Ocean Vuong’s Looking

To reach you, I look at you.

In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act:
to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

“Let me begin again. Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you—,” says Little Dog as the novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous opens. Maybe this is his hundredth attempt at writing a letter to his mother Rose. Maybe a hundred more will come. And every single one of them will never reach her because she can’t read. Still, he writes.

Little Dog remembers how Rose slammed the English learning book shut out of embarrassment. “I can see—it’s gotten me this far, hasn’t it?”

To reach things, Rose looked. Little Dog looked at her looking. He knows of that silent distance to things, which she tried to close with each gaze. Each gaze, for the distance never seemed to close for Rose. He knows that each of his words is also a gaze. So he will keep writing to close the distance. “Even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.”

In letters, we write about small things we saw and how they touched us. Such as a butterfly in the sunlight, the Patriots game on a car radio that you listened to with someone you loved. We hope the reader will feel the vibration of that night air. We hope they reach the reader. We hope.

And that intimate and impossible hope makes reading someone’s letters fragilely pleasurable. The writer is inviting us in, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to the mind’s every ripple as it reaches out to the addressed reader. That earnestness calls forth sympathy. And we would feel sympathetic even more when the letter could never reach the desired person. It’s as if the writer is talking solely to us, imploring us to know all those things reverberating inside—the unsent messages, the sound of that person’s laughter, and the faint creases around the eyes. “Let me begin again.” So many things seem to fill Ocean Vuong’s mind as well.

Vuong doesn’t want, though, shoulders to cry on. Nor does he confide in us every ridge of his thoughts or mixed emotions about his immigrant mother who both caressed and hit him. Soon after Vuong finished the novel, his mother passed away from cancer. When asked about how her death impacted his writing, Vuong answered, “I don’t possess her death. She does.”

Vuong’s letters are curious, also because he talks about a lot of things that seem unrelated to his mother (His editors recommended that he pick one subject. He obviously refused). There are the grime and sparkle of the rural Connecticut landscape, the tortuous lives of the undocumented Central American immigrant laborers, Little Dog’s burgeoning racial consciousness and queer sexuality, and the OxyContin abuse that claimed many lives in Hartford including Little Dog’s first partner Trevor. Vuong pays these subjects no less attention than the American War (the “Vietnam War”) that started Rose’s tumultuous journey to the US. It is hard to pin down Vuong’s work in one word—a love letter to his mother? A political novel? A confession?

But Vuong’s vision, silent yet fierce, renders this classification superficial, even meaningless. It seems better to simply follow Vuong. How he looks. How he touches. How he does it so earnestly that it hurts.

Since the success of his first poetry book Night Sky with Exit Wounds which won the Whiting Award, Vuong has secured a place in the league of talented young American poets. With On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong has shown that even a line in a paragraph could be as solid as in his poems:

Imagine I could lie down beside you and my whole body, every cell, radiates a clear, singular meaning, not so much as writer as a word pressed down beside you.

Vuong’s lyric dexterity and careful attention to grief, war, loss, and love have been admired and praised, “rendering reading a delicately delicious task” as one reviewer puts. Vuong is, certainly, incredibly skillful at forging diamond-hard words with delicately sharp edges. That they came out of violence so close to the poet’s body and memory only seems to augment the “tender” beauty of his words.

The word “tender” frequently follows Vuong. He is a tender individual, bearing serene and caring demeanors in both his work and real life. He is soft-spoken (I often had to turn the volume up when he was speaking in podcast interviews), introverted, and perceptive to the smallest emotional and psychological frictions of others including his PTSD-suffering grandmother and his half-brother whom he took in after their mother’s death.

