Cover image for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

A Novel
Vuong, Ocean
Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction! An instant New York Times Bestseller! Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal! Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe,, Huffington Post, The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and more."A lyrical work of self-discovery that's shockingly intimate and insistently universal...Not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning." —Ron Charles, The Washington PostPoet Ocean Vuong's debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytellingOn Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family's history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one's own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard. With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
Penguin Publishing Group

Penguin Press
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Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction!

An instant New York Times Bestseller!

Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal!

Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by Vulture , Entertainment Weekly , Buzzfeed, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe ,, Huffington Post, The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and more.

"A lyrical work of self-discovery that's shockingly intimate and insistently universal...Not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning." --Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Poet Ocean Vuong's debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family's history that began before he was born -- a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam -- and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one's own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

Author Notes

Ocean Vuong is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the New York Times bestselling novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous . A recipient of the 2019 MacArthur "Genius" Grant, he is also the winner of the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. His writings have been featured in The Atlantic , Harper's Magazine , The Nation , The New Republic , The New Yorker , and The New York Times . Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Poet Vuong's frank first novel (after Night Sky with Exit Wounds) takes the form of a letter from a man to his illiterate mother in which 28-year-old Little Dog, a writer who's left the impoverished Hartford, Conn., of his youth for New York City, retraces his coming of age. His childhood is marked by abuse from his overworked mother, as well as the traumas he's inherited from his mother's and grandmother's experiences during the Vietnam War. Having left Vietnam with them as a young boy, and after the incarceration of his father, Little Dog's attempts to assimilate include contending with language barriers and the banal cruelty of the supposedly well-intentioned. He must also adapt to the world as a gay man and as a writer-the novel's beating heart rests in Little Dog's first, doomed love affair with another teenage boy, and in his attempts to describe what being a writer truly is. Vuong's prose shines in the intimate scenes between the young men, but sometimes the lyricism has a straining, vague quality ("They say nothing lasts forever but they're just scared it will last longer than they will love it"; "But the thing about forever is you can't take it back"). Nevertheless, this is a haunting meditation on loss, love, and the limits of human connection. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

This first novel by poet Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 2016) is narrated by Little Dog, a Vietnamese refugee who grew up in Hartford with his mother and his maternal grandmother, Lan. A writer now, he addresses his story as a letter to his mother, who cannot read, ""to tell you everything you'll never know."" He recalls her painful attempts to toughen him and his simultaneous rage for all that frays her work, memories, difficulty communicating. At 14 he gets a job cutting tobacco, and there meets Trevor. Two years older, Trevor works to escape his alcoholic father and makes Little Dog feel ""seen I who had seldom been seen by anyone."" Their covert love blooms brilliantly as Trevor, battling his own demons, handles Little Dog with bewildering warmth. This plot line is its own speeding train, while Little Dog's letter also reveals the family's inextricable legacy from the Vietnam War. In Vuong's acrobatic storytelling, Lan's traumatic wartime tale unspools in a spiraling dive, and a portrait of Trevor emerges in the snapshots of a 10-page prose poem. Casting a truly literary spell, Vuong's tale of language and origin, beauty and the power of story, is an enrapturing first novel.--Annie Bostrom Copyright 2019 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

