will to grow into the very world that rejects its hunger.
  • Afterward, lying next to me with his face turned away, he cried skillfully in the dark. The way boys do. The first time we fucked, we didn’t fuck at all.
  • “I can’t. I just—I mean…” He spoke into the wall. “I dunno. I don’t wanna feel like a girl. Like a bitch. I can’t man. I’m sorry, it’s not for me—“He paused, wiped his nose. “It’s for you. Right?”
  • “Tell me,” you sat up, a concerned look on your face, “when did all this start? I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy. I know that. When?”
  • It was a gay club and the boys, because that’s who they were—sons, teenagers—looked like me: a colored thing born of one mother, rummaging the dark, each other, for happiness.
  • “Is it true though?” His swing kept creaking. “You think you’ll be really gay, like, forever? I mean,” the swing stopped, “I think me . . . I’ll be good in a few years, you know?” I couldn’t tell if by “really” he meant very gay or truly gay.


  • Mostly, as was her way, she rambled, the tales cycling one after another. They spiraled out from her mind only to return the next week with the same introduction:
  • Who will be lost in the story we tell ourselves? Who will be lost in ourselves? A story, after all, is a kind of swallowing. To open a mouth, in speech, is to leave only the bones, which remain untold.
  • I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck—the pieces floating, finally legible.
  • What made it worse, you remember, was that Lan had never once believed, even to the end, that she had a terminal illness….But she wouldn’t have it. She said we were just children, that we didn’t know everything yet, and that when we grow up, we’d know how the world really works. And because denial, fabrication—storytelling—was her way of staying one step ahead of her life, how could any of us tell her she was wrong?


  • The time, while pruning a basket of green beans over the sink, you said, out of nowhere, “I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.”
  • What I really wanted to say was that a monster is not such a terrible thing to be. From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins: centaur, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.
  • You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I—which is why I can’t turn away from you. Which is why I have taken god’s loneliest creation and put you inside it.


  • The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.
  • Monarchs that survived the migration passed this message down to their children. The memory of family members lost from the initial winter was woven into their genes.
  • Macaques are capable of self-doubt and introspection, traits once thought attributable only to humans. Some species have displayed behavior indicating the use of judgment, creativity, even language. They are able to recall past images and apply them to current problem solving. In other words, macaques employ memory in order to survive.

Top Quotes

  • To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.
  • All this time I told myself we were born from war—but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.
  • I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful. If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink of an eye, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly.
  • All freedom is relative—you know too well—and sometimes it’s no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there, as when they “free” wild animals into nature preserves only to contain them yet again by larger borders.



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