On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

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What do "mother tongue" and "translation" represent in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous?

Quick answer:

In On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, the orphan mother tongue might be Little Dog’s way of addressing the destruction of the Vietnam War. Not only did the Vietnam War destroy physical people and land, it also razed Vietnam’s culture, lineage, and language. Conversely, the orphan mother tongue might be Little Dog challenging language’s authority and parentage. If language has no mother, it has no exclusive tie or relationship, perhaps allowing people to relate to it more on their own terms.

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Mother tongue refers to a person's first language or the language they have grown up with. Little Dog provides another perspective on “mother tongue.” For Little Dog, the “mother" is no mother but an “orphan.”

You could argue that Little Dog orphans the mother tongue to draw attention to the damage that has been done to Vietnam. You might discuss how America’s destructive war in Vietnam made the culture—language included—something of an orphan. It left them without clear, authoritative figures to protect them or guide them.

At one point, Little Dog writes how his grandma’s “tongue” was “made obsolete by gunfire.” That seems to be a specific example of how the Vietnamese language has been stripped of its mother, its parent, its ability to foster and convey human emotions and experiences.

You could also connect the orphan mother tongue to Little Dog’s abusive experiences with his own mother. Perhaps the lack of a mother for the tongue represents his lack of a typically loving, caring mom.

It’s not just Little Dog’s mom who has problems. Trevor’s dad, too, has his issues. Remember, Trevor’s dad is an alcoholic. You could discuss how the orphan mother tongue links to how the narration challenges authority and power. Perhaps America didn’t destroy Vietnam’s “mother tongue.” Perhaps there was no “mother” in the first place. Maybe the mother was merely a construct.

As for translation, remember, Little Dog’s mom is illiterate. It might seem futile to compose a letter to a person that can’t get read. Although, if his words have no “mother”— no specific, authoritative origin—then his mom might not be excluded from understanding it. She’s free to relate to it or translate it in a way that makes sense to her.

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