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  • Keana A. Labra

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, a Novel by Ocean Vuong: The Importance of People of Color Voice

Amongst the innumerable books to be read and enjoyed, there are a few that shake our core, that cause us to question and savor our own stances and the experiences that shaped these viewpoints. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an exploration of concepts such as masculinity, race, sexuality, refugeeism, and motherhood and how one’s perception of these concepts are affected growing up in the primarily white, American town of Hartford, Connecticut. On Tuesday, June 18 2019, Green Apple Books on the Park hosted a reading with the young Vietnamese American author to discuss his debut novel. The novel is told in the form of a letter. In a semi-autobiographical way, Vuong uses the protagonist, Little Dog, to provide his perspective and understanding of how these concepts affected him.

The event itself was unlike any book reading I’ve attended. The mere sight of it was amazing: the store was filled to the brim with people of all backgrounds gathered to hear Vuong’s insights. Unfortunately, I arrived a little bit before the reading began, so I was with the newcomers trickling in at the front of the store. There were speakers near the entrance, so despite not being able to see Vuong, we could all hear him.

Fellow author, Rebecca Solnit, who is most known for her book Men Explain Things to Me, assisted Vuong by moderating questions between him and audience members.

A little bit after 7:30 pm, Vuong was introduced and he immediately apologized for his soft spokenness, “the more I talk, the braver I get, and the braver I get, the louder I’ll get.” Vuong was careful and eloquent as he explained the reason behind the lack of physical conflict within the novel itself. He then brought up concepts that supposedly revolve around conflict, “war and storytelling both required destruction (or an individual to overcome in the hands of white, male storytellers),” he said; he was inspired by the stories whose plot was not centered on this violence, such as the animated Hayao Miyazaki films like Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service. Vuong challenged the audience, “tell me who’s the villain in these films?” He wanted to show that it was possible to have a compelling story without a direct villain. “Proximity creates tension to create art,” he argues that “we are already broken, but how do we break into something whole?” The novel is a way of thinking and spurring critical thinking.

This type of novel may be difficult to write for “children of the diaspora [because] to write about those we love is to betray them, but to betray them is to preserve them. There’s no way to reconcile the two.” This is the reason for his penning Night Sky with Exit Wounds, “I wanted to write about them first. [Night Sky with Exit Wounds] is about [his mother and grandmother] because I came from them. I want them to speak first because I come from them.” Vuong continued, “for white folks- it’s a book, but for us, these are our lives. We have to tell them how to see us if they’re to see us on our terms. If you don’t write it, they will write over you.” He emphasized this importance with the recollection of his anticipation leading up to his class reading about the Vietnam War in grade school; however, it was a brief blip of the long, complex ordeal. “The myth of the textbook erases you in two pages” and unless we share our truths, despite making it open to scrutiny, others will construct falsities in its place.

“When a writer looks and asks questions [they must realize], it is a privilege to ask and inquire, and it’s rare for white writers to look back enough [to a point and time of trauma caused by immigration or displacement.]” Vuong continued, “as a country, we have to look back and look where we come from [if we’re to grow and understand the complexity of race.]” Too often do we dismiss issues with race as being simply in the past and ‘nonexistent,’ that we don’t acknowledge the racism imbedded within our social and economic systems. With a deeper critical understanding of how white supremacy is perpetuated and how pervasive it actually is, the better we will be at dismantling it.

“Poetry is fiction steeped in truth realized in imagination,” and Vuong brings truth to the lives of many Asian Americans who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community. He validates the presence of both Vietnamese American authors with his poise and intelligence. He is paving the way for future people of color who are aspiring writers, and the world is better for it. There is trauma and struggle that is intrinsic to those who have witnessed and or experienced an immigrant upbringing. Too often, history is written by the victor; however, we bear a responsibility to provide a platform to people of color to their voices to be heard loudly and unapologetically.

Photos by: Keana A. Labra

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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA Contributor

Utilizing her background in English Literature, Keana would like to learn more about Filipino literature and history to bring an understanding and awareness to the culture. As a Filipino American, she is interested in further researching the impact of the feminist movement and how it affects Filipino tradition. She would also like to uplift the Filipino Americans who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She hopes to encourage fellow Filipino Americans to participate and immerse themselves in the Filipino culture. Her hobbies include watching anime and reading manga.

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