Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Briefly Gorgeous


'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous' by Ocean Vuong. This was a gorgeous book; beautiful writing telling a sometimes harrowing tale. Little Dog is writing to his mother, even though he knows she cannot read. But she can tell stories, as does his grandmother Lan. His life is full of stories, some of which are true, but you are often not sure which. The story of Trevor is true, and it is a love story in the most intense and sensuous way, it is as if being loved like that allows him to love himself in the face of everything. (From the very end of the book):

"I felt this sudden surge of tenderness for him right then, a feeling so rare in me it felt like I was being displaced by it. Until Trevor pulled me back. 'Hey,' he said, half-asleep, 'what were you before you met me?' 'I think I was drowning.' A pause. 'And what are you now?' he whispered, sinking. I thought for a second. 'Water.' " (p.237-8)

Little Dog tells the story of their family history, back to his mother. He thinks of himself as a product of the Vietnam War, someone who exists because of it. His grandmother is sinking into old age dementia, but she tries to protect him from his mother's uncontrollable rages. In spite of everything the bond between them is unbreakable:

"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. Or now - as Lan called to me, 'Little Dog, get over here and help me help your mother.' And we knelt on each side of you, rolling out the hardened cords of your upper arms, then down to your wrists, your fingers. For a moment almost too brief to matter, this made sense - that three people on the floor, connected to each other by touch, made something like the word family." (p.33)

Mostly the story is about them, but the comment the mother makes to him on leaving the house sums up their experience of life in America, 'don't draw attention to yourself. You're already Vietnamese.' He does not talk about overt racism, though he describes his mother being harassed and assaulted as a child for being the daughter of an American, but what he does do is describe how it felt. This passage talks about the relationship between manicurist and client:

"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. Again and again, I watched as the manicurists, bowed over a hand or foot of a client, some as young as seven, say, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry,' when they had done nothing wrong. I have seen workers, you included, apologize dozens of times throughout a forty-five-minute manicure, hoping to gain warm traction that would lead to the ultimate goal, a tip - only to say sorry anyway when none was given.
In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologises, 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-depreciating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat." (p.91-2)

The more I flick back through the book the more I realise it is two love stories. In spite of everything his love for his mother remains overwhelming, and he wants things from her that she is too exhausted to give. She is his connection to Vietnam and that huge part of how he thinks of himself. It is a true son's love because he essentially forgives her for her failings, does not blame for her for things beyond her control. This quote, because I love it when books teach me new words, and it is a beautiful notion:

"There's a word that Trevor once told me about, one he learned from Burford, who serves in the navy in Hawaii during the Korean War: kipuka. The piece of land that's spared after a lava flow runs down the slope of a hill - an island formed from what survives the smallest apocalypse. Before the lava descended, scorching the moss along the hill, that piece of land was insignificant, just another scrap in an endless mass of green. Only by enduring does it earn its name. Lying on the mat with you, I cannot help but want us to be our own kipuka, our own aftermath, visible. But I know better." (p.171)

The whole book is intensely descriptive, often of mundane things around him, but that added together allow you to picture his world so vividly. Altogether a sublime book. I sometimes worry that I get to the end of a book and find I can't remember 'what happened' but am just left with feelings. But mostly they are the books that I am glad I discovered.

Stay safe. Be kind. Read a book.

1 comment:

Thanks for stopping by. Thoughts, opinions and suggestions (reading or otherwise) always most welcome.

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