Foyles Fiction Book of the Year:
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
2019 has been an outstanding year for publishing, but when it came to voting for our Fiction Book of the Year, there was one clear winner - On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. It’s a searingly tender novel, at times achingly raw story in which Vuong masterfully weaves together young love, family traditions, loss, poverty, the Vietnam War and what it means to be American, in the form of a series of letters to his mother.
Here you can read an exclusive extract, and we are extremely proud to present an exclusive Book of the Year edition, signed by Vuong and numbered out of 1500, with foiled cover artwork and a two-page facsimile from Vuong’s handwritten notebooks inside
In a previous draft of this letter, one I’ve since deleted, I told you how I came to be a writer. How I, the first in our family to go to college, squandered it on a degree in English, with which no real career is promised. How I fled my shitty high school to spend my days in New York lost in library stacks, reading obscure texts by dead people, most of whom never dreamed a face like mine floating over their sentences—and least of all that those sentences would save me.
But none of that matters now. What matters is that all of it, even if I didn’t know it then, brought me here, to this page, to tell you what happened. And what happened was that I was a boy once and bruiseless. I was eight when I stood in the one-bedroom apartment in Hartford staring at Grandma Lan’s sleeping face. Despite being your mother, she is nothing like you; her skin three shades darker, the color of dirt after a rainstorm, spread over a skeletal face whose eyes shone like chipped glass. I can’t say what made me leave the green pile of army men and walk over to where she lay under a blanket on the hardwood, arms folded across her chest. Her eyes moved behind their lids as she slept. Her forehead, lashed deep with lines, marked her fifty-six years. A fly landed on the side of her mouth, then skittered to the edge of her purplish lips. Her left cheek spasmed a few seconds. The skin, pocked with large black pores, rippled in the sunlight. I had never seen so much movement in sleep before—except in dogs who run in dreams none of us will ever know.
But it was stillness, I realize now, that I sought, not of her body, which kept ticking as she slept, but of her mind. Only in this twitching quiet did her brain, wild and explosive during waking hours, cool itself into something like calm. I’m watching a stranger, I thought, one whose lips creased into an expression of contentment alien to the Lan I knew awake, the one whose sentences rambled and rattled out of her, her schizophrenia only worse now since the war. But wildness is how I had always known her. Ever since I could remember, she flickered before me, dipping in and out of sense. Which was why, studying her now, tranquil in the afternoon light, was like looking back in time.
Without warning the eye opened. Glazed by a milky film of sleep, it widened to hold my image. I stood against myself, pinned by the shaft of light through the window. Then the second eye opened, this one slightly pink but clearer. “You hungry, Little Dog?” she asked, her face expressionless, as if still asleep.
Ocean Vuong was a Ruth Lilly fellow and winner of a Pushcart Prize, and has received honours and awards from Poets House and the Academy of American Poets. Night Sky with Exit Wounds won the 2016 Whiting Award in the States, and the 2017 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize in the UK. He teaches at Amherst College, Massachusetts.
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