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An Immigrant Yearns For Connection In 'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous'

Here's an SAT word for you: "aptronym." An aptronym is a proper name that's especially "apt" for describing the person who bears it. Take Usain Bolt, the bolt-of-lighting Jamaican sprinter, or the poet William Wordsworth. Now, add to the list Ocean Vuong.

Vuong was given the name "Ocean" by his mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who worked as a manicurist. As the story goes, a customer corrected her pronunciation of the word "beach," which, when she said it, sounded like that word that rhymes with "witch." Vuong's mother adopted the word "ocean" instead, and when she learned that it refers to a body of water that can connect countries — such the United States and Vietnam — she gave her son the hopeful name of Ocean.

In his poetry and in his just-published debut novel called On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong writes about the yearning for connection that afflicts immigrants. But "ocean" also describes the distinctive way Vuong writes: His words are liquid, flowing, rolling, teasing, mighty and overpowering. When Vuong's mother gave him the oh-so-apt name of Ocean, she inadvertently called into being a writer whose language some of us readers could happily drown in.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an autobiographical novel in the form of a letter — a letter written by a son named Little Dog to his illiterate mother. "Dear Ma," the novel begins, "I am writing to reach you — even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are." In that one line, Vuong, via Little Dog, has described the unintended rift that education can cause within a working-class immigrant family.

Little Dog was born in Vietnam, but, like Vuong himself, he was brought to the U.S. as a small child. The "Dear Ma" letter Little Dog writes as a 20-something young man in the 1990s roams through his family history, monumental and small: We hear how Little Dog's grandmother escaped from her arranged marriage in Vietnam and how "her body, her purple dress ... kept her alive" as a sex worker.

We also hear how the remembered violence of the Vietnam War transmutes itself into the frequent slaps and punches rained down on Little Dog by his mother. "I didn't know," Little Dog writes to her, "that the war was still inside you ... [and] that once it enters you it never leaves — but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son."

And then there's this memory that Little Dog shares with Ma, the classic ordeal where the bullies-on-the-school-bus torture the outsider. It's one of the most familiar scenes in literature and film. But listen to a few sentences and hear how Vuong, through Little Dog, takes us deep into the shame and helplessness:

There are extended riffs throughout Vuong's novel on subjects like Tiger Woods' racial heritage and on the word "sorry," which, Little Dog writes, is the "most common English word" spoken by Asian nail salon workers.

It's also the most common English word spoken by the mostly Hispanic laborers to their white boss in the tobacco fields where Little Dog works as a teenager and where he falls in love with a white boy named Trevor. Little Dog confesses to Ma that Trevor was "[t]he boy from whom I learned there was something even more brutal and total than work — want."

In an essayhe wrote three years ago for The New Yorker, Vuong, who was born in Ho Chi Minh City and came to the U.S. when he was 2, recalled, "When I entered kindergarten, I was, in a sense, immigrating all over again, except this time into English." Like so many immigrant writers before him, Vuong has taken the English he acquired with difficulty and not only made it his own — he's made it better.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: June 5, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous audio version of this story incorrectly said Ocean Vuong was born in Hanoi city. Vuong was actually born in Ho Chi Minh city.
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.