Read an exclusive extract from Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Poet Ocean Vuong's debut novel is a sweeping and shattering portrait of a family, and a testament to the redemptive power of storytelling. Read an extract from one of the most anticipated books of 2019 ahead of its publication in June.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Ocean Vuong
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Ocean Vuong

Dear Ma—

Let me begin again.

I am writing because it’s late.

Because it’s 9:52 p.m. on a Tuesday and you must be walking home after the closing shift.

I’m not with you ’cause I’m at war. Which is one way of saying it’s already February and the president wants to deport my friends. It’s hard to explain.

For the first time in a long time, I’m trying to believe in heaven, in a place we can be together after all this blows over up.

They say every snowflake is different— but the blizzard, it covers us all the same. A friend in Norway told me a story about a painter who went out during a storm, searching for the right shade of green, and never returned.

I’m writing you because I’m not the one leaving, but the one coming back, empty- handed.

You once asked me what it means to be a writer. So here goes.

Seven of my friends are dead. Four from overdoses. Five, if you count Xavier who flipped his Nissan doing ninety on a bad batch of fentanyl.

I don’t celebrate my birthday anymore.

Take the long way home with me. Take the left on Walnut, where you’ll see the Boston Market where I worked for a year when I was seventeen (after the tobacco farm). Where the Evangelical boss— the one with nose pores so large, biscuit crumbs from his lunch would get lodged in them— never gave us any breaks. Hungry on a seven- hour shift, I’d lock myself in the broom closet and stuff my mouth with cornbread I snuck in my black, standard- issue apron.

Trevor was put on OxyContin after breaking his ankle doing dirt bike jumps in the woods a year before I met him. He was fifteen.

OxyContin, first mass- produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996, is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form.

I never wanted to build a “body of work,” but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.

Take it or leave it. The body, I mean.

Take a left on Harris St., where all that’s left of the house that burned down that summer during a thunderstorm is a chain-linked dirt lot.

The truest ruins are not written down. The girl Grandma knew back in Go Cong, the one whose sandals were cut from the tires of a burned- out army jeep, who was erased by an air strike three weeks before the war ended— she’s a ruin no one can point to. A ruin without location, like a language.

After a month on the Oxy, Trevor’s ankle healed, but he was a full-blown addict.

In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly. Once, after my fourteenth birthday, crouched between the seats of an abandoned school bus in the woods, I filled my life with a line of cocaine. A white letter “I” glowed on the seat’s peeling leather. Inside me the “I” became a switchblade— and something tore. My stomach forced up but it was too late. In minutes, I became more of myself. Which is to say the monstrous part of me got so large, so familiar, I could want it. I could kiss it.

The truth is none of us are enough enough. But you know this already.

The truth is I came here hoping for a reason to stay.

Sometimes those reasons are small: the way you pronounce spaghetti as “bahgeddy.”

It’s late in the season— which means the winter roses, in full bloom along the national bank, are suicide notes.

Write that down.

They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.

Are you there? Are you still walking?

They say nothing lasts forever but I’m writing you in the voice of an endangered species.

The truth is I’m worried they will get us before they get us.

Tell me where it hurts. You have my word.

Back in Hartford, I used to wander the streets at night by myself. Sleepless, I’d get dressed, climb through the window— and just walk.

Some nights I would hear an animal shuffling, unseen, behind garbage bags, or the wind unexpectedly strong overhead, a rush of leaves clicking down, the scrape of branches from a maple out of sight. But mostly, there were only my footsteps on the pavement steaming with fresh rain, the scent of decade- old tar, or the dirt on a baseball field under a few stars, the gentle brush of grass on the soles of my Vans on a highway median.

But one night I heard someone praying.

Through the lightless window of a street- level apartment, a man’s voice in Arabic. I recognized the word Allah. I knew it was a prayer by the tone he used to lift it, as if the tongue was the smallest arm from which a word like that could be offered. I imagined it floating above his head as I sat there on the curb, waiting for the soft clink I knew was coming. I wanted the word to fall, like a screw in a guillotine, but it didn’t. His voice, it went higher and higher, and my hands, they grew pinker with each inflection. I watched my skin intensify until, at last, I looked up— and it was dawn. It was over. I was blazed in the blood of light.

Salat al- fajr: a prayer before sunrise. “Whoever prays the dawn prayer in congregation,” said the Prophet Muhammad, “it is as if he had prayed the whole night long.”

I want to believe, walking those aimless nights, that I was praying. For what I’m still not sure. But I always felt it was just ahead of me. That if I walked far enough, long enough, I would find it— perhaps even hold it up, like a tongue at the end of its word.

