Reflecting on Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”

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Because I normally read business and startup books, I noticed authors I read were tending to skew very heavily white and male, so I’ve been making a point to read more books by women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ authors this year. I’m really enjoying Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, a novel written as a letter to his mother.

This passage in particular struck a chord with me:

That night I promised myself I’d never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you. So began my career as our family’s official interpreter. From then on, I would fill in our blanks, our silences, stutters, whenever I could. I code switched. I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.

I think every child of immigrants complains at one point or another about having to be this voice for our parents. I know sometimes during arguments over issues at work or pretty much everywhere you might expect to have trouble when you live in a country and don’t speak the language, which is pretty much EVERYWHERE, I would ask my parents incredulously, “How can you have lived in this country for almost FOR-TY YEARS, and STILL not speak English?!?!” But as I’ve gotten older, I finally, FINALLY understand that it’s a gift to be able to speak for them as a small thank for all the sacrifices they’ve made. That I should cherish every opportunity to open doors and crack windows between them and this still foreign world that they STILL don’t quite understand, nor fully feel as part of, even after all these years.

If you haven’t heard of Ocean Vuong, I highly, highly recommend that you check out his interview in the Paris Review with Spencer Quong or buy “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”. In particular I loved this passage about the power and potency of the human gaze:

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.

Originally published at https://www.davidtran.me on July 16, 2019.

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