Sat in front of a fire, with a black cat nestled beside me, who insisted on gently resting his paw on my arm to cuddle, I finished up this book this week. It is exquisite. I know Vuong’s work as a poet. His collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds left me breathless and his debut novel is just as devastating beautiful.
Part memoir, part fiction, it tells the story of a young Vietmanese gay man, writing a letter to his mother that she will never read, a coming of age story about being immigrant, being gay, living in America, about his grandmother who fell in love with an American GI in Vietnam and bore him daughters, his mother who works as a nail technician, and his own life.
It is stunning and layered and he combines vivid sensuous language with simplicity. It’s a story about immigration, surviving violence, surviving poverty, about growing up, about America, about grief.
Some books break you open. It’s that Kafka line “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” When I read Vuong, I read him as someone who loves poetry, in wonder at his incredible talent for distilling complex ideas into simple devastating sentences.
I read him as a mixed race woman who has her own experience of immigration and outsider, who had to be both guide and map for parents who don’t know how to navigate this world, who wrote letters for her own mother aged nine, and is being asked to do so again faced with dementia and a fracturing family.
I read him as a girl who grew up in violence, who grew up in a family that carries trauma like dark hair and eyes, who knows love and family can be complicated things. The first time I read anything of his was in the New Yorker. It was called A Letter To My Mother That She Will Never Read and I read it and then closed the computer screen and wept.
A few lines from the book, but they cannot touch how his language and images deepen and grow with each chapter, how they sweep you away.
“Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in the season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.”
“I sit, with all my theories, metaphors, and equations, Shakespeare and Milton, Barthes, Du Fu, and Homer, masters of death who can’t, at last, teach me how to touch my dead.”
“I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.”