Olivia Spicer (she/they)
About a month had passed before I realized I was dissociated. Or maybe not, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few hours. I suppose that’s the whole point of being dissociated, that I didn’t really know what was going on around me. I vaguely remember phasing in and out of myself, and the sensation of partially coming to, staring at a couch in a home I partially lived in with my out of state parents. I felt listless, mildly uncomfortable, and wholly untethered for a not-insignificant amount of time.
That summer, in 2020, I was in the midst of a mid-youth crisis, having just graduated from a high school I hated and into a pandemic that I also hated. But the majority of my out-of-my-own-head-ness actually came from a heartbreak years in the making; which is to say, I realized some things a little too late about a relationship I had had with a girl, and it sent me spiraling into a full on identity crisis. All I knew was that I didn’t know who or where I was fully, and that both of those thoughts barely registered either. I could only think in halfway-there, noncommittal abstractions, and most of them were spent trying to parse out exactly what I thought about myself and my sexuality. I was adrift.
It was in this context that I discovered what would become one of the very best books I’ve ever read: “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong.
Essentially, my learning community, LSWA, or the Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts, was hosting several community bonding events throughout the summer. One of which, our director Carol Tell’s book club, selected Ocean Vuong’s debut novel to read and discuss over Zoom. With COVID-19 shutting down libraries, I wasn’t sure where exactly to find a physical copy of the book. It led me, slightly begrudgingly, to borrow the audiobook, the first I had listened to in over a decade. I pressed play on an impulse at around three in the morning, laying on an air mattress with a sheet in a pitch black basement. I didn’t realize then that what I was starting would pull me out of the quasi-fugue state I’d been in for ages and help me learn a new dimension of myself, the very one I had just started grappling with.
I listened intently in the dark, staring up at a ceiling I couldn’t really see as Vuong himself told the story of Little Dog, the book’s narrator. Vuong, a poet by trade, wrote “On Earth” in a prose format, but with a style and lyricism feeling fully poetry-like. It’s entirely stunning, evocative, and brutally tender, and done in a way that doesn’t often feel overly overstated or saccharine. It’s a long-form heartache that feels almost like a memoir, partly due to the aforementioned style and partly because the narrative does share some biographical details from Vuong’s own life. It’s gripping, poignant, and, as the title belies, gorgeous.
To me, reading “On Earth” in the dark was like listening to a voice aimed at me and intent on relaying a pain I didn’t know the exact dimensions of, but could relate to nonetheless. I listened to observations about monarchs, a colony of fifteen thousand, migrating south and the way hardly any of them at all would return, and felt the “briefly” suggested in the title personally. I listened to the descriptions of poverty, of loose pork chops, gunshots, and rationed chocolate squares, and felt the very human pains behind every syllable. I listened to a story, one that experience-wise is leagues away from my own, and savored every minute of the seven hours, nineteen minutes Vuong beckoned me to steep in.
In those seven hours, nineteen minutes, “On Earth” tells the story of Little Dog, a Vietnamese American man in his late 20s, who has grown to become a successful writer in New York. He’s writing a letter, in fragments, to his mother, who can’t speak or read English. He acknowledges she won’t ever read the letter, but that’s not really the point anyways. His story is a confessional and a method of “reaching her,” in ways that a son often can’t reach his mother. Through nonlinear anecdotes, observations, and brief explorations of specific imagery, Little Dog relays not only his own coming of age, but the trauma his family has been through as a result of the Vietnam War, poverty, domestic violence, and being an immigrant in an unkind America. He lives with his Grandma Lan, whose schizophrenia has been made worse by her experiences in the war and immigration process, and with his mother, Rose, whose violent tendencies originate from her own PTSD.
As such, “On Earth” is a detailed portrait, surreal and impressively dreamlike, of a family wracked by myriad pains nearly unimaginable to the average person. Most of the first half centers around experiences within the home and the struggles Little Dog faces being the advocate for a family struggling in a new country. He asks himself questions about what being a survivor and citizen means: “What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life? What is a country but a life sentence?” And he observes how the language he’s used as both a crutch and a comforting shroud has its own limitations, sealed in by the trauma his family has faced: “Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all--but an orphan. Our Vietnamese is 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.”
While the novel focuses a lot on war and its brutal aftermaths, it also discusses one crucial piece of Little Dog’s life that has little to do with his family at all: his sexuality. He describes in his letter his first love, with a boy named Trevor, whom he met when working on a tobacco farm one summer. In the barn and between moments of intense pain, dulled by Trevor’s addiction to opioids, Little Dog learns about himself and his capacity for tenderness, for love that he doesn’t often receive at home.
“On Earth” is a queer novel as much as it is a novel of family reckoning and dissolution, and I had no idea it would be before I had already reached the halfway mark. As Vuong describes it, the story is one of “American failure,” one that discusses the breakdown of fraught relationships, communication, and “an ideal of masculinity” that invades even the outset of Little Dog’s romantic explorations. With Trevor, Little Dog fails to maintain a connection, but their relationship isn’t wasted or truly “failed” as one might expect. It’s an exercise in futility that’s still merciful, touching, and powerful. It’s a story of gay love that’s borderline tragic in the traditional sense and fiercely raw in the most unique of ways.
Though I didn’t understand it then and arguably still don’t fully, by venturing into the richness of Vuong’s writing, reading “On Earth” really changed me. It gave me a source of information about what to do with the pieces of a fragmented, “wasted,” queer romance that often doesn’t get addressed in the media. What do we do, what do we say, when our relationships-- already nontraditional because they’re outside the heterosexual “norm”-- fail? What is the next step after our relationships don’t end the way we want them to, when we feel we are in limbo and unable to verbalize the type of heartache specific to queer love? What guide exists to navigate the volatility of complicated queer identities while also reconciling incompatible personalities? There isn’t one; yet “On Earth” offers a chance at seeing trauma-informed interactions within a queer relationship, without the lens of judgement or shame one might expect from any other piece of media. It might just be a story with which many queer individuals, especially those who have experienced imperfect relationships, can relate to.
For me, at least, “On Earth'' taught me that when I wasn’t sure what to do with the pieces of a failed sapphic almost-relationship, it was okay to steep in failure. My being adrift was normal, and it was okay to have misread signals that feel like romance in hindsight. All of mine and her vignettes, our own fragmented pieces of story, were fine, if a little heartbreaking. After “On Earth,” I could reflect on what it meant for us to slow dance alone in the courtyard at our LGBTQ+ prom, for her to have specifically requested a devastatingly gentle song for us in that moment. Or, what it meant for her to know exactly where I kept my inhaler at every practice and race we ran together. Or, what it meant for me to know that she only really cried when animals suffered and she was the type of vegan who really loved boxed water. Or, what it meant for us to, ultimately, have not worked out, to have fizzled out before we really got burning. Because those experiences of love, however fraught, can still be worthwhile and, by themselves, briefly gorgeous.