Vuong // On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Compassion is the one word that came to mind again and again reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Specifically, the child’s capacity for compassion and forgiveness of abusive adults is remarkable. It calls to mind a line from Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: “It was the first time I saw my father as a son.”
Some of my favorite bits
Earlier that night, after dinner, I had sung a few folk songs for Paul. He had inquired about what I had learned during the school year and, already steeped in summer and drawing a blank, I offered a few songs I had memorized from Lan. I sang, in my best effort, a classic lullaby Lan used to sing. The song, originally performed by the famous Khánh Ly, describes a woman singing among corpses strewn across sloping leafy hills. Searching the faces of the dead, the singer asks in the song’s refrain, And which of you, which of you are my sister?
Do you remember it, Ma, how Lan would sing it out of nowhere? How once, she sang it at my friend Junior’s birthday party, her face the shade of raw ground beef from a single Heineken? You shook her shoulder, telling her to stop, but she kept going, eyes closed, swaying side to side as she sang. Junior and his family didn’t understand Vietnamese—thank god. To them it was just my crazy grandma mumbling away again. But you and I could hear it. Eventually you put down your slice of pineapple cake—untouched, the glasses clinking as the corpses, fleshed from Lan’s mouth, piled up around us.
Among the empty plates stained from the baked ziti, I sang that same song as Paul listened. After, he simply clapped, then we washed up. I had forgotten that Paul, too, understands Vietnamese, having picked it up during the war.
“I’m sorry,” I say now, watching the red light pool under his eyes. “It’s a stupid song anyway.”
Outside, the wind is driving through the maples, their rinsed leaves slap against the clapboard siding. “Let’s just make some coffee or something, Grandpa.”
There is so much I want to tell you, Ma. I was once foolish enough to believe knowledge would clarify, but some things are so gauzed behind layers of syntax and semantics, behind days and hours, names forgotten, salvaged and shed, that simply knowing the wound exists does nothing to reveal it.
I don’t know what I’m saying. I guess what I mean is that sometimes I don’t know what or who we are. Days I feel like a human being, while other days I feel more like a sound. I touch the world not as myself but as an echo of who I was. Can you hear me yet? Can you read me?
When I first started writing, I hated myself for being so uncertain, about images, clauses, ideas, even the pen or journal I used. Everything I wrote began with maybe and perhaps and ended with I think or I believe. But my doubt is everywhere, Ma. Even when I know something to be true as bone I fear the knowledge will dissolve, will not, despite my writing it, stay real. I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else—where, exactly, I’m not sure. Just as I don’t know what to call you—White, Asian, orphan, American, mother?
Sometimes we are given only two choices. While doing research, I read an article from an 1884 El Paso Daily Times, which reported that a white railroad worker was on trial for the murder of an unnamed Chinese man. The case was ultimately dismissed. The judge, Roy Bean, cited that Texas law, while prohibiting the murder of human beings, defined a human only as White, African American, or Mexican. The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.
There are times, late at night, when your son would wake believing a bullet is lodged inside him. He’d feel it floating on the right side of his chest, just between the ribs. The bullet was always here, the boy thinks, older even than himself—and his bones, tendons, and veins had merely wrapped around the metal shard, sealing it inside him. It wasn’t me, the boy thinks, who was inside my mother’s womb, but this bullet, this seed I bloomed around. Even now, as the cold creeps in around him, he feels it poking out from his chest, slightly tenting his sweater. He feels for the protrusion but, as usual, finds nothing. It’s receded, he thinks. It wants to stay inside me. It is nothing without me. Because a bullet without a body is a song without ears.
It was Hartford. It was a cluster of light that pulsed with a force I never realized it possessed. Maybe it was because his breaths were so clear to me then, how I imagined the oxygen in his throat, his lungs, the bronchi and blood vessels expanding, how it moved through all the places I’ll never see, that I keep returning to this most basic measurement of life, even long after he’s gone.
But for now, the city brims before us with a strange, rare brilliance—as if it was not a city at all, but the sparks made by some god sharpening his weapons above us.
“Fuck,” Trevor whispered. He put his hands in his pockets and spat on the ground.
The city throbbed, shimmered. Then, trying to snap himself out of it, he said, “Fuck Coca-Cola.”
“Yeah, Sprite for life, fuckers,” I added, not knowing then what I know now: that Coca-Cola and Sprite were made by the same damn company. That no matter who you are or what you love or where you stand, it was always Coca-Cola in the end.