Ocean Vuong poses for a portrait on Thursday, June 20, 2019, in Seattle.
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Ocean Vuong poses for a portrait on Thursday, June 20, 2019, in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Poet Ocean Vuong's new novel is more than Briefly Gorgeous

"To be queer is to fail into your pleasure." The book, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, is a letter from a son to his mother, who can't read. The poet says it's a monument to failure, to violence, to labor, to silence, to America.

Ocean Vuong's new book is a work of autofiction, which is a term that might be new to you. The story both is and is not Ocean's. It is and is not a poem. It very much is about the American Dream, and how it fails us.

Ocean Vuong and Bill Radke on masculinity

Vuong spoke to Bill Radke on The Record, in two parts. First they tackled themes of gender, sexual orientation, and memories of war and violence - all things we carry in our bodies. All of these concepts are created with language, Vuong says: and like language, that means that they can change.

"If the only way boys are celebrating themselves is through words like 'I'm killing it. I'm smashing it. I'm knocking 'em dead': what happens when they change that?" he asks.

"People say the future is in your hands. But I argue that it's actually in your mouth. You can change the way we look and live, as a country, depending on how you talk: right now. You don't even have to be a writer. And a lot of folks are changing the language. Now we say, 'that's giving me life. I'm living for that.'"

Ocean Vuong on Failure

The second part of Bill Radke's conversation with Ocean Vuong on his book, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous." They talk about our fear of failure.

But as much as language is a lifeline for the narrator Little Dog, it's also a site of failure. His letter will never be read by its intended recipient. So what then? When a reader isn't promised, says Vuong, an opportunity arises to grapple with that failure. America, just as much as Vietnam, is a country benchmarked by war, scarred by colonialism, and built on labor.

These are things most of us would prefer not to look at. But if we don't, who will? "We have to betray our families in order to preserve them." The pain we inflict by telling their stories and probing their silences is the price of ensuring that those stories aren't written by others whose goal is not conjuring, but erasure.

With art we write on mirrors, Vuong says. So that someday, someone will walk into that hall of mirrors and see themselves. They'll think, "'hey, somebody was here! Somebody who looked like this, was here.'"