With his first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong says that he’s asking an earnest question: How do people heal? The literary-minded probably already know Vuong for his poetry—particularly his prize-winning collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds—but his novel dives even deeper into the themes he explores in his poems. If Night Sky with Exit Wounds is about damage, his new novel is about what comes after.
“Survival is not just about outliving the storm, it’s about how to live after the storm,” Vuong told us.
Touching on love, identity, and history, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous follows Little Dog as he writes a letter about his life to his illiterate mother.
Vuong will be in conversation with fellow author (and Houston local!) Bryan Washington at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11. We caught up with Vuong to talk the dragginess of Thunder Cake, the myth of timelessness, and being too extra before his visit to Houston.
As someone who was born in 1993, I was thrilled to see Patricia Polacco and Thunder Cake get a shout out early on in the book.
(Laughs.) Yes, yes. It was so strange. I can project all kinds of stuff onto that little book, but it’s now also very queer to me. Like, “Oh, a storm’s coming! Let’s just bake a cake. I’m going to die, let’s make a cake.” It felt almost like the extravagance that we see in drag.
The writing has a dreamlike quality, but there are these small details—like Thunder Cake, Call of Duty, 50 Cent, Dunkin’ Donuts—that make the story and Little Dog’s experience feel more earthbound. How did you strike that balance?
This goes back to me being a poet. I’m a poet, so I’m informed a lot by poets. It also goes back to William Carlos Williams’ credo of “no ideas but in things.” He’s speaking of the modernist and imagist movement. His belief was that, particularly as it relates to American identity, that these icons and objects and the zeitgeist are what dates and sort of amplifies a lived life. We think of Andy Warhol being obsessed with Coca-Cola. He saw it as the democratic ideal. Whether you’re the King of Spain or somebody down the block, Coca-Cola tastes exactly the same for everybody.
It was just a way of marking time. So if you read the book, although you might not have experienced the things that my characters experience, you can mark yourself in time and space. You know where you were when the towers fell, when Bush was elected, when he decided to invade Iraq. You’ve heard 50 Cent, you’ve heard Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and likewise—you read Patricia Polacco! It’s a way of building a bridge between people, as a way of saying that these lives, although they’re different, are not exotic. They’re right next to your own life. They feel and they sense and they consume the same things.
Definitely. I feel like some writers kind of lean away from marking time with pop culture and with objects. But like you said, it’s a way to create a bridge.
I always felt that this assumption to write in a “timeless” nature is quite pretentious. And I don’t know if it’s better. We’re often told—usually by the Western canon and straight white men—to be timeless. But I think about it now in our contemporary space, and I think there’s some power to being suspicious of timelessness. If you look around us, things that are “timeless” are dangerous and kill us: nuclear war, nuclear weapons, plastics. Timeless things destroy the earth. And I’m not so interested in being timeless. I’m more interested in being present in the world that we live in at the moment.
I was surprised to see Tiger Woods play such a major thematic role in the book. When did you know that his story was something you wanted to dive into and tie to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous?
Unlike other sports figures, in golf and particularly in Tiger Woods’ life, his parents were always visible. They showed up to his tournaments, and they just stood there. So I always saw this Asian-presenting woman, and I thought, “Oh, wow. He has an Asian mom. Tiger Woods is Asian.” He’s mixed race, he’s all these other things, too, but he comes from Southeast Asia, where I’m from. And it’s never talked about. It was just like the elephant in the room—I think the culture doesn’t know how to talk about mixed race folks, and they don’t know how to carry it. And the interesting thing about Woods is that his foothold as an American icon is tied to an American tragedy in the war in Vietnam. He comes into life, he exists, because of that war, in the same way that Little Dog’s mother exists because of that war. I thought it was so important to hold those two simultaneous truths together, and not whitewash Tiger Woods in the way he often is in the media.
I feel like people have a hard time of seeing people as more than one “thing” at a time. I like that you dug into that.
I think that’s the hope of the novel for all of the characters. You might look at Trevor and think he’s just a white trash redneck. And, by the way, it’s why I never use those words in the book. I think it’s important because it’s about going beyond the labels to see what the realities are. We realize that there are white folks who live in underserved communities, and they also have fully-fledged lives that don’t fit into the mold that we think about. And they have desires, desires that go against their culture and their family and their milieu. So I think a lot of the book is about trying to break open these restrictions placed on people, including Tiger Woods.
There’s a passage in the book where you discuss the language of creativity being one of violence rather than regeneration that I found really striking. What can we do to change that?
Right! It begins with language and understanding our history. A lot of our thinking comes from the Western canon, the Western canon comes from the Greeks and the Romans. And they are often celebrated as the forebears of democracy. But what is often overlooked is that they celebrate war. They were a belligerent and bellicose culture, as much as they had philosophy, arts, and science—they celebrated the warrior as the ideal of human beings and also the future. So their art and their stories, much of which frames our American imagination, is steeped in violence. The protagonist always has to destroy something in order to find his worth in the world. If we read that, we think Do I have to destroy something to be a worthy human being? Do I have to conquer? And oftentimes the answer is yes, even if it’s subliminally, in the American lexicon. We teach this particularly to our boys—this is where masculinity becomes toxic—it begins with the lexicon of death. We celebrate our boys through the language of destruction, and it’s no wonder they end up leading destructive lives.
So I think changing that begins with understanding where we come from with our violent history, and also what we do with language. Our language is violent. I understand that some of it is powerful, and it’s good to reclaim. But even the word “slay”—”I slayed that, I slew them”—I get it. It’s celebratory. But why must we see the language of death as the only way to celebrate our lives and living?
Definitely. And we have the alternative of “that’s giving me life,” too.
Exactly! I love that! That’s why I say we’re not stuck in it. We can do something else. That’s in our hands. Literally, the future is not only in our hands, but in our mouths. As soon as you and I talk and we leave this conversation and we talk to the next person, the future and the thinking of this country is in our control. We decide what we put into the world. And if we start to put violence and destruction into the world, that’s the only way we’ll end up thinking. But if we say something like “that’s giving me life” or “I’m living for this,” we can start to change the way we think about ourselves and our bodies.
I love your acknowledgments, especially the big list where you nod to the influences that different artists and musicians had on you while writing the book.
Was it too extra? (Laughs.)
No! Sometimes I read people’s acknowledgments and I want to know what they were listening to and who they were reading while they wrote. I particularly loved your shout out to every Asian American artist that came before you. Which Asian American artists are you excited about right now?
I always go to Alexander Chee. He’s an elder in our community and in the Asian American queer community, but he’s also present and doing incredible work—some of his best work. I think it’s so important to know and for me to see a queer person of color who has lived through the AIDS epidemic. That horrific decade eliminated so many of our elders. To see someone thrive out of that gives me hope for the future. It might seem odd to say that I look toward an elder to think about the future, but that’s what I see when I think of Alexander Chee’s work.
A lot of people know you for your poetry, but I’ve read that you think of yourself as a writer first rather than a poet or novelist. What’s been different about having a novel out versus having a poetry collection out for you?
It seems bigger, mostly because more people seem interested in fiction. So I’m talking to more people. It seems busier. The media part seems bigger. But it doesn’t feel that different. At the end of the day, I’m an apprentice of the sentence. And whether I break up my sentence into poems or let my sentences run into paragraphs, I’m writing sentences. My only goal is to write the best sentences that I can.
Ocean Vuong in conversation with Bryan Washington, June 11 at 7 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonett Street. More information at brazosbookstore.com.