First developed as a painkiller for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, OxyContin, along with its generic forms, was soon prescribed for all bodily pain: arthritis, muscle spasms, and migraines.

Trevor was into The Shawshank Redemption and Jolly Ranchers, Call of Duty and his one- eyed border collie, Mandy. Trevor who, after an asthma attack, said, hunched over and gasping, “I think I just deep- throated an invisible cock,” and we both cracked up like it wasn’t December and we weren’t under an overpass waiting out the rain on the way home from the needle exchange. Trevor was a boy who had a name, who wanted to go to community college to study physical therapy. Trevor was alone in his room when he died, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin. Trevor was twenty-two. Trevor was.

Once, at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched gold with ’Nam Vet 4 Life, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it.

But why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration?

You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came in to that novel guns blazing. I am hammering this paragraph, I am banging them out, we say. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The state, where people live, is a battleground state. The audience a target audience. “Good for you, man,” a man once said to me at a party, “you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ ’em dead.”

One afternoon, while watching TV with Lan, we saw a herd of buffalo run, single file, off a cliff, a whole steaming row of them thundering off the mountain in Technicolor. “Why they die themselves like that?” she asked, mouth open. Like usual, I made something up on the spot: “They don’t mean to, Grandma. They’re just following their family. That’s all. They don’t know it’s a cliff.

“Maybe they should have a stop sign then.”

We had many stop signs on our block. They weren’t always there.

There was this woman named Marsha down the street. She was overweight and had hair like a rancher’s widow, a kind of mullet cut with thick bangs. She would go door- to- door, hobbling on her bad leg, gathering signatures for a petition to put up stop signs in the neighborhood. She has two boys herself, she told you at the door, and she wants all the kids to be safe when they play.

Her sons were Kevin and Kyle. Kevin, two years older than me, overdosed on heroin. Five years later, Kyle, the younger one, also overdosed. After that Marsha moved to a mobile park in Coventry with her sister. The stop signs remain.

The truth is we don’t have to die if we don’t feel like it.

Just kidding.

Do you remember the morning, after a night of snow, when we found the letters FAG4LIFE scrawled in red spray paint across our front door?

The icicles caught the light and everything looked nice and about to break.

“What does it mean?” you asked, coatless and shivering. “It says ‘Merry Christmas,’ Ma,” I said, pointing. “See? That’s why it’s red. For luck.”

They say addiction might be linked to bipolar disorder. It’s the chemicals in our brains, they say. I got the wrong chemicals, Ma. Or rather, I don’t get enough of one or the other. They have a pill for it. They have an industry. They make millions. Did you know people get rich off of sadness? I want to meet the millionaire of American sadness. I want to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and say, “It’s been an honor to serve my country.”

The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine. I made them, dammit. What if the elation I feel is not another “bipolar episode” but something I fought hard for? Maybe I jump up and down and kiss you too hard on the neck when I learn, upon coming home, that it’s pizza night because sometimes pizza night is more than enough, is my most faithful and feeble beacon. What if I’m running outside because the moon tonight is children’s book huge and ridiculous over the line of pines, the sight of it a strange sphere of medicine? 

It’s like when all you’ve been seeing before you is a cliff and then this bright bridge appears out of nowhere, and you run fast across it knowing, sooner or later, there’ll be yet another cliff on the other side. What if my sadness is actually my most brutal teacher? And the lesson is always this: You don’t have to be like the buffaloes. You can stop.

There was a war, the man on TV said, but it’s “lowered” now.

Yay, I think, swallowing my pills.

The truth is my recklessness is body- width.

Once, the anklebone of a blond boy underwater.

There was a greenish light in that line and you saw it.

The truth is we can survive our lives, but not our skin. But you know this already.

I never did heroin because I’m chicken about needles. When I declined his offer to shoot it, Trevor, tightening the cell phone charger around his arm with his teeth, nodded toward my feet. “Looks like you dropped your tampon.” Then he winked, smiled— and faded back into the dream he made of himself.

Using a multimillion- dollar ad campaign, Purdue sold OxyContin to doctors as a safe, “abuse- resistant” means of managing pain. The company went on to claim that less than one percent of users became addicted, which was a lie. By 2002, prescriptions of Oxy-Contin for noncancer pain increased nearly ten times, with total sales reaching over $3 billion.

What if art was not measured by quantity but ricochets? 

What if art was not measured?

The one good thing about national anthems is that we’re already on our feet, and therefore ready to run.

The truth is one nation, under drugs, under drones.

The first time I saw a man naked he seemed forever.

