On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Themes

The main themes of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous are the multiple dimensions of gender and sexuality; race, perception, and beauty; and the simultaneous necessity and inadequacy of language.

  • The Multiple Dimensions of Gender and Sexuality: Little Dog explores his own queer identity as well as the effects of heteronormativity and his relationships with women.
  • Race, Perception, and Beauty: Little Dog grapples with his Vietnamese American identity and comes to appreciate the beauty he sees in both himself and his mother.
  • The Simultaneous Necessity and Inadequacy of Language: The narrator chooses to write a letter to his illiterate mother, acknowledging language's capacity to foster both intimacy and distance.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968

The Multiple Dimensions of Gender and Sexuality

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The novel’s narrator, Little Dog, presents a coming-of-age story that includes his initial sexual experiences and his acceptance that he is queer. Indeed, the physical acts and the inner realizations occur almost at the same time. Little Dog’s nuanced exploration of his personal journey leads the reader to the theme of gender and sexuality as complex and multidimensional. Learning to accept that men’s identity includes many different kinds of masculinity is an important process for Little Dog—one that requires him to detach his own ideas of masculinity from the heteronormativity of American society, which he ultimately maligns as hegemonic and dangerously oppressive.

The narrator’s harsh criticism of narrow cultural and social norms is not confined to their effects on his own life. He explores the ways that these expectations have affected Trevor, the young white man with whom he has his first sexual relations. Little Dog links the damage that Trevor sustains, in large part through fear of accepting his queer identity, to his pattern of seeking refuge in drugs.

Important relationships with women also play key roles in the novel: Little Dog addresses the significance of his mother and grandmother in contributing to different aspects of his identity. This includes attention to the commodification of sex, as when he explores his grandmother’s occupation as a sex worker during and after the Vietnam War.

Race, Perception, and Beauty

The grandson of a Vietnamese woman and an American man, Little Dog spends his early years in Vietnam before moving with his family to Connecticut. Little Dog’s cross-cultural experiences allow him to realize the ways that a person’s perceptions of their racial identity intersect with their appreciation of their own beauty. While these perceptions change depending on where one lives, they are deeply embedded in one’s ability to accept oneself as a total person rather than regarding the isolated parts.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous may be analyzed as an immigrant novel; the multiple hardships of Little Dog’s family’s life after moving from Vietnam to Hartford form a significant component of the work. The novel may also be appreciated as a study of how race functions in conjunction with nationality in the United States, as Little Dog learns that, to many white Americans, he is an interchangeable part of a larger and collective “Asian” identity. While Little Dog examines his placement in terms of how others view him, his greater concern is understanding the inner dimensions of identity and experience—what he terms the “calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones."

Part of what race means in America, Little Dog shows, is that this interior sensation cannot effectively be separated from one’s outer appearance. This refers in part to how one sees—not only what one sees—in the mirror every day. Personal appearance becomes objectified until a person can see their own reflection as a valuable thing, like any other aesthetically pleasing object. Looking becomes a way of replicating that thing and thus of extending one’s life:

the image [is] prolonged in the eye, making more of it, making it last. Staring into the mirror, I replicate myself into a future where I might not exist.

Although Little Dog is born long after the Vietnam War ends, it continues to exert a powerful force on him through his older family members, especially his mother. As communicating with her becomes increasingly important, not only for the sake of their relationship but also to help Little Dog come to terms with other aspects of his life, he realizes that this depends on adjusting his understanding of the war’s effect:

All this time I told myself we were born from war—but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but rather, that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.

Beauty is a crucial part of Little Dog’s growing respect for all aspects of his complex identity, as he realizes that rescuing himself depends on genuine belief in both his own beauty and his mother’s. This respect must encompass not only his outward, physical self and sexual identity but also his creativity and identity as a writer.

The Simultaneous Necessity and Inadequacy of Language

In addition to acknowledging language's vital importance, the novel also addresses its severe limits. While this is primarily true of written language, the narrator also incorporates the inability of words to express all our feelings. The novel is presented as a letter from Little Dog to his mother. The need to write his wide-ranging thoughts matters to him not simply as a record of what goes through his mind: it is also a self-consciously creative exercise. There is a strong irony in Little Dog’s choice to write with his mother as his audience despite his awareness that she is illiterate. Though writing can often serve as an agent of intimacy and connection, his identification as a writer may, in fact, serve to enlarge the space between them.

The paradoxes of language and communication also connect back to the theme of beauty. Given Little Dog’s increasing awareness of the need to accept himself, his creative expression through the aesthetic and craft of writing well comes to seem a necessity rather than a frivolous indulgence. Writing as he needs to write—without worrying how, or if, his mother might understand—is an act by which he proclaims his individuality and accepts his beauty. This kind of honesty is a way of communicating with his mother (even beyond words), with important people in his life, and with others in the future who may find his story sustaining and affirming.

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