What’s the most impactful book you’ve read this summer? For me it is the debut novel of Ocean Vuong titled On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous. The work is autobiographical, written as a letter to the protagonist’s mother, and it traces the trauma his family has experienced, first in Vietnam, and then in the United States. The narrator invites us to experience his most intimate moments of processing pain and claiming strength, seeking to understand his mother and her mother, as well as himself, and the choices they have made to survive. It is a story of physical and emotional discovery, how the body remembers, and keeps the score.
For me, the narrative was an invitation to walk around in shoes quite different from my own, and to realize how much we have in common. Heller McAlpin writes, “The son knows that chances are slim that his mother, whose grasp of English is limited, will actually read his confessional missive. (The story) is more about processing and articulating difficult memories than about direct communication. Grappling with the limits of language, he is “trying to break free” by writing. The result is a fractured narrative of a fractured family, torn by harrowing experiences — those of the mother and grandmother in Vietnam, and of the boy they raised together in Hartford, Conn., in the 1990s. Abused by his loving but mentally ill mother and tormented by schoolmates, the narrator, Little Dog, eventually finds solace in his first love affair, a tragic relationship with a rough American teenager ravaged by drugs. His true salvation, however, comes mostly in reading and writing, which cracks open his understanding of his family’s history.” (NPR interview with the author)
On the face of it, the author’s experiences and mine couldn’t be more divergent. And yet our work as sons is much the same: Listening deeply to the members of our family systems (what is/was said and not said), honoring other’s pain and then distancing ourselves from it, if need be, acknowledging our personal struggles and strengths, and forgiving each other for being human, all of which is prelude to healing. Writing our narrative sets us free.
Not everyone needs to read someone else’s work to accomplish this task, but it helps. You might consider D. Watkins The Cook Up, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Ernest Hemingway’s A Separate Peace, the poetry of Mary Oliver, the healing stories of Jesus, or the Book of Genesis. Each one presents an individual navigating family and self-discovery, love and loss, surviving and thriving.
Keep a journal, or make mental notes, and move from reaction to response. We will never make the world a better place, or heal ourselves, if we are stuck in patterns of reactivity. Do the hard work of identifying other’s pain and your own. Then consider how you are more than your struggles. Practice gratitude: every day discover three things that you are thankful for, and see the world through that set of lenses, instead of only how you (or others or the world) can’t measure up.
Love you a lot,