Letters to Mom
By Katharine Yacovone
Edited by Lois Payne and Annie Agathopoulou
‘I am writing to reach you — even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are,’ opens Ocean Vuong’s debut epistolary novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. In this novel, the narrator writes to his mother, a Vietnamese American immigrant who cannot read. The letter form transcends the limitations of writing and allows Vuong to digress and return, as seen later in the novel, when Vuong writes, ‘Let me begin again.’
The letter mode can take on anything and everything. It is the best way to share a self that is fragmented and still forming. Because of this, the letter is a vulnerable form, which allows Vuong to explore the complex relationship between a mother and her son, while also examining queer and immigrant identity, and the Vietnam War.
When my mom gave me a copy of this novel in the spring of 2020 — after my premature return home from a semester in France due to the COVID-19 pandemic — I was drawn to its unique form. The novel, set in my home of Hartford County, contains beautiful descriptions of the tobacco fields, long slatted red barns, and the winding Connecticut river. But what I found myself most drawn to was the novel’s attempt at connection.
In an interview with Waterstones, Vuong said that ‘The book is an attempt, or a series of attempts, to see if language can hold this inquiry between mother and son.’ The narrator writes a correspondence in the hopes of understanding both his mother and himself. In this way, a letter, too, is an attempt.
This year, I moved to the United Kingdom to pursue a Masters at the University of Nottingham, and since starting my undergraduate studies and spending two terms abroad, leaving has come to feel like an inevitability. The constant ache of homesickness, the hopeless juggling of time differences, is something I’ve come to accept. But when I feel the 3296 miles of distance, I know to write to my mother.
Though text messages and Facetimes are frequent, I feel closest to my mother when we write letters to each other. There’s something about finding an envelope in my post box, labelled in her familiar swirling script — a delicate balance of cursive and print, with perfectly rounded out bs and ds, looped t’s. Her handwriting holds her essence — like the smell of her sweaters, the lavender sachet on her bedside table, the Chanel No5 she keeps in her bathroom cabinet for special occasions.
Mom’s letters are filled with home — the sound of the snap peas that have started coming up in dad’s garden, and the way the dandelion fuzz and pollen has begun to settle on the patio table, when earlier that spring it had been falling like snow. The information is more tangible than any form of communication. She has taken a moment out of her busy, overworked life, to write to me about things that I don’t need to know, but would like to. Each line feels like a piece of home — a piece of her.
There’s something poignant, I think, in finding a letter in your mailbox, written with only you in mind. A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 2006 discussed the health benefits of expressive letter writing, concluding that writing to someone significant can improve sleep and reduce illness and stress. This isn’t very surprising as emails and texts don’t give me the same feeling as reading my mom’s handwriting.
There’s also a thrill in dropping my words in a box and not knowing when they will be received. When writing back to my mom, I tell her about the little insignificances of my day — the baby pigeon I saw crossing the street. How I realized I’d never seen a baby pigeon before. I tell her how living in a studio can be lonely, but I like the way the steam from the laundry room below comes in through my window, making my flat smell like lavender detergent. Through those little things, I can open up to her in ways I don’t feel comfortable doing over text or on the phone. I can say more. I’ve found that letter writing is not surface thinking, but more of a dive in the unedited and unfiltered part of my mind.
Letter writing has gone from an essential form of communication to something more permissive. We write to attempt, to explore, to understand, not always because we have something to say, but because in writing, we will find what we are trying to say.
When I feel homesick or stressed about my future, I write a letter to my mom. Even if it’s a letter I’ll never send, writing to her helps me understand myself better. It helps me feel connected to home. Writing to her is like sitting on the suede couch in our family room, beside the fire, watching Jeopardy.
Vuong, in all the beauty of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, understood the importance of the letter. He understood that writing to his mother, even through a fictional narrator, would help him contextualize his relationship with, and love for her. The narrator could get closest to his mother, offer the most to her, by writing her a letter — regardless of whether she would read it.
So, every now and then, I stick two international stamps to an envelope, and slip it in the red post box down the street. It will be stamped with an airmail symbol and, in a few days, will arrive in the mailbox on my Connecticut street, the same box the snowploughs knock down each winter.
The Letters Page team are back in the office, and ready to read your real letters again. We publish stories, essays, poems, memoir, reportage, criticism, recipes, travelogue, and any hybrid forms, so long as they come to us in the form of a letter. We are looking for writers of all nationalities and ages, both established and emerging.
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