On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong investigates the power of language from different perspectives. As an immigrant and a writer, Little Dog frequently observed the English language from a distance and closely. The protagonist of the novel is a Vietnamese American who speaks English as a second language. The novel, which is a letter to Little Dog’s illiterate mother Rose, emphasizes the importance of words and language, particularly to Little Dog’s identity as a writer. He could understand the language but was considered an outsider.
Within the letter, he explored this apparent paradox. As an immigrant, the narrator and his family have already lost so much, and they needed English to survive in the new place. Language and words are one of the main tools for their survival. Little Dog pondered on the meaning of the word “sorry” as it was used on the tobacco farm and in the nail salon. “In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I’m here, right here, beneath you” (p. 91).
Little Dog, his mother, and his grandmother all struggled with language in their unique ways. In a strange environment where no one understands them, language cannot sufficiently describe Rose and Lan’s memories of their horror. As a writer who relied heavily on language, the challenge for Little Dog was his inability to communicate in a language his matriarchs could understand. His novel took a more intellectual approach to language’s use or misuse and how it excludes and includes people. Their mother tongue is useless because they are dependent on language, specifically English. The narrator reminisced about Roland Barthes, “No object is in a constant relationship with pleasure. For the writer, however, is it the mother tongue.” Little Dog asked, “But what if the mother tongue is stunted? What if that tongue is not only the symbol of a void but is itself a void, what if the tongue is cut out?” (p. 33).
Little Dog analyzed the English and Vietnamese languages and concluded that language is deeply ingrained in the culture that gave rise to it. Without an understanding of the larger social framework, language cannot be comprehended.
Language is simultaneously perceived as a tool for survival, empowerment, and defacement.