Ocean Vuong by photographer Collier Schorr. It seems only fitting that the two artists, both unusually observant and attentive to minute emotions and subtle masculinity, worked together for these shots. (source: Collier Schorr Instagram)

Yet, Vuong’s uncommon sensitivity to the fractures of his and others’ lives has earned him the less-than-kind label “tenderqueer” as one critic complained, claiming that “Gay Sincerity is Scary.” Apparently, Vuong’s careful maneuvers with emotions and words came to the critic as a hollow and “weepy” sentimentality. Vuong’s emotional horizon is supposedly limited to mere sadness and his language to “faux profundities.” “The tolls of the Vietnam War, colonialism, racism, homophobia, and the opioid crisis,” then, become predictable and “inevitably sad” matters that befit an overly sincere persona. Tenderness here equals emotional paucity and even intellectual laziness that just summons stuff to which one already knows how people will react. The critic’s complaint would come down to this:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

We are tired of Jude in A Little Life whose devastating trauma and silent yearning for affection make his sickly pallor very attractive; We want something more realistic than the sophisticated Elio in Call Me By Your Name, who speaks French, reads books under sunlight showing off his delicate shoulder blades (of course it had to be Timothée Chalamet). Enough with the fragile, the eternally sensitive.

There is a point in this brusque objection, though. It is a loud “no” to the pigeonholed portrait of queer selfhood. It is a sheer exhaustion of reading yet another story that is self-obsessed and “inevitably” melancholic.

A still from Call Me By Your Name with Timothee Chalamet as Elio, reading a book in a softly sunlit window
Timothée Chalamet as Elio in Call Me By Your Name (image source: IMDB)

But Vuong is not Elio. His own tormented psyche is the least of Vuong’s concerns. While the narrator Little Dog, a version of Vuong, seems a typical coming-of-age queer protagonist, the novel is far more wide-ranging to be Little Dog’s quest to find his voice. The various subject matters are there, not to show how “sad” Little Dog feels about them, but as they are, as “facts.” In a coming-of-age novel, things that are not fully consumed by the protagonist’s growth are excess, even distractions. They are a medium, a food for the character’s development. But there is no medium in Vuong’s novel, only facts. The American War, Little Dog’s mother’s grief, Trevor’s addiction, and the dejected poverty in Hartford—they are there for their own sake.

“Instead of putting mango or rice patty in a poem as an exotic trope, I want to really look at ‘mango-ness’ as an artifact,” says Vuong. Though a standard fare in an American grocery store, mango seems to have become a stand-in for the remote tropics. It is a convenient prop to create that exotic glamour (palm trees, humidity, heat and all). But unlike trope, every artifact is distinctive. Each one has a history and distinctive features that deserve the viewers’ respect. One doesn’t keep an artifact in the pocket for a future use. And in Vuong’s work, everything is an artifact.

Unlike trope, you don’t keep artifact in your pocket for a future use. And for Vuong, everything is an artifact.

“When we look at something, we decide to fill our entire existence, however briefly, with that very thing,” Vuong said in an interview. To really look at something, one must be physically close and spend time with every corner of “that very thing.” One recognizes the pattern of the calluses in palms and the lingering chemical smell from the day’s work. The process is so long and slow that it briefly stops time. Take, for example, this scene where Little Dog massages his mother after work:

I fished a quarter from my pocket, dipped it into the jar of Vicks VapoRub. The bright eucalyptus scent filled the air and you started to relax. I dunked the coin, coating it with the greasy ointment, then dabbed a thumb’s worth across your back, down your spine. When your skin shone, I placed the coin at the base of your neck and pulled it outward, across your shoulder blades. I scraped and rescraped in firm, steady strokes, the way you taught me, until russet streaks rose from under the white flesh, the welts deepening into violet grains across your back like new, dark ribs, releasing the bad winds from your body. Through this careful bruising, you heal.

Little Dog’s simple yet concentrated gesture creates a pocket of space where the hectic clock of life doesn’t tick. All that fills this space is the curves of Rose’s shoulders, back, and the russet streaks of slow healing. He doesn’t, or he can’t, survey his mother’s life trajectory since surveying requires distance. Surveying condenses several decades into several minutes. Looking doesn’t have that kind of power. Looking can’t authoritatively diagnose that “this is a life made of traumas” or “this, grief and loss.” Instead, looking detects hinted messages scattered across the tensed waist and spine: “I see the folds of your waist and hips as I knead out the tensions, the small bones along your spine, a row of ellipses no silence translates.” Like ellipses, Rose’s message is fragmented. It’s not even clear whether it’s a message—I’m tired of this life. This feels nice. I like that eucalyptus smell.

