On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is structured as a letter from a Vietnamese American son to his mother about their relationship and his understanding of his sexuality. And through this letter, the speaker, Little Dog, grapples with what it means to be Asian and how families seemingly pass on their trauma onto their children. Though, Vuong allows for the story to burst from its spine, in that it goes far beyond its written word.
Vuong began as a poet, and his use of prose seem so natural and poignant that it only amplifies the novel’s meaning. There are, in fact, chapters that both read and are formed as poems. He is able to twist vast metaphors and weave in beautifully intricate images that the moments feel vivid and real. There are moments that are revisited and remixed into a kaleidoscope of urgent moments that made me nearly cry while reading at a laundromat. The earnestness of Little Dog forces the reader to feel like you are the mother meant to read the letter, which intrinsically creates an ‘in’ for the reader.
Not only does Vuong create such vivid images, he is also able to anchor the narrative in real world events and moments. This is the case in his use of Tiger Woods, the buffalo in nature documentaries, and the opioid crisis.
I am sure in only reading the novel once, I have missed out on layers of nuanced meaning. One thing that I had nearly missed was that Little Dog, when he talked about his mother abusing him, he switched to a third-person point of view. Things like that show both Little Dog wanted to separate himself from the story, and also protect his mother from fully comprehending what she did to her son.
There are so many things to say about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but I think that would pale in comparison to the novel itself. If there is only ever one book you need to read, then I believe this is the one.
Final Rating: 5/5
Minor Feelings, a collection of essays written by Cathy Park Hong, actively tries to pick apart and critically understand the systematic and cultural racism that exists in the US. She draws on her childhood in Los Angeles and college days to create a tapestry of examples, both internal and societal that make her question her lived experiences. She dissects the way her white colleagues manage to deflect and redirect pain back onto her. This book, as explained by its subtitle, tries to both explain and note the way Americans have treated its Asian citizens. But the book itself is not so much a piece of understanding the self, and more so a beginning to broader conversations of how Asian Americans fit in it.
In the essay, A Portrait of An Artist, a possible reference to James Joyce, she analyzes the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Most notably, Hong focuses in on Cha’s novel Dictee in that it has two unique factors. The first being that it doesn’t look to explain the art within its pages, thus forcing the reader to search for the answers themselves. The work is then transferred to the reader which acts as a parallel to how Hong thinks Asian Americans don’t need to cater themselves to a white audience. And the second is that silence in both Cha’s work and life act as examples of how Asian Americans desire to not discuss tragic events. The idea that silence is good or bad is left for the reader to decide.
There are difficulties a white audience has to confront to be on the same pages that Asian American writers and artists like Hong are on. Though, it is in the use of her tempered silence and examples that push the reader to confront their own biases. The book is bigger than itself in that it challenges a conversation and is unabashed about it. The true question—the reckoning that Hong is asking—is: will the conversation of racism stay within the Asian American communities, or will her white audiences do the work needed to understand the Asian American experience?
Final Rating: 4/5
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a story about a double agent working for his communist comrades in the United States after the fall of Saigon. The novel details the inner workings of a man with a shallow attachment to the United States, and a hidden one to the communist party. From first leaving Viet Nam, to then hiding out in Southern California, the protagonist secretly communicates with a childhood friend, Man, with all the intel he can recover from the American veterans after they left.
To try and not be discovered by his American counterparts, the protagonist has to go to great lengths of concealing who he actually is. These acts range from subtle things to more devastating event, like killing a mis-identified communist. While in America, the protagonist notes that many of the veterans come home without a purpose; they have become janitors, and shopkeepers and nothing what they believe themselves to be.
Then, to try and represent the Vietnamese people as best as possible, the protagonist agrees to help with the filming of a movie that occurs in the Philippines. Soon, the protagonist is caught up in both trying to portray his countrymen accurately and realizes the brutality of the film itself. Though, because of the duality of his identity, many of these contradictions are tossed away, as he believes that he is solely of communist blood.
The final act of the novel brings both the American veterans and the protagonist back to Viet Nam for one final and intense stand. The mentality of the veterans going felt that their dignity had been stripped of them and would much rather die on enemy soil than half-exist in America. However, this does not bode well for them as after a mine explosion, presumed to be set by the Americans years before, and a fire fight, the protagonist is captured.
After revealing his communist status to the prison camp, he is placed in isolation and forced to write a confession. The protagonist is utterly willing to give them as much as they want, but it is not enough for the commandant. Eventually, he is brought to the final stages of his torture, sleep deprivation, to elicit the true confession the prison camp leaders are looking for. It is also revealed that it is Man, his childhood friend, that is the protagonist’s torturer. And while at face value it seems like a betrayal, Man explains he is saving the protagonist. The torture, after an unexplainable amount of time, soon uncovers what the protagonist is unable to remember: a rape he witnessed. The protagonist, in his madman state soon understands the contradictory phrase: “while nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom!” Upon his reeducation, the protagonist leaves the prison camp with one of the other survivors, Bon.
The novel is packed so heavily with imagery and metaphor that it is no surprise how intricate and meaningful each passage feels. Instances such as when the woman is being raped, her name is “Viet Nam”, which acts as metaphor for the Americans coming into Viet Nam and destroying and raping the land and people. Or the imagery of the protagonist tied to a mattress during his torture, plays right into the parallel of the image of his birth from his mother—essentially signifying his rebirth. The amount of complexities and issues the story manages to explain and intuit is both astonishing and commendable.
Death is a huge factor in The Sympathizer as well as the effects of war. The novel shows that first, no man can play both sides of a war and come out unscathed. The second is the question if someone is fighting another for independence and freedom, then certainly someone’s freedom is removed, in which case, that contradicts itself. And maybe, Nguyen was trying to hint at the unabashed contradictions of the fighting Americans. In doing so, Nguyen has brought a critical eye to the actions and events of the Americans during the Viet Nam war.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.