| All book lovers know the joy of a good story. But reading can also be a brilliant opportunity to learn, explore and understand lived experiences that are different from our own and expand our empathy for others. Sometimes conversations about race, gender, religion, sexuality or identity can be difficult – especially with our colleagues – but books can open all of those doors in a way that feels safe and, dare I say it, even fun. That’s why we started the Shape History book club.
The first book on our list was On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the (aptly) gorgeous debut novel from Vietnamese–American poet Ocean Vuong. Drawing on Vuong’s own life, it’s a coming-of-age story of Little Dog, the son of Vietnamese immigrant parents in the US. Memories of his own youth are interwoven with fragments of the past of his mother, Rose, and grandmother, Lan, in Vietnam to create a multigenerational story told through Little Dog’s eyes.
A writer himself, we get the impression that Little Dog has risen through the American education system, no longer a child living on the edge of a new country and language, but now at the very heart of it. But his novel is framed as a letter to his illiterate mother who will never 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.” In becoming a writer, he’s taken the upwards escalator of the American dream, ever further from his mother’s world.
As a group, we all found different threads running through the story that spoke to us. It’s split into three parts: Little Dog’s early life detailing his complicated family relationships, his teens and passionately painful love affair with all-American boy Trevor and later, after his youth and the people that shaped it are gone. Antoinette said that what linked the three parts was love. I thought it was pain. And that’s what makes the book so personal. All of its themes – sex, family, gender, race, language, death, war – come back to the fundamental question we can all relate to – what it means to be human.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is about the experience of a Vietnamese-American family after the fall of Saigon. But it spoke to the universal experience of immigrants. Geli, who moved to the UK from the Philippines said the book reminded her that “immigrants from different cultures have unique stories yet share similar experiences of striving for acceptance and being told they don’t belong.” This feeling was echoed by Tony, who emigrated from Vietnam to England with his mum at age 2, and saw some uncanny similarities in Little Dog’s story to his own. Even the name Little Dog – which is given to the narrator because he was “the smallest or weakest in the flock” – was close to Tony’s childhood nickname meaning puppy. It was pretty cool to see a conversation on this story open up an avenue to the real stories of my team and offer an opportunity to learn about their experiences.
The theme of internalised generational trauma also came up in our discussion. It’s the idea that the collective trauma experienced by a group of people can psychologically impact subsequent generations. In Vuong’s book, you can observe that Little Dog’s experience, and even enjoyment of pain and shame reflects the feelings of his abusive but loving mother which in turn reflect the PTSD symptoms of her mother Lan after the Vietnam war. It’s a subtle thread running through the pages but it sparked a conversation around our own experiences of traumatic family history. Lauren, whose grandfather is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, spoke on how each generation of her family has dealt with that past differently. Those that lived through trauma often don’t speak about it, but as descendants of survival, grandchildren are keen to capture their ancestors’ stories. It adds another interesting layer to the Little Dog-as-writer question – does he feel an obligation to write his history to keep it alive?
“Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence – but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”
This kind of lyrical language is found on every page. If you took a highlighter to every sentence that took your breath away the whole book would be stained yellow. He writes in a way that hits you right in the solar plexus. You can tell that Vuong is primarily a poet -as Kate pointed out, the novel sometimes feels like poetry shoved into the shape of prose and there are definitely moments where it feels like style over substance. On good days I fell into the writing with awe. On days I was feeling a little crabby, sentences like “It’s not fair the word laughter is trapped in slaughter” made me roll my eyes so far back I saw brain. Nonetheless, one thing the whole group agreed on was a favourite line that made us all feel something. “I miss you more than I remember you.” Wow.
I could go on analysing, as one day I expect many A-Level students will. I haven’t even touched on the themes of sexuality, lust and shame or death and drug addiction in low-income America or the very name of the book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. But the title does capture the sentiment: in youth, there is a brief moment where we live without the chains of what we have been or will be. Life is short, and this review is already too long. You’ll just have to give it a read yourself.