"ON earth WE'RE Briefly Gorgeous" is Ocean Vuong's second debut. His first, as poet, was spectacular and met with wide praise, even garnering comparisons to Emily Dickinson. The talent on display in that book, "Night Sky With Exit Wounds," is undeniable, and if you haven't yet read his poetry, I'd recommend starting there before venturing on to Vuong's debut as a novelist. Many of the same themes and obsessions haunt both books: Violence is one, whether from the American war in Vietnam (Vuong himself is Vietnamese-American), or from within the family; queerness is another; the body itself; race; ecstasy and joy. In fact, the novel is titled after one of Vuong's poems, and in a way you could think of this second book as something like a cutting from the first, planted in new soil and morphed into some new genus. All to say, it's an experimental, highly poetic novel, and therefore difficult to describe. The structural conceit of the book is ostensibly a letter written from a son, Little Dog, to his mother, Ma. But this letter is nearly 250 pages (with poemlike sections in the second half), containing a lengthy essayistic meditation on Tiger Woods's Asian heritage, his thoughts on Duchamp's "Fountain," and plenty of literary musings on figures like Roland Ocean Vuong Barthes. Most important, Ma, or Rose, cannot read, so the protracted dedication is understood as interior. The conceit can make for some lovely lines, as when Little Dog falls for another boy: "There were colors, Ma. Yes, there were colors I felt when I was with him." Reading that line, I was reminded of Melanie's famous B-side, "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma"; there as well as here, the power lies in the intimacy of that "Ma" at the end of the refrain, in capturing the desire to take the pain of the world home to mother and hold it up to her like a hurt she might kiss. That act is a kind of talismanic seal, a spell, a gesture that transforms hurt into healing through the shared belief in its power. The reality is that Little Dog has been kissing Ma's bruises his whole life. Ma emerges as troubled, troubling and enchanting. Her own mother, Lan, survived the war by doing sex work, and Ma's father, whom she never knew, was one of Lan's American soldier clients. During the postwar years, Rose suffered the brutal bullying consequences of being a mixed-race child. Little Dog was born in Vietnam, but his family flees as refugees to Hartford when he is just a toddler. He's raised by his uneducated mother (who works at a nail salon) and grandmother in 1990s America. This description is not so much the plot of the novel as it is the haunting backdrop that Little Dog circles again and again in his letter. The violence and desperation of the stories he's grown up hearing (for instance, of men eating the brains of a live monkey as it kicks and rages) are retold and reimagined, exploited for their metaphorical potential. Vuong is masterly at creating indelible, impressionistic images. The characters of both Lan and Ma are shaped by the novel's glimpses into their ecstasy and agony, as when Ma attends an Afro-Latino Baptist church for the first time, and, among the booming "fat organ and trumpet notes," she begins shouting at her absent birth father in Vietnamese: "Where are you, Ba?... Where the hell are you? Come get me! Get me out of here! Come back and get me." Focused, descriptive snapshots of Little Dog's mother and grandmother abound, largely overshadowing the interstitial bits of essayistic writing. Vuong's intention with the long riff on the opioid crisis, for example, seems to have been to explicitly abstract political meaning from personal narrative. And, although the book's break into poetic form is perhaps designed to suggest that there are some expressions only poetry can communicate, at times the stylistic switches can feel like adornments on a powerful story that never required dressing up. It is all backdrop for perhaps the more propulsive narrative thread that begins midway through the book, when a teenage Little Dog takes a summer job on a farm outside Hartford. There he meets the farm owner's grandson Trevor, "the boy from whom I learned there was something even more brutal and total than work - want." Trevor is older, white, a druggie, homosexually active but internally conflicted, twisted up in his own understanding of the demands of masculinity. Vuong beautifully evokes this boy's seductive power over Little Dog: This is some of the most moving writing I've read about two boys experimenting together (and reader, I've read a lot). The sex here is good because it feels honest, messy, joyous, awkward, painful. In one scene, Little Dog admires his own body in the mirror, recognizing for the first time his own desirability: "I let the mirror hold those flaws - because for once ... they were not wrong to me but something that was wanted, that was sought and found among a landscape as enormous as the one I had been lost in all this time." The tenderness of the prose feels like a triumph against a world hellbent on embittering the tenderhearted. Early on the novel alludes to a future in which Little Dog has made it to college and found relative success and stability through writing; we assume that Trevor has been left behind, but as we read on, the why and how of the couple's undoing is heartbreaking to discover. Nowadays the word "sentimental" is impossible to detach from its pejorative sense, but the original, philosophical sense of the word refers to thought that is either colored by, or proceeds from, feeling. In today's culture we're often offered the choice between the ironic shrug of nihilism and positivity-obsessed pop psychology, which suggests that changing one's thought patterns can control and produce desirable feelings. Vuong rejects that binary, and the book is brilliant in the way it pays attention not to what our thoughts make us feel, but to what our feelings make us think. To what kinds of truth does feeling lead? Oscar Wilde famously quipped that sentimentalism is wanting to have an emotion without paying for it, but Little Dog has paid and paid, and the truths arrived at in this book are valuable precisely because they are steeped in feeling. JUSTIN TORRES is the author of "We the Animals."

