“On Earth We Are Briefly Grand”: The Torn Life of an Immigrant in the USA | Sunday paper

Torment – is probably Ocean Vuong’s leitmotif: torn between his country of origin Vietnam and life as an immigrant in Connecticut, torn between homosexual tendencies and the society around him with traditional man-woman roles, torn between his mother, who is illiterate, and his own Writing that makes him a successful writer.

Life as a Vietnamese immigrant in the United States

In a letter to his mother, the young author talks about these “dissatisfactions”. So beautifully, so terribly, so forcefully written, as seldom has a letter been written in great literature. And extremely ambivalent! Little Dog, the first-person narrator, strings together images and scenes from his hard life as a Vietnamese immigrant, brings moments of violence and tenderness to light and describes his coming of age.

Little Dog’s mother is the daughter of an American soldier and a Vietnamese farm girl. She flees with her son, sister and mother from Saigon to Hartford (Connecticut) and works in a nail salon. Her “American Dream” doesn’t come true, also because she can neither read nor write and hardly speaks English. Her anger and fears unleashed on her son again and again in the form of beatings and harsh words.

Physical mother and schizophrenic grandmother

“One day the boy’s mother came home after working overtime (…). The apartment was littered with hundreds of toy soldiers (…). The men were in the middle of rescuing a 13-centimetre-tall Mickey Mouse who was locked in a prison made of black video cassettes (…) When she opened the door, the boy jumped, but it was too late. Before he could make out his mother’s face, her backhand smashed the side of his head.”

At such moments, Little Dog, a slender misfit, clings to his grandmother, who shares a small apartment with mother and sons. The grandmother herself is said to have once been strong, fleeing a forced marriage and her family. Under a new name, she worked as a prostitute in the Vietnamese capital, where she met a shy American soldier in the middle of the war. Thus was born Little Dog’s mother, Rose. But despite the brief infatuation, the soldier had already disappeared at birth – back to his American family. He reappears later as grandfather Paul, full of shame for the betrayal of his first wife, his Vietnamese wife, who is now suffering from schizophrenia.

But despite grandma’s seizures and mother’s freaks, Little Dog finds his way out of two generations of suffering left by the war. After a difficult time in high school, he makes it to New York and studies literature. He commits himself

“Pulling over the obscure texts of dead people, most of whom never dreamed that a face like mine would hover over their sentences – least of all, that those sentences would save me.”

Eventually, Ocean Vuong writes poetry, award-winning poetry, and finally this novel, his debut novel, and achieves his breakthrough.

Relationship with a farm boy ends in disaster

Trevor works on his father’s tobacco farm, where the two meet, where they harvest, dry the tobacco, take breaks with hand-rolling cigarettes and candy bars, talk about music and have their first time in the storage shed. Where both, despite their environment, which is white, racist and homophobic, do not fail because of their desire for each other, not because of shame and fear. They remain discreet, even towards Trevor’s alcoholic father. They take tours to the diners in the area, philosophize about Cola and Pepsi and enjoy the starry sky. Until Little Dog graduates and goes to New York to study. He has to leave Trevor behind.

“I didn’t know that was the last time I saw him, his neck scar lit up blue by the diner’s neon canopy. Seeing that little comma again, putting my mouth on it, letting my shadow stretch the scar until finally there was no scar at all, only a mighty and righteous darkness sealed by my lips.”

Trevor perishes in the country. Because of a sports accident, he is prescribed an opiate, he becomes addicted, but is later denied further prescriptions. The farm boy looks for impure alternatives on the black market and eventually dies from it. Victims of the American opioid crisis, which became known around the world and put profit before people. But Little Dog finds his way.

Very own form of literature

In the reports of his sick family and in the descriptions of his first love – addressed to his mother, who will never be able to read them – there is a lot of beauty despite failure, brutality and pain. Also because Ocean Vuong creates a new form of literature that blurs the forms of prose, essay and poetry. And because he wants to be strong:

“Let no one believe that we are the fruit of violence – but that violence that has passed through the fruit could not spoil it.”

This guiding principle and the unique style make the novel not only bearable, but beautiful. Ocean Vuong succeeds in using his language to sow plants in this desert, in this wasteland of the American wastelands, that produce the most beautiful flowers. By condensing everything, he creates surprising images, electrifies, enchants, creates great literature from a simple story. This book is a liberation, of the author and of all who sympathize with him.

Vuong joins a number of writers who do not come from mainstream society. However, they do not accuse, but fight against their origin, their trauma and simply report on their life and thus enlighten them. In doing so, they break through literary boundaries, switch between autobiography and fiction, like the Nobel Prize winner for literature Annie Ernaux or the French star author Edouard Louis. These authors give us insights into the world around the turn of the millennium with sometimes humiliating living conditions and into very different cultures. Open, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes funny, but always inspiring.

Ocean Vuong (2019): On earth we are briefly grandiose. Carl-Hanser-Verlag, Munich 2019. 237 p., Euro.

Order the book now at the social bookstore Buch7.

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