One embodies language in Ocean Vuong’s novel right away. In the first letter to his mom, Little Dog writes, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” For Little Dog, language becomes tactile and material. It’s something one can “put down” as if it were a physical item. In a way, it’s also akin to a rope or a ladder. It’s a palpable means to get somewhere or “reach” someone.
A second example of embodied language in Vuong’s novel occurs in the name of the main character. The boy’s name—Little Dog—points to a physical, embodied creature: a dog. Little Dog’s summer job at the tobacco farm ties together his name and what it embodies. He does, in fact, as the idiom goes, “Work like a dog.”
A third example of embodying language links to the corporeal terms that Little Dog applies to his first language. Little Dog calls Vietnamese “the mother tongue.” He takes the abstract foundation of language and bonds it to the concreteness of a mother figure and a tongue.
As with the name Little Dog, the mother tongue appellation has an impact on the boy’s material world and his own body. Little Dog wonders what would happen if his mother tongue was “stunted or “cut out.” These hypothetical mutilations possibly connect to real attacks on Little Dog’s person, like when homophobic boys beat him up at school.