Guardian Review

A Vietnamese-American poet's debut mines his extraordinary family story with passion and beauty Ocean Vuong's grandfather was a US soldier posted to Vietnam; there he fell in love with "an illiterate girl from the rice paddies". They married and had three daughters, but while his grandfather was visiting family in the US, the fall of Saigon forced the family apart. His grandmother, fearing her children might be taken for adoption in the States, put her three girls into different orphanages, and they weren't reunited until adulthood. Vuong's mother worked washing hair in a Saigon salon, and gave birth to him when she was 18. She was discovered to be mixed race, and so banned from working by the new communist regime, before the whole family was evacuated to the Philippines under the sponsorship of a US charity. Vuong was still a toddler when, after months in a refugee camp, they were admitted to the US. Vuong's family story is at the heart of his 2017 debut poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds , which won both a Forward prize and the TS Eliot prize. In it, he writes: "An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes." Vuong is at his best pressing the words further and harder, in his effort to capture in their net a real moment His first novel also draws on elements of his life, to tell the coming-of-age story of Little Dog, the son of Vietnamese immigrant parents in the US. Through a fragmented narrative, we piece together the past of Little Dog's mother, Rose, and his grandmother, Lan, in Vietnam - he was born there but can scarcely remember it. His father, who came with them to the US, is a shadowy figure, violent towards Rose, last seen disappearing in a police car after being arrested for beating her up. Little Dog grows up in Hartford, Connecticut; he's lonely and bullied at school for being different, for his foreignness and for what's perceived as his effeminacy. Because Little Dog narrates in the first person and gives us glimpses of his adult life as a writer, he seems to have followed a classic American upwards trajectory, making his way from being an outsider, through transformative educational experiences that aren't specified in the novel, to entry into privileged literary circles - though carrying with him the burden of his doubts about that privilege. He has become the writer-narrator of the novel we are reading, which is framed as a letter addressed to his mother, even though she can't read it. "What I am about to tell you you will never know ... I am writing to reach you - even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are." At the core of the book, alongside his fraught relationships with his violent-loving mother and crazy-wise grandmother, is Little Dog's teenage love affair with Trevor, who appears at first to be the very embodiment of the masculine white America that is shutting Little Dog out. Trevor is a football fan living in an "Easter yellow" mobile home, surviving on junk food and Sprite. The grandson of the man who owns the tobacco barns where Little Dog has a summer job, and the son of a drunk who shouts at the TV, he messes around with guns and is a fan of 50 Cent. Their sexual connection is surpassingly passionate and tender, but can't be maintained into adulthood - Trevor doesn't want to grow up to be a "fag", and anyway lives carelessly, putting himself in danger, trashing a truck, swallowing pills like sweets. The essential gesture of the novel is there in its title: in early youth, somewhere beyond the margins of conventional society, there's a brief authentic flowering of life and happiness, which can't be carried forward into disappointing, grown-up, settled existence. That nostalgic pattern so characteristic of US fiction, whose archetypal expression comes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , exists in interesting counterpoise with the shape of Lan and Rose's stories, their ungorgeous youth, their war trauma and blunt humour, the sheer dogged persistence and will to survive that carry them into emigration and the future. There are passages in the novel of real beauty and originality. Vuong writes wonderfully about work: the resigned camaraderie and irony, for instance, of the women working in Rose's nail bar, where smells of "cloves, cinnamon, ginger, mint and cardamom" from cooking in the back room mingle with the toxic "formaldehyde, toluene, acetone, Pine-sol and bleach", which damage their health and their hands. In the tobacco fields, where Little Dog stands out among the mostly Hispanic labourers, "you could hear their lungs working as they cut, the stalks falling in bright green splashes around their hunched backs ... could hear the water inside their stems as the steel broke open the membranes, the ground darkening as the plants bled out". The novel's strength lies in its specifics, so exactly seen or smelled or tasted; the salt around Trevor's neck: " ... from the two-hour drives to nowhere and a Burger King at the edge of the county, a day of tense talk with his old man, the rust from the electric razor he shared with that old man, how I would always find it on his sink in its sad plastic case, the tobacco, weed and cocaine smoke on his fingers mixed with motor oil ..." Vuong is at his best pressing the words further and harder like this, in his effort to capture in their net the fleeting sensations of a real moment, make on his page the illusion of life. His frankness and precision, writing about Little Dog's lovemaking with Trevor, is persuasive and moving, as is the unsparing description of grandmother Lan's death. It's more problematic when the flow of the story is freighted with too much of a different kind of writing: an explicit commentary on the meaning of what's happening, or a sort of choric lyrical lamenting between scenes. "In a world as myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly." Part of the problem may come with the framing device: because the novel is addressed to Rose, who can't read it, it's aimed too much rhetorically at the unresponsive air - which can't talk back, or yawn or laugh, as one suspects Rose might. Tonally there's a habitual recourse to plangency, to a dying fall. " Ma, there is so much I want to tell you. 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. " It's not that those ruminations might not be worth attending to, taken by themselves - though there's a lot of repetition. Inside the long economy of a novel, however, too much prose in this register inhibits the flow, dilutes the story's power to persuade us. The passionate politics of this book are most alive whenever we're most lost inside the experiences of his protagonists.

