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Week 11--Tasting The Book of Salt

Anne Dalke's picture

So: Monique Truong's novel, The Book of Salt,
is the next literary selection in Critical Feminist Studies.

How do you find the "taste"?

And what do you think that "taste"--or sensation more generally--

has to do with feminism?

Pemwrez2009's picture

Tasting what the eye sees

Long overdue, but I have a feeling that even if class is over, we might still post from time to time.

Well, here is the Audre Lorde poem that reminded me of the Book of Salt:

On a Night of the Full Moon
Out of my flesh that hungers
And my mouth that knows comes the shape I am seeking
For reason.
The curve of your waiting body
Fits my waiting hand
Your brests warm as sunlight
Your lips quick as young birds
Between your thighs the sweet
Sharp taste of limes

Thus I hold you
Frank in my heart's eye
In my skins knowing
As my fingers conceive your flesh
I feel your stomach moving against me

Before the moon wanes again
We shall come together

And I would be the moon
Spoken over your beckoning flesh
Breaking against reservations
Beaching thought
My hands at your high tide
Over and under inside you
And the passing of hungers
Attend, forgotten

Darkly risen
The moon speaks
My eyes
Judging your roundness


First, let me say that I am so please that the book went over so well in class! That means a lot.

Maybe it's true that we place so much emphasis on our eyes when we read. Some of the most intense moments I've had with literature, poems, articles have been when they have been read to me and I am able to experience different materials on different levels.

Truong invites the reader to feel the depth of the characters on so many different platforms. She enables the reader to hurt and simultaneously lust with Bao. We are able to taste with Alice and feel sensual with Gertrude (wow, there really isn't anything sensual about the name Gertrude). 

I love Truong's ability to make the story of the sous-chef from Alice B Toklas' Cook Book, not someone who is "othered" in the readers eyes. For us, he is our point of reference and we experience what he experiences. 

I don't usually enjoy flowery novels and lush descriptions that go on for pages. Her descriptions, however, envelope you. I don't get bored, I start wanting other forms of simulation. When I read about Bao's recipes I had to eat. I spent that week's lunch in my room curled around a Haffner take-out box, covered up and reading. When I read about Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas' "intimate moments" I felt like I needed touch. We should not take books like this, that push us to different places for granted. Too often we are de-sensitized by the things we watch or hear. Truong requires more from her audience. However, I never had a problem feeling drawn in. 

Like Flora, I'm not sure that I would associate it with a feminist categorization. Feminism implies an agenda of some sort. I feel like Truong wrote for Bao and to bring forward the "other". Maybe, that is feminist. However, stimulating different senses with text does seem sort of feminist to me. I feel like inciting different areas of thought and learning is something that is very much so a part of the feminist agenda (at least my feminist agenda).

lvasko's picture

I love food

I love food. I love eating it, cooking it, watching it be made, tasting, smelling, getting my hands in it... and I think this is part of the reason why I loved Book of Salt. The descriptions were fantastic. It made me hungry every time I read it.

Whether or not we can classify it as a feminist novel, though, is something I am still debating. I think we can say that it definitely had feminist undertones: the ability for two women to live the life of their choice...especially in contrast with Binh's mother whose life was the exact opposite. There were certainly feminist perspectives, but whether the novel as a whole can be catagorized as a feminist one is hard, I think, to argue.

Still, I loved it.

I also agree with flora that Troung's writing was almost the exact opposite of Stein's. Where Stein thinks of salt, and then extrapolates to the end of the universe in her references to get to salt. Or not. I don't think stein really cares if you get her references. I'm pretty sure that she just wants to fuck with her readers.

Troung on the other hand is alllllll about pleasing the reader. Using every single one of their senses, engaging them in a pleasurable experience, Making them feel, smell, taste, see who, what, where Binh is. We are binh when we read Book of Salt. In contrast with reading Stein when we realize how not Stein we are.


Flora's picture

salty feminism

When I think back to our in-class writing exercise on describing the taste of salt, I am struck by how very, very much The Book of Salt served as a contradiction to Stein's literary approach. If Stein wanted to eliminate narrative by continually calling you back to the moment of experience, Truong is attempting quite the opposite. Whenreading, we live in the moments of Bao's life, but are not encouraged to associate them with our personal moments of encountering and experiencing his written experiences. Even he does not live in soley the moments he experiences. Every event he describes is reflected on and connected to his history up to the moment Stein and Toklas leave for America. There is one great exception to this rule: his sexual encounters. Perhaps he excludes describing them in the same detail because of his belief that there is no narrative in good sex?

I don't feel comfortable calling this book a feminist novel. I certainly don't think it's anti-feminist. I'm not especially sure what a feminist novel would be. Here I am exposing my Achilles heel: I wrote my major to focus on studying social systems, not the arts which makes my knowledge of feminist art not so scholarly. Perhaps I will have more to say about what it takes to make this novel feminist art after I return from the Whack exhibit in DC. Then again, perhaps the reason I hesitate to call the novel feminist is because I can think of several feminisms that were not concerned with some of the themes of the book. Themes such as the painful consequences of socioeconomic, ethnic, national and racial inequalities, imperialism and the protection of queer identities have not historically been at the forefront of feminist agendas. Because of this, I'm afraid of labeling the novel feminist precisely because it may box it into a system of theoretical tropes to which it does not subscribe. But certainly, its content and perspective resonates strongly with many third world, queer and third wave feminisms, to name a few.

