After describing a walk through the mall with his mother, Little Dog says that both of them frequently went home without buying anything. The quote emphasizes that they live in poverty and are connected by a strong bond. The quote also emphasizes their corporeality and suggests that even though they are empty of material goods there is still something available for them.
“Every grain of rice you leave behind is one maggot you eat in hell.”
When preparing a bowl of “true peasant food,” rice mixed with tea, Little Dog’s grandmother emphasizes that no food should be wasted.
“The cruelest walls are made of glass, Ma.”
After getting physically harmed by another boy, Little Dog feels alienated because his Vietnamese background sets him apart from the American boys. The glass wall, therefore, represents the invisible and implicit boundaries that he is unable to overcome, along with showcasing the illusion of belonging.
“Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.”
Little Dog mentions that his mother had to watch her schoolhouse collapse during an American napalm raid, and that she never stepped into a classroom after the age of 5. Therefore, he suggests that the language she speaks and the one she has given him is one inflected with the trauma and memories of the Vietnam War.
“Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the world is, like you, Ma, a direct product of the war in Vietnam.”
A prominent theme in the author's work is the notion that many people, particularly children of American soldiers, would not have been born if there had been no war in Vietnam. This quote highlights two of these people: Tiger Woods and Little Dog's mother. It also highlights that the uncanny tenor of war produced something other than destruction.
"Let me begin again."
The quote is the first sentence that opens the novel and it is outside the letter itself. Thus, it is unclear who Little Dog is addressing. Is it still his mother? Is it another reader? The ambiguity of the first sentence highlights the very challenges of reading the text itself.
"It is no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus—that curve of continuation."
This is a moment in which language is understood through a figurative trope that refers back to the nature of language itself.
"A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore no flight. And yet we are moved."
This is another moment in Little Dog's preoccupation with language as it relates to meaning. When he describes the act of turning a page as "no flight and yet we are moved," he cruises into meta-textual territory. In fact, it seems that here he is describing the phenomenology of reading—that is, we think of reading as a kind of flight even if we are not physically moved.
"I sit, with all my theories, metaphors, and equations, Shakespeare and Milton, Barthes, DuFu, and Homer, masters of death who can't, at last, teach me how to touch my dead."
This moment follows Lan's passing and does not highlight the failure of language so much as it reveals its limits. At the moment in which all of the language about death should help Little Dog come to terms with his loss, language falls flat.
"'Why didn't they get me? Well, 'cause I was fast, baby. Some monkeys are so fast, they're more like ghosts, you know? They just—poof,' you open your palm in a gesture of a small explosion, 'disappear.' Without moving your head, you look at me, the way a mother looks at anything—for too long. Then, for no reason, you start to laugh."
The final moment of the novel depicts the inability for Little Dog to ever know his mother. This representation isn't necessarily a negative one; rather, it reminds us that people are not reducible and no matter how much we may think that we know someone, they always remain elusive in their other worlds that they live alongside yours.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.