In his impeccable memoir, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong discusses his mother’s traumatic history as a Vietnamese refugee:
Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we have come to expect. We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicenter only to return again, one circle removed…
Whether we want to or not, we are travelling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone.
‘Has this ever happened before?’ I asked you in March. I really needed to know if this was as batshit crazy as it seemed. You told me, no. Not in your lifetime. Not in your mother’s, either. Probably not in Great Grandma’s, now 104 and wasting the last years of her life isolated in a sterile room with an assigned roommate she likely despises, as she isn’t fond of too many people. No, this was the first time. The first time in a long time. The first in our collective memory.
On April 6th, when Dana died, you sent me a half-hearted text that you didn’t really know her but were sorry anyways. Offering comfort isn’t really in your vocabulary. I sent Dana’s mother a postcard on Mother’s Day because I was too afraid to call her. Phone calls make me anxious, and I couldn’t contemplate her grief, let alone face it. I didn’t think she had my number, but apparently, she had Dana’s contacts saved and my name turned up: “Hannah Banana.” We talked about motherhood: How it has an impossibly high standard; how I am learning to let you be flawed. I thought I would be the one consoling her.
And then there was June. Ahmaud Arbery was shot to death, George Floyd was suffocated. Restless energy and justified anger swelled: a perfect storm. I was self-isolating on Martha’s Vineyard: stoking the embers in the cast iron stove in an attempt to make it “vibey.” The metaphor was not lost on me: Back home in Brooklyn the flames of the revolution were raging. And I was on an island. Surrounded by water and whiteness, and unable to start a fire to save my own life.
The day after my 10th birthday my classmates watched as distant figures swan dove off flaming wreckage hundreds of stories high. Some of them wondered if it was their parents plummeting. Some of them were not wrong. Burnt bits of document floated onto the promenade and in through open windows like snowfall. I missed seeing the initial impact. I was in art class, in the basement, blissfully unaware of the horrors being witnessed a few stories up. Later, reunited with my classmates sheltering in the basement, I knew better than to tell anybody that I was jealous. That now, in addition to being weird, and black, and kind of gay, I wasn’t in the club.
Dad rode me home on the back of his bicycle wearing a handkerchief over his face to protect him from the falling ash. He must have put one on me, too, but I can’t recall. In his dilapidated Red Hook apartment, we clambered out onto the “roof-deck” – a tar patch accessed through an open kitchen window – where we watched the towers smolder and wondered whether it might be the Russians.
You must have been struggling to make your way downtown from Rockefeller Center to Greenwich Village, flecks of ashen debris landing in your permed black hair, foreshadowing the iconic salt-and-pepper afro of your eventual second act as a visual artist. (Today I had to text you to ask how you had gotten home. I can’t believe I’d never asked before.)
I wanted to wear a scarf around my head like Alicia Keys and India Arie. You told me to take it off. You didn’t want anybody to confuse me for a Muslim. It’s not that you had a problem with Muslims, far from it. But, unprecedented times as they were, you couldn’t take the risk.
In September you were back on the island: where you married Frank, where I drew inspiration for my tattoo from the million furry moths that plastered the salt-washed grey siding of my boyfriend’s family cabin. Where even Dad, before you knew him, came and hobnobbed with the Taylors. Anyway, I was eating dinner at your rental with you, Frank, Josie and Bora. I didn’t really feel welcome there, maybe because we still didn’t have terribly clear instructions on how to handle visiting family during the pandemic. The Vineyard had been spared the brunt of the illness but Frank was over 70 and every introduction of a new pod-member invited a little do-si-do with death.
But the dining room was in this ‘en plein air’ atrium, and we hadn’t hugged or touched at all, so we figured we were being careful. I suggested at some point that you had overcome great obstacles to become successful: something in which I think most people would take immense pride. Instead, you told me that I always got you wrong, and that if I wanted to know more about you, I could have just read your memoir. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands or something. I imagine Josie scolded you some. When I returned, we just pretended nothing had happened. As we do.
I read one chapter of your memoir. At the end of the chapter, you are quite graphically assaulted by a neighbor. It’s unusual, I think, for a daughter to have such a vivid image of her mother being molested. I wonder if it has anything to do with the dream I had a few years ago, in which you drugged me with psychedelics and raped me. I’ve never told anybody about that dream. I didn’t know one could be traumatized by their own dreams, but that, and the last line of your chapter are indelible in my mind. I was understandably less interested in reading the rest of your book after that experience. I do believe that you shared a copy of the finished manuscript with a few people, including your cousin. And I know that it was never published.
I have hidden, burned, or otherwise destroyed my diaries since grade school. My ‘memoirs,’ as it were. The impetus is usually a daydream where I die very suddenly, only for somebody to find my diaries amusing enough to publish them and then all of my unedited thoughts are canon. If it was hard enough for you to write about your mother after she died, how do I write about my mother while she is still alive?
You have shared with me that you struggle with your relationship to Norma, your late mother. The revelations come out in fits and starts, but I’ve unpuzzled enough to see the rough shape of it. Before the stroke that left her bedridden, Great Grandma Evelyn told plenty of stories about her youth: the ballrooms, the big bands and dances. She told very few about her motherhood. She occasionally wondered aloud what went wrong with Norma, your mother. Why she was so obstinate. She certainly never considered that her parenting might have contributed. Just that Norma was an inexplicable rebel. We’ll never find out why Norma was the way she was. Maybe your memoir was your way of reckoning with her. I’m sorry that you weren’t allowed to say your peace.
We like to call Great Grandma Evelyn whenever something remarkable happens in the world, like when Obama was elected. We have a photo of the face she made when we told her Megan Markle had married Prince Harry. Admittedly, her look of awe may have been more about her inability to process language than amusement about a black princess, but we infused it with our narrative because her awe is a barometer of change. You know, ’How crazy is this, Grandma? I mean, has this ever happened before?’
The fear of becoming one’s mother is a futile and masochistic exercise. I have inherited your flaws. I’ve already surrendered to that: a simmering anger that boils at the slightest offense and unreasonably expensive taste in clothing, to name a few. But I also inherited your passion for design, color, pattern, texture, and beauty. Even as I edit this very text (too critical here, not enough praise there), I know we are spiraling outward, distilling a truth we can both live with: that we are messy, intelligent, driven Black women. The rest is just history.