The figurative language of Ocean Vuong…

Reading time: About 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of similes and metaphors from Ocean Vuong….

Ocean Vuong  is a young Vietnamese-American poet, essayist and novelist, who was born on a rice farm in Ho Chi Minh City. Named a  McArthur Fellow (informally known as the “Genius Grant”) in 2019, Vuong now is an associate professor in the MFA Program for Writers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

His memoir, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is a poetic interpretation of his troubled childhood and his challenges in integrating into American society. The book displays some truly lovely figurative language. Here are my favourite examples:

  • The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.
  • Despite being your mother, she’s 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.
  • She sat up, her shoulder-length hair splayed out behind her like a cartoon character just blasted with TNT.
  • Each morning after that, we’d repeat this ritual: the milk poured with a thick white braid…I’m drinking light, I thought. I’m filling myself with light.
  • One man has black hair, the other a yellow moustache like a scar of sunlight.
  • The men are drinking and laughing, their gapped teeth like mouthfuls of dice.
  • The olive tag stitched to the boy’s chest frames a word. Although the woman cannot read it, show knows it signals a name, something given by a mother or father, something weightless yet carried forever, like a heartbeat.
  • He smokes the way one smokes after a funeral.
  • I’d come back with your glass of water and you’d already be snoring your hands in your lap like two partially scaled fish.
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