He was my father, undressing after work. I am trying to end the memory. But the thing about forever is you can’t take it back.

Let me stay here until the end, I said to the lord, and we’ll call it even.

Let me tie my shadow to your feet and call it friendship, I said to myself.

I woke to the sound of wings in the room, as if a pigeon had flown through the opened window and was now thrashing against the ceiling. I switched on the lamp. As my eyes adjusted, I saw Trevor sprawled on the floor, his sneaker kicking against the dresser as he rippled under the seizure. We were in his basement. We were in a war. I held his head, foam from his lips spreading down my arm, and screamed for his old man. That night, in the hospital, he lived. It was already the second time.

The official cause of death, I would learn later, was an overdose from heroin laced with fentanyl.

Horror story: hearing Trevor’s voice when I close my eyes one night four years after he died.

He’s singing “This Little Light of Mine” again, the way he used to sing it— abrupt, between lulls in our conversations, his arm hanging out the window of the Chevy, tapping the beat on the faded red exterior. I lay there in the dark, mouthing the words till he appears again— young and warm and enough.

The black wren this morning on my windowsill: a charred pear.

That meant nothing but you have it now.

Take a right, Ma. There’s the lot behind the bait and tackle shack where one summer I watched Trevor skin a raccoon he shot with Buford’s Smith & Wesson. He grimaced as he worked the thing out of itself, his teeth green from the drugs, like glow- in- the- dark stars in daylight. On the truck bed the black pelt rippled in the breeze. A few feet away, a pair of eyes, grained with dirt, stunned by the vision of their new gods.

Can you hear it, the wind driving the river behind the Episcopal church on Wyllys St.?

The closest I’ve ever come to god was the calm that filled me after orgasm. That night, as Trevor slept beside me, I kept seeing the raccoon’s pupils, how they couldn’t shut without the skull. I’d like to think, even without ourselves, that we could still see. I’d like to think we’d never close.

You and I, we were Americans until we opened our eyes.

Are you cold? Don’t you think it’s strange that to warm yourself is to basically touch the body with the temperature of its marrow?

They will want you to succeed, but never more than them. They will write their names on your leash and call you necessary, call you urgent.

From the wind, I learned a syntax for forwardness, how to move through obstacles by wrapping myself around them. You can make it home this way. Believe me, you can shake the wheat and still be nameless as cokedust on the tender side of a farmboy’s fist.

How come each time my hands hurt me, they become more mine?

Go past the cemetery on House St. The one with headstones so worn the names resemble bite marks. The oldest grave holds a Mary- Anne Cowder (1784– 1784).

After all, we are here only once.

Three weeks after Trevor died a trio of tulips in an earthenware pot stopped me in the middle of my mind. I had woken abruptly and, still dazed from sleep, mistook the dawn light hitting the petals for the flowers emitting their own luminescence. I crawled to the glowing cups, thinking I was seeing a miracle, my own burning bush. But when I got closer, my head blocked the rays and the tulips turned off. This also means nothing, I know. But some nothings change everything after them.

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.

They will tell you that to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless, “raw,” and empty. They will speak of the political with embarrassment, as if speaking of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

They will tell you that great writing “breaks free” from the political, thereby “transcending” the barriers of difference, uniting people toward universal truths. They’ll say this is achieved through craft above all. Let’s see how it’s made, they’ll say— as if how something is assembled is alien to the impulse that created it. As if the first chair was hammered into existence without considering the human form.

I know. It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter.

We’ll have to cut it open, you and I, like a newborn lifted, red and trembling, from the just- shot doe.

Cocaine, laced with oxycodone, makes everything fast and still at once, like when you’re on the train and, gazing across the fogged New England fields, at the brick Colt factory where cousin Victor works, you see its blackened smokestack— parallel to the train, like it’s following you, like where you’re from won’t let you off the hook. Too much joy, I swear, is lost in our desperation to keep it.

After riding our bikes for two hours one night so Trevor could score on the outskirts of Windsor, we sat on the hippopotamus slide in the elementary school playscape, the metal cold beneath us. He had just shot up. I watched as he held a flame under the plastic transdermal adhesive until the fentanyl bubbled and gathered into a sticky tar at the center. When the plastic warped at the edges, browning, he stopped, took the needle, and sucked the clear liquid past the black ticks on the cylinder.

His sneakers grazed the woodchips. In the dark the purple hippo, its mouth open where you can crawl through, looked like a wrecked car. “Hey, Little Dog.” From his slur, I could tell that his eyes were closed.


“Is it, like, true though?”

His swing kept creaking. “You think you’ll be really gay, like, forever?

