Two years ago, I listened to Ocean Vuong read poems from Night Sky with Exit Wounds in a crowded university hall. At the far end of the room, I leaned forward, closed my eyes, and heard his voice as if he were right next to me. Vuong reads with precision: he embraces the quiet between words in such a way that every sound is allowed to reverberate. Later, I found his reading of “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” published by The New Yorker. I listened to it over and over, and recited it to myself, trying to remember where he paused, which words he made sharp, and which he made soft. I wanted to draw as close as possible to this writer who had named something in me. I experienced a similar sonic pull reading his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The novel is a letter to a mother, but it is also a letter to anyone who finds it.
On Earth uses the kishōtenketsu structure of classic east Asian narratives, which does not rely on conflict to advance the story. As Vuong told Kevin Nguyen for the New York Times, “It insists that a narrative structure can survive and thrive on proximity alone. Proximity builds tension.” Much of Vuong’s artistic practice—including the public reading of his work—seems to hinge on this principle. To listen and repeat, to read and reread, brings you into a proximity with his voice.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous concerns the most terrifying proximities, those involving the people we love. On the very first page, Little Dog, our protagonist, says, “Let me begin again.” He is writing to his mother about people and ideas he once fastidiously hid from her. There’s a boy he loves, for instance, who she has never and will never meet. But even if some isolation endures, the space between them collapses as Little Dog writes into it. He tells her about sex; about slipping under the water’s surface in the river outside the barn; about staring at the small tail of hair on the back of Trevor’s neck, the part of a “hard-stitched boy” that was “so delicate, made entirely of edges, of endings.” His mother responds with her own truths and memories. The voice of On Earth is at once singular and various. Vuong performs a generous magic: he imagines every piece of each character all at once, in dialogue. And so the self’s fractal parts coalesce, if only for a moment.
In our interview, Vuong speaks to the urgency of choosing to make art, “to breach new ground, despite terror,” to learn about himself and his relationships. I am grateful for his company, the words he presses down that I can carry, as we all go spinning forward.
Little Dog says, “I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.” There’s both intimacy and distance here: “used to be.” I imagine it’s not always clear how exactly our family’s voices arrive—or fail to arrive—in our work. How have you balanced your family’s voices with your own?
That’s a beautiful question—and one I think we must navigate for the rest of our creative lives. I wonder if balance is possible, but I think in attempting it, we begin to parse out who we are, what made us, where we are going—all of which are means toward self-knowledge. I think that’s what a novel is, at its core, one person trying to know themselves so thoroughly that they realize, in the end, it was the times they lived in, the people they touched and learned from, that made them real.
This is why I chose the novel as the form for this project. I wanted the book to be founded in truth but realized by the imagination. I wanted to begin as a historian and end as an artist. And I needed the novel to be a praxis toward that reckoning.
This book is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a coming-of-art. I would say that I begin with the voices of those I care for, family or otherwise, and follow them until they drop off, until I have to create them in order to hear them. My writing is an echo. In this way, On Earth is not so much a novel, but the ghost of a novel. That’s the hope anyway.
There’s a moment where Trevor, Little Dog’s best friend and lover, asks Little Dog to close his eyes while they kiss, but Little Dog keeps them open. He is watchful, both observant and prone to staring. There’s another line in the novel about how mothers always look “too long.” Is there such a risk? To look too long?
Yes. The gaze, human or animal, is a powerful thing. When we look at something, we decide to fill our entire existence, however briefly, with that very thing. To fill your whole world with a person, if only for a few seconds, is a potent act. And it can be a dangerous one. Sometimes we are not seen enough, and other times we are seen too thoroughly, we can be exposed, seen through, even devoured. Hunters examine their prey obsessively in order to kill it. The line between desire and elimination, to me, can be so small. But that is who we are. There must be some beauty—and if not beauty, meaning—in that brutal power. I am still trying, and mostly failing, to find it.
Little Dog tells his mother, “I hate you.” But he says it “to see what language can do.” What does it mean to experiment on and with our kin?
Maybe all of life is an experiment, in some sense. Just because we use words like son and mother does not mean that love and forgiveness are a given. They must be tested, and they must be tested with tools. Language is one of those tools. One question this novel hovers over is how do people who hurt each other find ways to protect themselves while attempting to love and, ultimately, to heal? I think Little Dog learns that to experiment is to innovate—and to innovate is to live in hope. Innovation is the first casualty of cynicism. The characters in this novel test each other because they possess an optimism that outlasts their hurt. And I adore them for that.
The novel casts light on love and sex between men—between a white boy and an Asian boy in America, specifically. I keep returning to these lines: “I thought sex was to breach new ground, despite terror, that as long as the world did not see us, its rules did not apply. But I was wrong. The rules, they were already inside us.” There’s no false promise of relief from the rules by x date—instead, only clarity, and bearing witness. Were there aspects of writing about queer sex and love that surprised you?
Yes, it did surprise me, mostly because I wanted to arrive at queer joy—but discovered that I wanted to do so without forsaking the very real and perennial presence of danger that queer bodies face simply by existing. There is a call, rightfully, for literature to make more room for queer joy, or perhaps even more radically, queer okayness. But I did not want to answer that call by creating a false utopia—because safety is still rare and foreign to the experiences of the queer folks I love, who are also often poor and underserved. I didn’t want to pretend to be happy just because straight people were tired or bored of our struggle.
The novel insists that there is power, and with it, agency, in survival—which includes the interracial tensions you speak of—because trauma is still an integral reality for queer folks. But these bodies do know joy, and they know it by acknowledging and honoring the tribulations they outlived. We often think of survival as something that merely happens to us, that we are perhaps lucky to have. But I like to think of survival as a result of active self-knowledge, and even more so, a creative force.
