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  • Writer's pictureESSMAT SOPHIE

Language, Identity, and Power in Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Introduction and Background “Have you ever watched yourself from behind, going further and deeper into that landscape, away from you?” [you said.] How could I tell you that what you were describing was writing? How could I say that we, after all, are so close, the shadows of our hands, on two different pages, merging? (p.6) The quote above is taken from Ocean Vuong’s acclaimed debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019). The novel uses poetic prose to explore family, identity, and the difficulties of reconnecting with one’s roots when living in another country. The story is told through a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read. Through writing, the narrator processed his emotions regarding the family’s escape from Vietnam, his upbringing in the United States, their challenges in the new country, and his relationship with his mother. In these descriptions, language played a crucial part as a tool, identity, power, and artistic medium. In the novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Little Dog described to his mother what it’s like to be a writer through words, language, and stories. Little Dog told Rose, “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.” (p.189) Little Dog’s letter frequently read like a collection of unrelated, trivial memories and stories. To understand Little Dog properly, one must comprehend how his stories and the language he employed to convey directly reflect his life and identity. The purpose of this essay is to examine how the novel depicts language as a source of identity and power. Analysis In Ocean Vuong’s novel, Little Dog explained how learning English allowed him to act as a link between his mother and the United States. He wrote to his mother, “So began my career as our family’s official interpreter I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.” (p.32)

When language plays a significant role as the world’s mediator in the distribution of power, the “right” language in the “right” culture leads to a high degree of perceived humanity. Little Dog became more American than Rose by speaking English and thus was more visible in the United States. As he wrote, “One does not pass in America, it seems, without English” (p. 52). Two interchangeable masks also created the impression of a double identity or consciousness at Little Dog. He has one foot in a culture, and the other in another. Vietnamese and English represent Little Dog’s two different worldviews: one that does not want to draw attention to him because Vietnamese marks him as different and the other that wants to make him visible by writing in English. Little Dog spent the majority of his life in the United States, whereas Rose, his mother, spent her formative years in Vietnam. Their languages and use of words reflect these cultural disparities. Little Dog claimed that the Vietnamese people express their affection for one another often in English. According to Little Dog, for the Vietnamese, “care and love are pronounced clearest through service.” To describe that feeling verbally, they must use a different language. According to these accounts, his mother only showed her love and passion for him through service and taking care of him. However, language and vocabulary do not always reflect cultural variations. Language usage can occasionally be influenced by a person’s social and economic status and access to social and economic power. Little Dog discussed this apparent paradox. He illustrated how “sorry” is employed in the tobacco field and a 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). Rose is invisible without language, and Little Dog made her visible by interpreting her to the rest of the world. Little Dog provided Rose with a voice in the United States, where she would otherwise be unable to communicate with the outside world and thus ceases to exist. However, this situation results in a power shift between the mother and son. Little Dog described how he taught Rose to read like a child. Rose felt shame about her stuttering attempts to read the words. In the end, she violently threw the book away, saying that she doesn’t need to learn to read, “I can see — it’s gotten me this far, hasn’t it?” This statement is a clear explanation of the power of language skills. The descriptions of violence that follow this scene point to how the

violence becomes a backlash against Rose’s powerlessness. By beating her son, she gained back some of the power she felt she has lost through her migration to the United States. People regulate power relations through the use of language. Thus, language is an important factor in how we relate to ourselves and others because these power relations contribute to the construction of identity. Another central scene took place earlier in the novel. Little Dog was riding the school bus when a boy approached him unprovoked, banging his head on the window and said, “Speak English.” A group formed around them as the boy continued to urge Little Dog to say something in English. The words became blows, and finally, Little Dog opened his mouth and said the perpetrator’s name. “That’s a good little bitch,” said the boy, before they left the crying Little Dog alone. The American boy established his power through the language as well as the idea of the “other” as inferior and inhuman by calling Little Dog “little bitch.” The establishment of power and identity is displayed later in Little Dog’s relationship with Trevor. Trevor constantly had an aversion to their sexuality and humiliated Little Dog’s feminine position in their sexual relationship. Little Dog also did not forget that Trevor is American. Trevor became Little Dog’s representative for this American masculinity that he did not fit in. Throughout the novel, names are presented with a strong association with identity. The narrator’s nickname “Little Dog,” given to him by his grandmother, evoked an image of a small dog, with its head down as portrayed by the narrator’s state. The name comes from a tradition of naming weak children after the worst things to drive away evil spirits. The narrator’s grandmother was named Lan, “Lily,” after she fled her abusive husband in Vietnam. She was born without a name, was the seventh child in the family, and was thus known as Seven. She created a new version of herself by giving herself a new name, one that has not been destroyed by the oppression of her family and first husband. She named herself after a beautiful idea in the hopes of one day looking like that. Little Dog’s name was given by his grandmother, and unlike his grandmother, he did not look for another name. However, he discovered beauty, creativity, courage, and a proud identity for himself and his family by penning the Little Dog story and giving voice to the voiceless. He is aware of this discovery and he wrote: Yes, there was a war. Yes, we came from its epicenter. In that war, a woman gifted herself a new name – Lan – in that naming, claimed herself beautiful, then made that

beauty into something worth keeping. From that, a daughter was born, and from that daughter, a son. All this time I told myself we were born from war – but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. (p. 231)


Language is present throughout the novel as an influencing factor in Little Dog's identity, including his need to act as his mother’s interpreter. Thus, he put on English like a mask. As a result, he gained a dual identity while also negatively affecting his relationship with his mother as she lost her power and had to reclaim it forcibly. Names are also presented as an important factor in the formation of identity as demonstrated by Little Dog. His nickname, “Little Dog,” is linked to his identity. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous represents not only Little Dog’s character but also that of Rose and Lan who are voiceless. This representation highlights the power of language in making individuals visible. Language can establish power through the novel’s elucidation of language’s ability to transform a person. This change and its establishment of power also affect identity as power constructs identity.

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