Rose’s body, the interior of Trevor and his dad’s beat-up mobile home, and the Hartford landscape. While these are not novel things to Little Dog, he finds himself stimulated by them often unexpectedly. How could he have known, for one, to see something beautiful in a tobacco farm, the site of grueling immigrant labor and crushing rural despair?

On his first day at the tobacco farm, Little Dog takes note of prosaic things scattered along the way such as the “sporadic white almond trees in full bloom.” Their loveliness is fleeting, disappearing as Little Dog gets to work. Still, it is etched in his memory as firmly as the muscle ache from the labor. His fellow laborers, to Little Dog, seem like those etched almond flowers.

Tobacco farm in the Connecticut River Valley (image source: Wikipedia)

There are easy labels for the workers: “undocumented immigrants,” or in a more patronizing way, “United Nations” as the overly cheery farm owner Mr. Buford puts. It is easy to let one’s heart go to the “undocumented immigrants” without dipping into the grimes—like the huffing sound of “their lungs working” that makes the listener’s blood runs faster; their “salt and sunbaked underscent from the previous day’s work” “even after morning showers.” But Little Dog hears and breathes them. The workers exist, not as “United Nations,” but as Manny, Nico, George, and Brandon with own colorful histories, emotional quirks, voice tones, and hand gestures.

Looking can connect people who otherwise would never cross their paths, such as Trevor and Little Dog’s grandmother Lan. Trevor, an all-American white boy with the “burger-fed” farm muscles, booms the Patriots games in his Red Chevy radio. Lan, a physically fragile, refugee Vietnamese woman going through a schizophrenic PTSD from the American War, slides in and out of the never-ending War in her mind. Lan’s family gives her “the synthetic Vicodin and OxyContin” for her bone cancer pain, the only pain measurement available to the economically struggling family. The same narcotic compound kills Trevor and many others in impoverished Hartford. And Little Dog looks at these deaths, one by one.

“How Do We End The Overdose Crisis ?” (image source: photo by Ted McGrath at Flickr)

Looking at his grandmother’s “face jeweled with sweat” and back covered in feces, Little Dog’s mind “slides, unexpectedly, to Trevor.” Their first sex was a messy mixture of the initial thrill, pain, feces, and the cool river water. But there it is, as it is. In both Lan’s death and his sex with Trevor, Little Dog senses, “unexpectedly,” the same beautiful and terrifying “malleability” for change. The malleability that turns healthy, pulsing bodies into dreadful wastes, whose universality is often erased with words like “trailer trash,” “tender gay,” or “yellow.”

There are many such “unexpected” connections. Like the heat of love-making and that of a tenement fire. When Trevor’s flushed arm touches his cheek, Little Dog thinks of the lingering heat on the window frame of his neighbor’s house the day after it burnt down. A house in his poor neighborhood “where grandmothers, abuelas, abas, nanas, babas, and bà ngoạis were kings.” Neither Trevor nor a bà ngoại speaks in words about the lives they have led, what makes them joyful, what pains them, or how they feel today. They just leave their body warmth on your cheek while crying “skillfully in the dark.” Only the smell of their cheap “drugstore perfume” follows you. To Little Dog, such residues on his body are proof that these persons “radiated” their meanings to him. That he has connected with them, however briefly.

Their body warmth and smell on your body, rather than words. This is how Vuong connects with others, their “meanings,” however briefly.

