Peeled Open


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

“… founded on truth, but realized by the imagination.” Ocean’s reading was a seminar for the crowded gathering last night at Bookshop Santa Cruz. He uses the lure of autobiography to draw in the reader, but takes us on a journey using fiction, poetry and imagination to paint rather than tell us a story.   A poet first, he suggests we all practice poetry before writing anything. We believe him, believe anything he says. He’s got that kind of magic surrounding him.

Ocean introduced ‘Kishotenketsu’ as the structure for his story, an Asian, character, not plot driven story structure. I looked it up. I must take his class at Amherst. He is brilliant. A scholar.

Kishōtenketsu is a four act narrative structure developed out of Korean, Chinese and Japanese traditions, originating in Chinese poetry. Kishōtenketsu is a narrative structure that is not based on conflict and resolution.

The four acts of Kishōtenketsu break down like this:

Ki – Introduction

The character, setting, situation and other basic elements are established.

Shō – Development

An expansion of the first act introduction. No major changes occur.

Ten – Twist

The story takes a turn into a contrasting, seemingly separate situation.

Ketsu – Conclusion

The story resolves, connecting all acts.

The Ten (Third Act Twist) is the Key to Kishōtenketsu

The Ten- the third act—is a contrasting, even seemingly nonsensical, departure from the character and situation set up in the first and second acts.

In the fourth act, that third act dislocation is brought together to resolve a complete narrative connection with the first part of the story. Kate Krake, for writers. Thank you.


On Earth is an exploration, a meeting place for our hearts and minds to consider what he called a democratic town square, during which he asks himself, and us, to consider, How do we harvest compassion from our world? The world he paints in the most gorgeous language, images and through his eyes is real and dreamy and moves unafraid into Asian sensibility, the emergence of the Opioid crisis, and Queer culture. Not culture, exactly more Queer pleasure, a sensory exploration and he keeps us with him there as part of the atmosphere, the landscape is Connecticut, but it is us, our messed up America. Little Dog is complex, innocent but whole and human. His character survives, some do not. Some bodies, he told us are deemed not worth protecting. He wants to offer us these bodies, in their wholeness and brokenness as beautiful.

Ending with a song, after his disclaimer, I am not a singer. An Appalachian song sung at funerals, and he brought us to our knees. What a beautiful man he is, as if in a dream, I walked back alone to the three level parking structure, wishing I could sing the song in the car, be Ocean, inhabit his mind, no, his soul.

I read this book last week, couldn’t recall the name, each time I suggested someone read it, as if in a trance as I stammered on about the experience, the sense of this story, his novel, the way poetry does, left me steeped in a sensory world, not ideas. Since then, I’m rendered wordless. (except to sing the praises of this novel) Who am I to claim that I write? May as well say I am a pilot because I went on an airplane once or twice.

Read this book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong


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