In debut novel, Ocean Vuong pens love letter to his mom and working-class Asian Americans

When Ocean Vuong moved to New York City after high school, he was startled to hear the general perception of his hometown.

“I would tell people I was from Hartford, Connecticut, and people would say ‘Ooh, fancy,’” the writer, who was born in 1988, said. “I would say: ‘What are you talking about? Where I am from, there’s nothing fancy.’”

That sentiment is part of the reason why Hartford feels like another character in Vuong’s debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” which is scheduled to be released Tuesday by Penguin Press. An acclaimed poet, Vuong won the Whiting Prize in 2016 with his collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds.”

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” a novel by Ocean Vuong.Penguin Press

Based on Vuong’s experience growing up as the son of a single mother and as a refugee of the Vietnam War, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” centers on Little Dog, a creative and precocious child who is the first in his family to learn how to read. The book is presented as a loving letter to his illiterate mother.

One of Vuong’s goals was to depict Asian American life in New England, which he said is rarely represented in literature.

“I wanted to have a much more diverse look at New England life, which is dependent on these brown and yellow folks to clean for them, to cook for them,” Vuong said, referring to the residents of the wealthy towns that surround Hartford. “I really wanted to capture that — within the midst of all this WASP life — Asian American identity thrives, immigrant identity thrives, and that working class folks live here. That is also a major part of New England identity, it is not just the mansions.”