On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

by

Ocean Vuong

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ocean Vuong's On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in 1988, but grew up on a rural farm. Like Little Dog in On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong’s maternal grandfather was a white American naval officer stationed in Vietnam during the war. Vuong’s grandparents were married and had three children. After the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, however, Vuong’s grandfather went back  home to the United States to visit his family and was unable to return again to Vietnam. In 1990, Vuong’s family fled Vietnam to a refugee camp in the Philippines and later settled in Hartford, Connecticut. Vuong went on to earn a degree in 19th-century English Literature from Brooklyn College and an MFA in poetry from New York University. He published his first chapbook (meaning a small booklet), Burnings, in 2011. Later, in 2014, he was awarded the Ruth Lilly fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, which seeks to promote poetry and culture. In 2016, Vuong published his first full-length book of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. That same year he was awarded the Whiting Award, an annual prize awarded to promising poets and writers. Vuong’s first novel, On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous, was published in 30 languages in 2019 to critical and popular acclaim, after which he was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, an award that invests in the future work of gifted intellectuals. Vuong currently lives in Massachusetts, where he is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program for poets and writers at UMass-Amherst.
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Historical Context of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

In On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong explores the lasting effects of the Vietnam War on his family. He specifically mentions the Tet Offensive, a North Vietnamese attack on South Vietnam in 1968. The Vietnam War, which began in November of 1955 and lasted until the Fall of Saigon in April of 1975, involved the countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Vietnam was divided into the communist state of North Vietnam (which was backed by the Soviet Union and China), and the anti-communist state of South Vietnam (which was backed the United States, South Korea, and other anti-communist countries). The war began when the Việt Cộng—a group of South Vietnamese guerrillas under the command of North Vietnam—attacked South Vietnam. Along with the Việt Cộng, the North Vietnamese army, known as the People’s Army of Vietnam, invaded and attacked South Vietnam and Laos, leading to an increase in American troops in Vietnam. By 1964, American troops in South Vietnam went from 16,000 to 184,000, and both the Americans and the South Vietnamese were engaged and attacked by the Việt Cộng and the People’s Army of Vietnam. On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Việt Cộng launched the Tet Offensive, one of the largest attacks of the war. The offensive was given its name because it began on the Tết holiday—the Vietnamese New Year celebration. During the first phase of the Tet Offensive, which was focused on both military and civilian targets, the North sent 80,000 soldiers to invade and attack more than 100 South Vietnamese cities and towns. The first phase of the attack (during which, in the novel, Lan and Paul hide in their Saigon apartment with a gun aimed at the door), lasted nearly two months and resulted in more than 45,000 casualties reported by the South Vietnamese and their allies. The North Vietnamese and Việt Cộng reported over 5,000 soldiers killed in action and more than 7,000 captured. 

Other Books Related to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Vuong focuses on his Vietnamese culture and his experiences as an immigrant in On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous. Similar themes are found in both The Sympathizer and The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a fellow Vietnamese American writer. On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is also an epistolary novel, which means it is written in the form of a letter. The same structure can be seen in The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Vuong also explores the theme of memory and considers how one’s memories evolve over time and influence one’s life and identity. Such subjects are also found in Beloved by Toni Morrison, Stephen King’s It, and Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf. Lastly, Vuong highlights drug addiction, particularly to opioid painkillers, and the effect of prescription drugs on broader society—a theme that is also explored in The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, and Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America.      
Key Facts about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
  • Full Title: On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous
  • When Written: 2019
  • Where Written: Northampton, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 2019
  • Literary Period: Contemporary American
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Saigon, Vietnam and Hartford, Connecticut 
  • Climax: Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan, dies of metastatic bone cancer, and Little Dog and his mother, Rose, take Lan’s ashes back to Vietnam for burial.
  • Antagonist: Rose
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Big Money. Ocean Vuong is the winner of two prestigious awards, the Whiting Award and the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, which include payouts of $50,000 and $625,000 respectively.

The Price of Visibility. On the cover of Ocean Vuong’s debut book of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is a picture of Vuong with his mother and grandmother in a refugee camp in the Philippines after escaping Vietnam. “The picture cost my family three tins of rice, according to my mother,” Voung reportedly said. “Each of us gave up our ration just to be seen.”