Kirkus Review

A young man writes a letter to his illiterate mother in an attempt to make sense of his traumatic beginnings.When Little Dog is a child growing up in Hartford, he is asked to make a family tree. Where other children draw full green branches full of relatives, Little Dog's branches are bare, with just five names. Born in Vietnam, Little Dog now lives with his abusiveand abusedmother and his schizophrenic grandmother. The Vietnam War casts a long shadow on his life: His mother is the child of an anonymous American soldierhis grandmother survived as a sex worker during the conflict. Without siblings, without a father, Little Dog's loneliness is exacerbated by his otherness: He is small, poor, Asian, and queer. Much of the novel recounts his first love affair as a teen, with a "redneck" from the white part of town, as he confesses to his mother how this doomed relationship is akin to his violent childhood. In telling the stories of those who exist in the margins, Little Dog says, "I never wanted to build a body of work,' but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work." Vuong has written one of the most lauded poetry debuts in recent memory (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 2016), and his first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sensenot merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence, moving associationally from memory to memory, quoting Barthes, then rapper 50 Cent. The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel's earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival.A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

DEBUT The cover calls this a novel, but the autobiographical overlaps are many: a gay Vietnamese American poet, an October birth outside Saigon, an other-side-of-the-world escape, a biracial single mother, a Hartford, CT, upbringing, a New York City education. In his prose debut, T.S. -Eliot-prized, Whiting-awarded -Vuong mines his memories, his traumas, his triumphs to create an epistolary -masterpiece addressed to his mother-who can't read. Whispered a name at birth meaning "Patriotic Leader of the Nation," he's instead called "Little Dog," because "[t]o love to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched-and alive." Escaping Vietnam, Little Dog grows up with his grandmother's stories of survival, of what she did to feed one daughter, then another. In a house full of damaged women, he replays his mother's monstrous abuses, her unrelenting sacrifices: "parents suffering from PTSD are more likely to hit their children." And yet, "[p]erhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war." In his precarious journey to manhood, race, poverty, mental illness, isolation, sexuality, first love, and death prove to be perilous challenges. Writing will save his life. VERDICT Fearless, revelatory, extraordinary; an essential acquisition for every library. [See Prepub Alert, 12/3/18.]-Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I Let me begin again. Dear Ma, What I am about to tell you you will never know. But so be it. I am writing to reach you-even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are. I am writing to go back to the time, at the rest stop in Virginia, when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hung over the soda machine by the restrooms, its antlers shadowing your face. In the car, you kept shaking your head. "I don't understand why they would do that. Can't they see it's a corpse? A corpse should go away, not get stuck forever like that." I think now of that buck, how you stared into its black glass eyes and saw your reflection, your whole body, warped in that lifeless mirror. How it was not the grotesque mounting of a decapitated animal that shook you-but that the taxidermy embodied a death that won't finish, a death that keeps dying as we walk past it to relieve ourselves. I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn't trying to make a sentence-I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey. Autumn. Somewhere over Michigan, a colony of monarch butterflies, numbering more than fifteen thousand, are beginning their yearly migration south. In the span of two months, from September to November, they will move, one wing beat at a time, from southern Canada and the United States to portions of central Mexico, where they will spend the winter. They perch among us, on windowsills and chain-link fences, clotheslines still blurred from the just-hung weight of clothes, windowsills, the hood of a faded-blue Chevy, their wings folding slowly, as if being put away, before snapping once, into flight. It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing. That time when I was five or six and, playing a prank, leapt out at you from behind the hallway door, shouting, "Boom!" You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn't know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves-but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom. That time, in third grade, with the help of Mrs. Callahan, my ESL teacher, I read the first book that I loved, a children's book called Thunder Cake , by Patricia Polacco. In the story, when a girl and her grandmother spot a storm brewing on the green horizon, instead