Vuong once remarked on his anxiety about empathy. It was not that empathy was essentially wrong, but rather that he had qualms about the condition in which empathy was exercised, one that sets the dynamics between the empathee and empathizer. It made me question: who are we serving when we encourage people who are in pain to testify in their own voices? Why must they be the ones to narrate themselves, exposed on the podium when the listeners sit back shrouded in the darkness, “empathizing”? That, I think, Vuong would say is worrisomely easy. It is up to him to walk up close and follow the “debris” of pain that the people left behind.

“Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker,” a poem in Vuong’s latest poetry book, Time is a Mother, gathers such debris. The poem lists modest, miscellaneous items bought every month by someone who may as well be Vuong’s mother:


            Advil (ibuprofen), 4 pack
            Sally Hansen Pink Nail Polish, 6 pack
            Clorox Bleach, industrial size
            Diane hair pins, 4 pack
            Seafoam handheld mirror
            “I love New York” T-shirt, white, small

These are the leavings of someone who is physically exhausted, needing regular restocking of painkillers (Advil comes up on the list every couple of months); who cares enough about looking decent but can’t afford chic T-shirts; who is constantly cleaning the house and working even outside the salon. These tidbits, fragments, “debris,” of course, do not make a complete portrait of this person. We don’t know what life this person has led before “Mar(ch)” or in what state of mind the person ordered an “I love NY” T-shirt. The attempt to fully grasp this person is a failed one from the beginning, for the sum of fragments doesn’t equal the whole. Besides, how do we know that we have all the fragments? Even at the end of the shopping history (“Nov. // wool socks, grey, 1 pair”), Dec. could almost follow. The end is more arbitrary than final, denying us that satisfactory feeling of completion. Nor catharsis, for that matter. Catharsis lives in an arc, which needs a narrative, which needs a closure. Such closure doesn’t exist in Vuong’s world. Closure means no more detritus, stopping altogether an already fragile attempt to reach someone. That person will be enshrined in how many bits of debris gathered so far, their silence dead.

For the past six years, Vuong has climbed steadily in literary recognition both for his language and political sensibility. A Fresh Air praise for Time is a Mother: “Vuong has taken the English he acquired with difficulty and not only made it his own—he’s made it better.” A Time review notes how “with grace and courage” he “traverses the intensely personal and the broadly political.”

The fame in the US literary scene is not without baggage, though, especially for writers who are racial, ethnic, or gender minorities. One such baggage is the presumption in the scene that an Asian or queer person would most likely write about one’s identity. This presumption is reinforced by both the structure of the literary market and minority writers themselves, which seem to trouble many Asian American writers. Vuong is aware of the situation. In “Not Even,” he writes: “everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American / letters, turns to gold.” In the same poem, Vuong talks about his own brushing with “yellow” to “gold”:

Once, at a party set on a rooftop in Brooklyn for an “artsy
vibe,” a young woman said, sipping her drink, You’re so
lucky. You’re gay plus you get to write about war and stuff. I’m
just white.
[Pause] I got nothing. [Laughter, glasses clinking]

Vuong recalled that he was “so naïve” that he believed her because she was from Columbia University, replying “Oh my God, you’re right.” There is an incredibly potent and seductive idea that marginal identity makes a good story and therefore minority writers own especially juicy “stuff.” However, there is less talk on why this “stuff” has become juicy in the first place or why minority writers had to “own” them. This “stuff” is supposed to be good, because there is a solid arc of historical violence, strife, and recovery/victory, which makes a good cathartic drama. And the more authentic the writing voice is, the more poignant the drama tends to be.

A Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories Hisaye Yamamoto

But what initially made this drama feel particularly authentic and poignant was its very scarcity. Even a few decades ago, not that many Asian American life stories were widely read (I’m not talking about the stories of ethnographic sorts written by white observers). So the ones read, written by the pioneering Asian American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Hisaye Yamamoto, or Chang-rae Lee, took readers with incredible force for both its historical significance and unexpected artistry. These writers first proved that Asian American life stories can occupy a prestigious space in the US literary world and a commercially successful one, too. This established space for Asian American writers is more robust market-wise, in part augmented by cultural liberalism which has become both a moral principle and sales strategy for both writers and publishers. Now that an authentic and tortuous life narrative is sure to hit sales, it invites a dubious language of mercenary entitlement. You get to write about lucrative stuff, when I got nothing. Historical violence turns into a promising and convenient subject-matter that few “lucky” groups of writers can claim as theirs.