I mean,” the swing stopped, “I think me . . . I’ll be good in a few years, you know?”

I couldn’t tell if by “really” he meant very gay or truly gay.

“I think so,” I said, not knowing what I meant.

“That’s crazy.” He laughed, the fake one you use to test the thickness of a silence. His shoulders wilted, the drug running through him steady.

Then something brushed my mouth. Startled, I clenched around it anyway. Trevor had slipped a bogie between my lips, lit it. The flame flashed in his eyes, glazed and bloodshot. I swallowed the sweet scalding smoke, fighting back tears— and winning.

Round the corner by the traffic light blinking yellow. Because that’s what the lights do in our town after midnight— they forget why they’re here.

You asked me what it’s like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess, I know. But it’s a mess, Ma— I’m not making this up. I made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball. And you look through it and see the thick steam in the all- night bathhouse in Flushing, where someone reached out to me once, traced the trapped flute of my collarbone. I never saw that man’s face, only the gold- rimmed glasses floating in the fog. And then the feeling, the velvet heat of it, everywhere inside me.

When Houdini failed to free himself from his handcuffs at the London Hippodrome, his wife, Bess, gave him a long, deep kiss. In doing so, she passed him the key that would save him.

If there’s a heaven I think it looks like this. 

For no reason, I Googled Trevor’s name the other day. The White Pages say he’s still alive, that he’s thirty years old and lives only 3.6 miles from me.

The truth is memory has not forgotten us.

A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore no flight. And yet we are moved.

While cleaning my closet one afternoon I found a Jolly Rancher in the pocket of an old jean jacket. It was from Trevor’s truck. He always kept them in his cup holder. I unwrapped it, held it between my fingers. The memory of our voices is inside it. “Tell me what you know,” I whispered. It caught the light from the window like an ancient jewel. I went inside the closet, closed the door, sat down in the tight dark, and placed the candy, smooth and cool, in my mouth. Green Apple.

I’m not with you because I’m at war with everything but you.

A person beside a person inside a life. That’s called parataxis. That’s called the future.

We’re almost there.

I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck— the pieces floating, finally legible.

Head around the bend, past the second stop sign with “H8” spray-painted in white on the bottom. Walk toward the grey house, the one with its left side charcoal- grey with exhaust blown from the scrapyard across the highway.

There’s the upstairs window where, one night when I was little, I woke to a blizzard outside. I was five or six and didn’t know things ended. I thought the snow would continue to the sky’s brim— then beyond, touching god’s fingertips as he dozed in his reading chair, the equations scattered across the floor of his study. That by morning we would all be sealed inside a blue- white stillness and no one would have to leave. Ever.

After a while, Lan found me, or rather her voice appeared beside my ear. “Little Dog,” she said as I watched the snow, “you want to hear a story? I tell you a story.” I nodded. “Okay,” she went on, “long ago. One woman hold her daughter, like this,” she squeezed my shoulders, “on a dirt road. This girl, name Rose, yes, like flower. Yes, this girl, her name Rose, that’s my baby. . . . Okay, I hold her, my daughter. Little Dog,” she shakes me, “you know her name? It’s Rose, like flower. Yes, this little girl I hold in dirt road. Nice girl, my baby, red hair. Her name is. . . .” And we went on like that, till the street below glowed white, erasing everything that had a name.

What were we before we were we? We must’ve been standing by the shoulder of a dirt road while the city burned. We must’ve been disappearing, like we are now.

Maybe in the next life we’ll meet each other for the first time— believing in everything but the harm we’re capable of. Maybe we’ll be the opposite of buffaloes. We’ll grow wings and spill over the cliff as a generation of monarchs, heading home. Green Apple.

Like snow covering the particulars of the city, they will say we never happened, that our survival was a myth. But they’re wrong. You and I, we were real. We laughed knowing joy would tear the stitches from our lips.

Remember: The rules, like streets, can only take you to known places. Underneath the grid is a field— it was always there— where to be lost is never to be wrong, but simply more.

As a rule, be more.

As a rule, I miss you.

As a rule, “little” is always smaller than “small.” Don’t ask me why.

I’m sorry I don’t call enough.

Green Apple.

I’m sorry I keep saying How are you? when I really mean Are you happy?

If you find yourself trapped inside a dimming world, remember it was always this dark inside the body. Where the heart, like any law, stops only for the living.

If you find yourself, then congratulations, your hands are yours to keep.

Take a right on Risley. If you forget me, then you’ve gone too far. Turn back.

Good luck.

Good night.

Good lord, Green Apple.

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