of shuttering the windows or nailing boards on the doors, they set out to bake a cake. I was unmoored by this act, its precarious yet bold refusal of common sense. As Mrs. Callahan stood behind me, her mouth at my ear, I was pulled deeper into the current of language. The story unfurled, its storm rolled in as she spoke, then rolled in once more as I repeated the words. To bake a cake in the eye of a storm; to feed yourself sugar on the cusp of danger. Because I am your son, this made perfect sense. The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch. The time I tried to teach you to read the way Mrs. Callahan taught me, my lips to your ear, my hand on yours, the words moving underneath the shadows we made. But that act (a son teaching his mother) reversed our hierarchies, and with it our identities, which, in this country, were already tenuous and tethered. After the stutters and false starts, the sentences warped or locked in your throat, after the embarrassment of failure, you slammed the book shut. "I don't need to read," you said, your expression crunched, and pushed away from the table. "I can see-it's gotten me this far, hasn't it?" Then the time with the remote control. A bruised welt on my forearm I would lie about to my teachers. "I fell playing tag." The time, at forty-six, when you had a sudden desire to color. "Let's go to Walmart," you said one morning. "I need coloring books." For months, you filled the space between your arms with all the shades you couldn't pronounce. Magenta, vermilion, marigold, pewter, juniper, cinnamon. Each day, for hours, you slumped over landscapes of farms, pastures, Paris, two horses on a windswept plain, the face of a girl with black hair and skin you left blank, left white. You hung them all over the house, which started to resemble an elementary school classroom. When I asked you, "Why coloring, why now?" you put down the sapphire pencil and stared, dreamlike, at a half-finished garden. "I just go away in it for a while," you said, "but I feel everything. Like I'm still here, in this room." The time you threw the box of Legos at my head. The hardwood dotted with blood. "Have you ever made a scene," you said, filling in a Thomas Kinkade house, "and then put yourself inside it? Have you ever watched yourself from behind, going further and deeper into that landscape, away from you?" How could I tell you that what you were describing was writing? How could I say that we, after all, are so close, the shadows of our hands, on two different pages, merging? "I'm sorry," you said, bandaging the cut on my forehead. "Grab your coat. I'll get you McDonald's." Head throbbing, I dipped chicken nuggets in ketchup as you watched. "You have to get bigger and stronger, okay?" I reread Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary yesterday, the book he wrote each day for a year after his mother's death. I have known the body of my mother, he writes, sick and then dying. And that's where I stopped. Where I decided to write to you. You who are still alive. Those Saturdays at the end of the month when, if you had money left over after the bills, we'd go to the mall. Some people dressed up to go to church or dinner parties; we dressed to the nines to go to a commercial center off I 91. You would wake up early, spend an hour doing your makeup, put on your best sequined black dress, your one pair of gold hoop earrings, black lamZ shoes. Then you would kneel and smear a handful of pomade through my hair, comb it over. Seeing us there, a stranger couldn't tell that we bought our groceries at the local corner store on Franklin Avenue, where the doorway was littered with used food stamp receipts, where staples like milk and eggs cost three times more than they did in the suburbs, where the apples, wrinkled and bruised, lay in a cardboard box soaked on the bottom with pig's blood that had leaked from the crate of loose pork chops, the ice long melted. "Let's get the fancy chocolates," you'd say, pointing to the Godiva chocolatier. We would get a small paper bag containing maybe five or six squares of chocolate we had picked at random. This was often all we bought at the mall. Then we'd walk, passing one back and forth until our fingers shone inky and sweet. "This is how you enjoy your life," you'd say, sucking your fingers, their pink nail polish chipped from a week of giving pedicures. The time with your fists, shouting in the parking lot, the late sun etching your hair red. My arms shielding my head as your knuckles thudded around me. Those Saturdays, we'd stroll the corridors until, one by one, the shops pulled shut their steel gates. Then we'd make our way to the bus stop down the street, our breaths floating above us, the makeup drying on your face. Our hands empty except for our hands. Out my window this morning, just before sunrise, a deer stood in a fog so dense and bright that the second one, not too far away, looked like the unfinished shadow of the first. You can color that in. You can call it "The History of Memory." Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past. What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life? That time at the Chinese butcher, you pointed to the roasted pig hanging from its hook. "The ribs are just like a person's after they're burned." You let out a clipped chuckle, then paused, took out your pocketbook, your face pinched, and recounted our money. What is a country but a life sentence? The time with a gallon of milk. The jug bursting on my shoulder bone, then a steady white rain on the kitchen tiles. The time at Six Flags, when you rode the Superman roller coaster with me because I was too scared to do it alone. How you threw up afterward, your whole head in the garbage can. How, in my screeching delight, I forgot to say Thank you. The time we went to Goodwill and piled the cart with items that had a yellow tag, because on that day a yellow tag meant an additional fifty percent off. I pushed the cart and leaped on the back bar, gliding, feeling rich with our bounty of discarded treasures. It was your birthday. We were splurging. "Do I look like a real American?" you said, pressing a white dress to your length. It was slightly too formal for you to have any occasion to wear, yet casual enough to hold a possibility of use. A chance. I nodded, grinning. The cart was so full by then I no longer saw what was ahead of me. The time with the kitchen knife-the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, saying quietly, "Get out. Get out." And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of my name. The time, in New York City, a week after cousin Phuong died in the car wreck, I stepped onto the uptown 2 train and saw his face, clear and round as the doors opened, looking right at me, alive. I gasped-but knew better, that it was only a man who resembled him. Still, it upended me to see what I thought I'd never see again-the features so exact, heavy jaw, open brow. His name lunged to the fore of my mouth before I caught it. Aboveground, I sat on a hydrant and called you. Ma, I saw him, I breathed. Ma, I swear I saw him. I know it's stupid but I saw Phuong on the train. I was having a panic attack. And you knew it. For a while you said nothing, then started to hum the melody to Happy Birthday. It was not my birthday but it was the only song you knew in English, and you kept going. And I listened, the phone pressed so close to my ear that, for the rest of the night, a pink rectangle was imprinted on my cheek. I am twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112lbs. I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son. If we are lucky, the end of the sentence is where we might begin. If we are lucky, something is passed on, another alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron; ancestors charging their kin with the silent propulsion to fly south, to turn toward the place in the narrative no one was meant to outlast. The time, at the nail salon, I overheard you consoling a customer over her recent loss. While you painted her nails, she spoke, between tears. "I lost my baby, my little girl, Julie. I can't believe it, she was my strongest, my oldest." You nodded, eyes sober behind your mask. "It's okay, it's okay," you said in English, "don't cry. Your Julie," you went on, "how she die?" "Cancer," the lady said. "And in the backyard, too! She died right there in the backyard, dammit." You put down her hand, took off your mask. Cancer. You leaned forward. "My mom, too, she die from the cancer." The room went quiet. Your co-workers shifted in their seats. "But what happen in backyard, why she die there?" The woman wiped her eyes. "That's where she lives. Julie's my horse." You nodded, put on your mask, and got back to painting her nails. After the woman left, you flung the mask across the room. "A fucking horse?" you said in Vietnamese. "Holy shit, I was ready to go to her daughter's grave with flowers!" For the rest of the day, while you worked on one hand or another, you would look up and shout, "It was a fucking horse!" and we'd all laugh. The time, at thirteen, when I finally said stop. Your hand in the air, my cheek bone stinging from the first blow. Stop, Ma. Quit it. Please. I looked at you hard, the way I had learned, by then, to look into the eyes of my bullies. You turned away and, saying nothing, put on your brown wool coat and walked to the store. I'm getting eggs, you said over your shoulder, as if nothing had happened. But we both knew you'd never hit me again. Monarchs that survived the migration passed this message down to their children. The memory of family members lost from the initial winter was woven into their genes. When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind? The time I woke into an ink-blue hour, my head-no, the house-filled with soft music. My feet on cool hardwood, I walked to your room. Your bed was empty. "Ma," I said, still as a cut flower over the music. It was Chopin, and it was coming from the closet. The door etched in reddish light, like the entrance to a place on fire. I sat outside it, listening to the overture and, underneath that, your steady breathing. I don't know how long I was there. But at one point I went back to bed, pulled the covers to my chin until it stopped, not the song but my shaking. "Ma," I said again, to no one, "come back. Come back out." Excerpted from On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel by Ocean Vuong All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.