World events of the past two weeks have been quite extraordinary, not that the years and decades before that were short on drama either! However, it seems to me as if things are going from bad to worse and are more turbulent than they have ever been. Anywhere I looked, and all across this planet of ours, there were disconcerting things going on. What to do? I could either allow myself to go into a depressed state, or I could choose to momentarily step away from it all and escape into my world of music, crossword puzzles, entertaining television programs and books! After all, none of the troubling events depend entirely on me for their resolution, and I am quite sure that they will still be going on with the same intensity and absurdity for the foreseeable future, which is quite sad!
I looked through the stack of books on my bedside table and picked one that my friend Gaby, who owns the Booklink bookshop, had sent me. It is a signed copy by the poet, Ocean Vuong: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and it is the author’s first novel. The title is so beautiful, I thought, and, therefore, I presumed that it would be an uplifting read to draw me away from this very troubled, and troubling world.
Wrong! While I don’t regret my choice, it presented me with a different kind of troubling! Oof!
The book comes heavy with its own beautifully depressing aspects. It is written in a prose that is pure poetry at times, but is mostly sad, happy, haunting and quite heart-wrenching. The story is about a Vietnamese family: Grandmother Lan, who left Saigon a few hours before it fell, her Daughters Mai and Rose, and Rose’s son: Little Dog. When her grandson arrived, and believing in the superstition that evil spirits tend to take away children with beautiful names, Lan had named him “Little Dog,” hoping to protect him so he may survive. Superstition abounds in all cultures, doesn’t it?
The main themes that I took away from the novel evoked realities from my own experiences, ones that I had personally lived through, others that I was familiar with. Vietnam is the backdrop of this moving account, and one of the themes that I strongly identified with. It was a painful reminder of the US War on that entire region and the lies, ruthlessness, heartlessness and criminality with which it was fought; the extreme agony and death that the Napalm bombs and Agent Orange caused; the fires and the destruction of the soil; and of how the uprooting, displacement, refugees and trauma still, after all these years, manage to bring on deep suffering to the lives of so many, whether they have become US citizens such as the Vietnamese family in the novel, or whether they are still over there. Recently, and amongst all the horrid events on our planet, a study has come out about the lies that the American Government has been propagating regarding Afghanistan and Iraq. The “successes” that our military and sub-contracted projects have achieved are not true at all, as the report states. Not surprising, since the entire Iraq war was based on lies, after all! Yet, we destroyed and traumatized these two nations, as well as the entire Middle East region, and are still doing so! Unbelievably merciless! Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the wars continue. There has to be another way for us to coexist on this planet without destroying it in every sense as we are doing!
The other theme in this heart-wrenching novel is the fact that Little Dog falls in love with a boy, and the dilemma that this causes him on how to tell his mother that he is gay. I have known five guys who have been through this: one of them, with whom I worked in a civil rights organization and whom I really cared for, died of AIDS during the early nineties; one waited until his parents passed away and then told his siblings who embraced and accepted him; three have never come out of the closet, so to speak, and their mothers have no idea, which is a constant and nagging pain of having to live a double-life of pretense. That’s why Little Dog’s predicament and how agonizing it must have been, touched me deeply and reminded me of those dear fellows I know.
Flitting through his memories and going back and forth between his Grandmother and her experiences; his Mother and how her life unfolded and his own life, Ocean Vuong compels us to share all the tableau of his 28-year-long journey and the incidents and experiences that he remembers from his own vantage point after having graduated from university and becoming a writer. It is his memories that finally allow him to reconcile his deep love for his Mother and Grandmother; his sexual awakening and acceptance of himself; and the necessary acknowledgement that his Vietnamese heritage with all its pain and instinct for survival are, and will forever be, a part of himself. I strongly identified with that theme of reconciling the pain of our memories, one that I share with the many millions of uprooted humans from all over war-torn countries. And, the fact that Lan and Rose did not even realize that so much of their behavior was due to PTSD, was so poignant as it reminded me of how I had to deal with so much that was, and still oftentimes is, very painful. The ache of memories is what remains with us for as long as we are alive, but, as Little Dog realized, it is only through reconciling with the pain that we achieve an inner peace with ourselves.
And then there is another terrifying theme of the opioid crisis and of how the pharmaceutical companies benefited in the billions of dollars from an addiction epidemic that they proliferated through, and with, their abetting doctors and sales representatives – an epidemic that I do not think would have raged as horribly had we not been illicitly importing all that cheap heroin from Afghanistan while our politicians were either complicit, or asleep at the switch! Money Talks, Integrity Walks! How corrupt!
Yes, I wanted to escape into the pages of a book, however, I ended up reliving many personal, traumatic and sad experiences all over again. Yet, it was worth every moment of my time, and of the touching effort of one Ocean Vuong who is a remarkable writer and a beautiful person.