“Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all – but an orphan”: The Mother Tongue and Translation in Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

  • 1 Heinrich Heine Universität, Düsseldorf, Germany
Birgit Neumann


The essay offers a close reading of On Earth We’re Briefly Georgeous, the remarkable novel by Vietnamese American writer Ocean Vuong, showing how the text’s critical engagement with the notion of the mother tongue is used to negotiate subjectivity and community in diasporic contexts. It assesses the importance of the tongue within the broader context of contemporary migrant and transcultural fiction and reveals how the tongue functions as a trope to explore possibilities of self-articulation after the loss of the mother tongue. Further, the essay draws on the concept of translation, exposing both its violent dimensions and its liberating potential within uneven intercultural relationships. Struggling with the unavailability of his mother tongue, Vuong’s central writer-protagonist performs multiple acts of translation between the unequal languages of Vietnamese and English and reconfigures both in terms of their foreignness. These acts of translation materialize in a multilingual poetics that thoroughly unsettles the priority of closed entities and that confronts the organic genealogy inscribed in the “family romance” (Yildiz 2012: 20) of the mother tongue with open, non-identitarian modes of sociality.1



I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for Anglia as well as Christina Slopek, Martin A. Kayman and Susan Winnett for generously sharing their thoughts on earlier versions of my article with me.

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A renowned journal of English philology, Anglia was founded in 1878 by Moritz Trautmann and Richard P. Wülker. It is thus the oldest journal of English Studies in existence. Anglia publishes essays on the English language and linguistic history, on English literature of the Middle Ages and the modern period, on American literature, on new literatures in English, as well as on general and comparative literary studies.