My Research Trip to Vietnam and On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to carry out a research trip to Vietnam and to work with the Faculty of Literature at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, part of Vietnam National University, in Hanoi (USSH VNU Hanoi).
Prior to beginning my doctoral studies, I envisioned my PhD to be a completely isolated experience, during which I would only read and write. Since the start of my research, I’ve come to realise the ways in which the exchanges that we have, both within an academic framework and outside of it, allow us to further our work. I took part in an academic exchange (funded by Erasmus+) to Vietnam, where I carried out teaching and research activities aSSH VNU Hanoi.
My research on Vietnamese writing has, to date, only been carried out within a European academic and geographical context. My last visit to Vietnam, before the research trip in the summer of 2022, had taken place in 2007. As I focus on the homelands of two writers (Laferrière and Moï), meaning that I focus on depictions of ‘home’ that are anchored in particular times and spaces, physically visiting these places would support my work. For one, it allows me to engage with the concrete spaces that are depicted. One of the main areas of my work is the one of how these writers come to relay (and, in many ways, translate) their homes to the reader. Can it even be possible to do so? And, if we accept that it is impossible to carry an experience over into writing (and indeed into a foreign language, as in the case of depicting Vietnam in French), what happens between the text and the reader in the process of these writings being "digested" ?
The academic context is related to the geographical one. I am working on texts that are written in French, by a woman from current-day Ho Chi Minh City, about a country whose colonial past could easily be perceived as a marginal part of French Studies. My access to material resources and my own expertise is limited, and I felt acutely aware of it during my visit (return) to Vietnam. Whilst research on Indochina has been growing (the emergence of the VN-FR BnF digital collection or the Vietnamese-French Literature research blog are examples of this), the wealth of Vietnamese academic contributions could propel it even further. I saw the importance of my work taking place with academics in Vietnam, and hope to do so further in the future.
A report on my research trip can be found on the website for UCD Centre for Asia-Pacific Research, and in full here, but I wanted to focus on a question that was raised during the Q and A of a talk, titled 'The Lens of Home: Memory and Identity in Vietnamese Migrant Literature', that I delivered on 19.7.22. Though I don’t focus on the text, I was asked about Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in response to my focus on the importance of ‘home’ in migrant writing: how do I see ‘home’ as a focal point for the narrator of the novel, Little Dog?
For those who may not know the novel, it is the first novel written by the poet Ocean Vuong. In the book, a son (the narrator) attempts to write to his mother (from Vietnam, born during the year of the Tết Offensive). He pens a letter that he admits to having already started before, all the while knowing that his mother is illiterate in English.
My response to On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous was centred on the feelings of disconnection between the narrator and his surrounding environment, as a result of race, language, generational trauma, sexuality. More closely, I considered Little Dog’s immediate home space: the bareness, the reclining grandmother, the disjointed forms of communication between mother and son. At the end, I stressed my firm belief that the concept of home is central to any question of displacement (and, indeed to identity or how we live together in this world – I did refrain, luckily, from claiming that ‘home’ is the most important topic to study out of any, knowing that most researchers would say that about their work), and that it arises constantly in migrant writing.
A thought on the text and language
The text is constructed of several memories that are linked in a non-chronological manner, placing two relationships at the forefront of the narrative: the relationship between Little Dog and his mother, who views herself as too exhausted to learn to read, having paid the price for bestowing her son with the privilege of being able to do so; the relationship between Little Dog and his first lover, Trevor. The text ties fragments of memories together, arising involuntarily, carving out a path from Vietnam to America that deals with the impact of trauma and the ways in which it carries across generations.
The inability of the narrator to move easily between Vietnamese and English is a source of pain:
“In Vietnamese, the word for missing someone and remembering them is the same: nhớ. Sometimes, when you ask me over the phone, Con nhớ mẹ không? I flinch, thinking you meant, Do you remember me?
I miss you more than I remember you.” 186
In this section, the mother’s question should be harmless. Yet, due to the narrator’s insufficient understanding of Vietnamese, the question causes friction, making the narrator recoil as he believes he is being asked whether he remembers his own mother.
As a result of this misunderstanding, the narrator makes a statement on memory and the pain of longing for more memories to draw upon. The latter is highlighted by the writer’s emphasis on missing his mother, suggesting that his memories of her are limited. Moreover, this written response also returns the difficulty of translation back to his mother: in stating that he misses her more than her remembers her in English, he underlines the differences between the two verbs and the complications of translating the sentence into Vietnamese. And yet, I wonder, how do we dissociate missing from remembering? If language can remove difference, as in the case of nhớ, what about the ways in which it creates difference (by, for example, separating missing and remembering entirely)? What are its limits?
On the inside of the blurb side of the cover, a quotation from The Guardian, among many others, is listed: “A tender exploration of violence, migration and language”. My thoughts during my reading of the text were similar, but I couldn’t help but think about how the exploration was anchored in a particular area: I was struck by how the writer explores the Vietnam War, Vietnamese otherness and the Vietnamese language, especially in the way in which they are funnelled into Little Dog’s relationship with his mother. These questions resonate with my research on Moï’s writing, whose work engages with the same topics.