Ocean Vương: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vương’s devastating debut novel begins with Little Dog (Chó Con, a common nickname in Vietnamese) writing a long letter to his illiterate mother. In concise writing (242 pages of unwasted space) and lyrical language (drawing from his poetic skills), Little Dog recounts the heartbreaking stories of living with his loving-yet-abusing mother and schizophrenic grandmother, reveals the painful incident of being bullied as an immigration kid who spoke no English, and confesses his sexual preference in juicy details. As I was reading, I had marked a dozen of sticky notes in the pages. I would love to quote all of them, but one in particular, in which Little Dog writes about his mother’s past, stood out to me (p31–32):

As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all—but an orphan. Our Vietnamese 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.

That night I promised myself I’d never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you. So began my career as our family’s official interpreter. From then on, I would fill in our blanks, our silences, stutters, whenever I could. I code switched. I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.

It’s a beautiful, painful, and lustful read. Even as a straight man, I find the gay sex scenes to be damn erotic. Now, that is some fucking good writing. My only pet peeve is the mixed use of Vietnamese diacritics. For proper noun, such as Go Cong or My Tho, the author left out diacritical marks. For regular words including phở and bà ngoại, the author included diacritical marks. My suggestion is to add diacritics for all Vietnamese text.