Illustrated by Steph Liu/OutWrite
This article was originally published to represent Red (Life) in our Spring 2023 print issue “Color.”
Content warning: child abuse, homophobia, racism
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong (he/him) unearths the life and history of a young gay Vietnamese-American man, Little Dog. Though the novel moves between his grandmother’s and mother’s lives in Vietnam to his life in the U.S., it isn’t only an “immigrant story” or a “gay story.” Rather, it encompasses his queerness, race, class, family, and humanity.
Throughout the novel, Little Dog struggles to feel human. Not only does American society other him for being Asian, but he faces homophobia both in and outside of his ethnic community. For instance, as a child, he wears his mother’s dress to resemble her, but this innocent imitation exposes his queerness. His peers call him homophobic slurs until he realizes they mean “monster.” He learns that wanting to look like his Asian mother is queer and to be queer is monstrous. Subsequently, fear and shame drive many of his actions.
Encouraged by his mother to be quiet and unassuming, Little Dog shields himself behind this invisibility. Yet he longs for love, unachievable unless he allows himself to be seen. Trevor, the white boy he falls in love with, disarms him — and when he is seen, Little Dog finally feels real.
Queer love both grants and denies Little Dog the safe haven he searches for. He finds companionship and pleasure in Trevor, but both of them are haunted by their pasts. Their love alone can’t save Little Dog.
Violence pocks their lives. Just as Trevor’s father beats him, Little Dog’s mother beats Little Dog until his conceptualization of love necessitates violence. When everything in his life, including his own family, is a threat, he shies away from genuine intimacy to prevent himself from being unexpectedly hurt again. Instead, he chases the familiarity of controlled physical violence at Trevor’s hands and finds a twisted freedom in choosing how and when he is hurt.
In contrast, nearly every time one boy attempts to show the other boy kindness, the other boy pushes him away.
Beyond the deep-seated effects of their trauma, Trevor and Little Dog’s shame plagues their relationship. In particular, Little Dog’s shame of being both queer and Vietnamese coalesce into a general shame of existing. One of the first instances of racism Little Dog experiences is when a white boy on the bus demands he speak English and the white boy’s name. After Little Dog repeats the boy’s name, the boy mockingly calls him “a good little bitch.” The bully confirms that an Asian man can never meet white American standards of masculinity and that failing to be a man is “gay.”
So what happens when you’re gay and Asian? The bully’s usage of “bitch,” a term for a dog, answers that you become more animal than man. You fail to be human, twice. Little Dog internalizes these harmful ideas about himself and seeks to escape them via Trevor.
However, Trevor accepts his father’s toxic masculinity, which develops into internalized homophobia. Trevor’s shame of being gay leads him to hurt Little Dog. Trevor tells Little Dog he cannot bottom because he’s not “a bitch” and that it is a role exclusively for Little Dog. Overcome with shame and disappointment he cannot verbalize, Little Dog mourns the crumbling sanctuary of their queer love. He believed that despite their relationship’s secrecy, they had created a sacred space, free of the world’s rules. Instead, Trevor’s implication that Little Dog is meant to be “the bitch” because of his yellow body shatters the illusion of a pure, harmless love. “The rules,” Little Dog says, “they were already inside us.”
While Trevor never explicitly cites Little Dog being Asian as the reason he should bottom, he echoes the boy on the bus’s racist emasculation of Asian men and then frames being “feminine” and gay as unwanted. Thus, Trevor reinforces society’s marginalization of Asian and gay individuals.
As a gay man himself, Trevor only mires them further in shame.
The desire to be saved by love is nearly universal. I think of the Thomas Yingling quote: “This homosexual dream of perfect metaphysical union is not so much a reflected heterosexual ideal as it is compensation for having wept in the darkness.”
But eventually, Little Dog grasps that he and Trevor cannot be each other’s refuge. Neither boy has been given the guidance or space to unlearn hate. Without healing, they cannot engage in the communication and vulnerability healthy love requires. Little Dog learns that growth must come from within. His story displays that while the people in our lives can aid our healing, we must firstly want it for ourselves.
Seeking healing, Little Dog recounts his life in a letter to his mother — the letter being the novel itself. As he guides her through his beginnings to his first love to his career as a writer, he expels his pain and shame by allowing it to take shape outside of him. He comes to understand its origins and effects by speaking its name.
Without turning away from the negative impact his mother’s abuse had on him, Little Dog makes peace with her actions. He describes her beatings as preparation for war. Reacting as a woman raised in a war-torn nation, she sought to ready him for life’s cruelties. Recognizing their inescapable link of blood, especially as immigrants in a foreign country, he calls himself and his mother “monsters” but recounts the word’s root meaning as “divine messenger[s] of a catastrophe.” Little Dog doesn’t view monstrosity as evil, but rather, he writes, “To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.” He reclaims his position as the “other” and reframes it into something beautiful. By the novel’s conclusion, he tells his mother that they come from beauty, not violence, and that living is enough.
Thus, no lover absolves Little Dog of his fear and shame. Queer love and its accompanying human touch do empower him to feel real and beautiful during the years he needed it most, yet writing to his mother — not loving Trevor — is what grants him catharsis and the ability to acknowledge his past in order to live beyond it. Queerness becomes only one aspect of his varied, nuanced life, and the novel does not end conclusively. Vuong doesn’t provide easy answers to the looming questions of race and gayness, but he confronts its intersection with an unflinching sincerity.
When I’d burnt out from reading last year, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” reignited my love for books. The lyricism of Vuong’s prose is not only hauntingly transcendent, but the truth behind it unveils the duality of beauty and blood, love and loss. It doesn’t shy away from the shame that can eat away at queer people’s cores or the racial divisions between people of color and white people, regardless of their shared love. It reveals what it’s like to not feel real and how wanting to save someone is sometimes not enough.
Vuong’s novel will move you and change you. For those of us who are queer and Asian, it will force you to face difficult parts of yourself, but as Little Dog says, “We look into mirrors…to make sure, despite the facts, that we are still here.” Regardless of who you are, I encourage you to read this novel and embark on its heart-wrenching journey.
Author: Rainer Lee (He/Him)
Artist: Steph Liu (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Min Kim (They/Them), Gwendolyn Hill (She/Her)