Moments after Little Dog comes out to his mother, she responds by telling him her own secret, that long before he was born, she had an abortion. I’m curious about this escalation. It’s a devastating scene, but I couldn’t help but smile when I read her initial dialogue: “Now I have something to tell you.” I don’t think Little Dog, nor I, as a reader, saw it coming. Little Dog even thinks to himself, “This was not supposed to be an equal exchange … We were exchanging truths, which is to say, we were cutting one another.” Is it endless? This exchange and unfurling?
I don’t know. I want to believe that it doesn’t have to be endless, and even more so, that sharing truths does not need to cut. But that would be writing toward an ideal end. And I am more interested in an ideal mode—which, in this case, is that secrets can be shared between two people and what is revealed does not destroy them. They choose—it is always a choice—to see beyond the hard facts and yet not lose sight of each other. This is why, despite the great losses explored in this novel, I have never considered it a tragic story.
I love how music figures in your work. I’m thinking about “White Christmas” in Night Sky and 50 Cent’s “Many Men” in the novel. The lyrics of “Many Men” feel so deeply embedded in the characters’ lives and thinking. How does music arrive in your writing process?
That’s a wonderful observation about “Many Men.” I think music, whether good or bad, like weather, encompasses us—at times without us ever noticing. I knew music had to play a substantial role in the book because songs give a sense of atmospheric texture, an indelible sense of time. 50 Cent’s song was ubiquitous in the early aughts, where so much of this book takes place. It also marked the last era of gangsta rap, whose cultural framework provided men and boys a means of performing masculinity while also reducing it to erroneous tropes of misogyny and violence. For better or worse, such songs, being cultural wind storms, were conduits of our inner selves, and I was interested in how the characters wielded their bodies against that sonic pressure. How it bridged them through silences, how it spoke for them while also speaking beyond them, to the collective. That paradox of articulation, of the private and public dialectic, I feel, is akin to the frustration of being young—but also to making art.
I think we also use songs to measure our lives, our loves, and even our failures, which feels pivotal in any novel. Sometimes a song would come on the radio and I would think, Who am I? What have I become since the first time I heard this? What have I destroyed? How much, in blood or money or time, do I owe? Is it too late?
I remember listening to you read at the University of Massachusetts a number of years ago when Night Sky was released. I remember the quiet of that room, the ways your pauses swept over the audience. I’m curious about how it feels to you when you read your work aloud.
You were there! That makes me retroactively happy. I was so nervous that night, but someone had the merciful idea to turn off the lights. And I grew braver in the dark, which became somehow more intimate, less lonely. I’m not really a social person. I’m naturally shy and avoid parties when I can. My students and friends know to expect me to leave events without saying goodbye. I slip away after ten or twenty minutes, and send furiously apologetic emails the morning after. So I never dreamed of being a reader in front of an audience. But when I started to do it, I realized I was participating in an ancient oral tradition, one that made not only Vietnamese literature possible, but solidified the practice of storytelling in our species. I started to see the air as a second page. The book, any book, as you encounter it between two covers, is essentially a fossil. And reading it aloud gives us the chance to rewrite it, if only in our intonations, inflections, pauses. These effects, like words themselves, have meaning, too. More nebulous perhaps, but just as potent.
There’s a moment where Little Dog says, “My sorry had already changed into something else. It had become a portion of my own name—unutterable without fraudulence.” How do you work against or with fraudulence in your practice?
By questioning everything, by accepting that all human inventions, language and art included, are corruptible, and that as much as we have the capacity for beauty, we also have the capacity for fraudulence. To know that it has its own force on us, that it can actually rob us of our agency, our idiosyncratic intentions for what we do. Fraud is common, but your vision, as a person, is singular. We must all make the choice. There are days I make the smart and useful choice. And others I have to pick myself up after fucking up. C’est la guerre.
In an interview with Alexander Chee, you spoke about initially thinking a novel might have to wait for “another lifetime”—you had already worked hard to arrive at “the poetry table.” But you mentioned that Ben Lerner told you, “You can sit at any table. In fact, there are no tables.” And, indeed, your work has resisted strict containers. In the same interview, you spoke about having pursued a “restlessness of form” within Night Sky. How has writing On Earth complicated your understanding of form? Did pursuing restlessness in fiction feel different than it did while writing Night Sky? In other words, do novels and poetry still feel like two distinct tables?
I’m lucky to have met some truly kind and generous elders and teachers along the way, many of whom opened doors for me by saying incredible things, often just on the fly. Ben and Alex are folks I always think of and look to when my navigating stars fade.
I’m not sure I see the tables as a useful metaphor anymore. Perhaps I worried over them then because they were provided by the culture at large. But thinking on it now, I’m not sure a genre is a destination so much as a way of thinking, a tendency of inquiry. When we think of tables, we think of staying there, of keeping our place cards, our seats. I’m not interested in possession. I want to be freer than that. Maybe I’m being naive, but I understand genres to be as fluid as genders. Our lives are full of restrictions—jobs, bills, time, gravity, all of this impinging on us—but to write is to gift yourself the freedom of choice and possibility. That feels truly precious to me.
Am I still restless? Yes. I think we should always be so, always searching for a way in, a way out. I don’t want to be satisfied by what I do. But I also don’t think a career as a writer is a given—at least not for myself. I might have written my last book of poems, and now my first and last novel. And that’s okay. That’s a good life. A great life. What matters is that I got to use writing to build an architecture in which I can live and think alongside other people, other citizens of the world. If we must think in metaphoric structures, then I would rather say the novel is a town square—a space where people converge, where they’ll see these characters, see me, see each other, then go on home, perfect just as they are.
Spencer Quong is a writer from the Yukon Territory, Canada. He currently lives and works in New York.
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