Then there is an opposite demand, seemingly more concerned with aesthetics than politics. “‘Are you still writing about the boat people? I’m writing about Mars.’ And they said it very smugly.” Vuong says of his exchange with some senior Asian American writers. Writing “still” about one’s (Asian) history is supposedly a literary impasse, trapped in an ethnic ghetto within the literary market. Would you settle with moderate recognition that praises your “diverse” voice more than your art? The “smugness” comes from answering no, which some writers seem to believe to be a demonstration of their artistic integrity.

To Vuong, however, such smugness to turn away from historical artifacts is less a literary progress than a sign that these writers are still tied to “white expectations.” Vuong would say, by leaving the “Napalm” behind, aren’t we just fossilizing it in its “rainbow afterglow” that neither our historical nor artistic integrity can accept? In such afterglow, the real pain of real people turns into cultural capital, and even that, of a flimsy kind. Your capital holds value only if you are a spokesperson of a certain kind, which is often given to you.

I believe Vuong would say this—what if there is a third way, besides displaying or discarding “Napalm”? Haven’t we ourselves also gotten used to it being a code of yellow pain that we stopped asking what it really is? There is still debris in our history that we haven’t really looked at. There are still more letters to be written. And there will be no closure in them, for we will keep reaching out to our history, everyone, and everything around us as they touch us.  

Work Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “The 33 Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2022.” Time, 14 Sep 2022, https://time.com/6207104/best-books-fall-2022/.

Call Me by Your Name. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, performances by Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Sony Pictures Classics, 2017.

Chow, Kat. “Going Home With Ocean Vuong.” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com.entertainment/archive/2019/06/going-home-ocean-vuong-on-earth-were-briefly-gorgeous/590938/.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Understanding the Epidemic.” CDC, 17 Mar 2023, https://www.cdc.gov/opioids.

Corrigan, Maureen. “An Immigrant Yearns For Connection In ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’.” NPR, 4 Jun 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/06/04/729648424/an-immigrant-yearns-for-connection-in-on-earth-we-re-briefly-gorgeous.

“Gay Sincerity Is Scary.” Gawker, 21 Oct. 2021, https://www.gawker.com/culture/gay-sincerity-is-scary.

Harvard Radcliffe Institute. “Reading and Conversation with Ocean Vuong || Harvard Radcliffe Institute.” YouTube, uploaded by Harvard Radcliffe Institute, 13 Feb 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSoRF61n0ZQ.

Hsu, Hua. “Ocean Vuong Is Still Learning.” The New Yorker, 10 Apr 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/ocean-vuong-is-still-learning.

“Literary Friction – 8th July 2019.” Literary Friction, NTS Radio, 8 Jul 2019, https://www.nts.live/shows/literaryfriction/episodes/literary-friction-8th-july-2019.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Harvard UP, 2016.

“The Brief, Gorgeous and Honest World of Ocean Vuong” [Review of the book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong]. Livewire (The Wire), 22 Dec 2021, https://livewire.thewire.in/out-and-about/books/book-review-the-brief-gorgeous-and-honest-world-of-ocean-vuong/.

Quong, Spencer. “Survival as a Creative Force: An Interview with Ocean Vuong.” The Paris Review, 5 Jun 2019, www.theparisreview.org.blog/2019/06/05/survival-as-a-creative-force-an-interview-with-ocean-vuong/.

Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Copper Canyon, 2016.
— . On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Penguin, 2019.
— . Time is a Mother. Penguin, 2022.

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. Doubleday, 2015.

Cover images credit: (back, front) photo by Kake on Flickr, photo by Jorge Rojas on Unsplash

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