Maybe I'm just being too academic here. I loved the novel because of its complexities. I hesitate to give it a label any less specific and complex than that which it is meant to represent. Am I just hiding behind my vocabulary? What would Bao say? I have so many amazing phrases written down from this novel that help me better think about aspects of the world. I suppose that I, like Bao, will integrate his/Truong's ideas into my own so that they will become reflections in my internal narrative. I don't think I can reflect on life as Gertrude Stein would have me to. I still find beauty in the reflected, not instaneous, complexities behind something as simple seeming as salt.


smigliori's picture

Class Summary...Book of Salt, Round Two

So, playing with the chronology of the actual discussion for easier digestion, here's a basic summary of what happened on 11/20.

Dr. Faustus

Gertrude Stein's Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights played the past two weekends in Goodhart Theatre. The performance was apparently well received by all in the class who attended, though I tend to agree with Karl Kirchwey, who apparently hates Gertrude Stein. jrizzo, who played Death (dressed in a black wedding dress) talked to the class about the way rehearsals addressed the "performance of the unconscious".

Dr. Faustus was also site-specific due to this being the last Mark/Hiroshi collaboration in Goodhart, which is set to undergo renovations starting after graduation. (Mark's on sabbatical next semester, so the spring production will be by a guest director.) Apparently the set was very beautiful, it's astonishing we didn't burn down Goodhart with all the lights (I think the safety officer was a little concerned). Anne also regaled the class with an anecdote about her first experience in Goodhart, listening to Mary Daly speak. This concreted her view of Goodhart as a female space. I pointed out that this is helped by the fact that, from the stage, Goodhart looks like a giant cervix (Abby agreed).

Other Coursekeeping

11/20 was the National Trans Day of Remembrance

Tickets for Age of Arousal are $10, and can be picked up from Bryn in the English House Office

Drafts due at 5 PM TODAY

Next Tuesday: Gertrude Stein and Marilyn Hacker - The Lesbian Poet: To Conform Or Not To Conform? (Okay, so that's not actually the title for the class, but it totally should be)

Sign-up sheet for groups for Final Performances to be passed around next Thursday - can be individual but groups are preferred

Book of Salt

Four different ways (at least) that it could be construed as a feminist text

- Abby's consideration of "the danger of the senses"

- way to get out of the gaze by focusing on the other senses - Western thought is very focused on the sense of sight

- lack of focus on the categories of gender/ sexuality could be an example of what feminism should be striving for (as per jessy's post) - a "normalizing of queerness" - general nodding (I liked this idea, which was a surprise to no one), Flora and Abby dissented

- text written involving Gertrude Stein, whose noteriety for ignoring grammatical markers complicates the implications of race and gender markers

Importance of "geographic circulation"

- novel is driven by Bihn's (Bao's?) desires for other men

- good sex has no narrativ - because if it's good fully in the moment?

- heteronormativity of gstein's and atoklas' lives - cultural/ socioeconomic implications

Things We Didn't Have Enough Time To Really Discuss

Distorted intimacies caused by the inequity of global economy

Why did Truong write a novel about Gertrude Stein in such a descriptive form?

- adixon - blogs, e-mails, IMs lack grammatical markers in a way gstein would probably appreciate

- Flora - about Bao (/Bihn) not about gstein - difference between lack of knowledge of language and intentionally ignoring grammar

- jrizzo - only interested in gstein's personal story, not her work itself - comparison of grammatical markers to gender markers


Mary Clurman '63's picture

Salt and Feminism

Anne asks at the end of this lecture what Salt has to do with feminism.

It seems to me to be exploring the shifting sense of the feminine that we are all encountering, at least those of us who are taking this course, if perhaps less so in the world at large. To my complete amazement, the welcome material sent me by Peace Corps Thailand included an issue of Mango & Sticky Rice, which featured (exclusively) American lesbian wedding experiences!

Know that I have been for 10 years living in the pygmy forest/high desert of Northern Arizona, attending for a period the Cowboy Church. My partner of 5 years is out on the elk hunt, for which he prepared himself as if he were a zombie, unable to focus on anything but the hunt. Nevertheless the (now-not-so) Asian restaurant in town is run by two gays from elsewhere, who rented the shop next door to them to 2 lesbians probably also from elsewhere. The prime mover-shaker in town is a German woman, Lilo, who came home w/ a GI from WWII; her voice is raspy, her attitude macho. For years the outed gay fixture in town has been Louis, who looks and sounds like Lilo.

So Salt casts Truong's waves of feminine feeling onto the waters where they seep as they will (have I captured Anne's style?). We are no longer in control, borders melt -- and so the book asks, who are we really? Men are no longer "men," women no longer "women." Hurrah for al that!

Mary Clurman '63's picture


Listening to class discussion of Binh's description -- which I thought was of Stein, not of Toklas -- my thought is that Truong's elaboration of Binh's perceptions is the author's way of immersing us in her character. This is a book about a cook, a chef, one whose life is enveloped in sensual experience -- a student (Abby?) has just now said this, too, so I concur.

I am interested that this book verges on fanfic, in that it expands on an existing work and, while Truong may be a professional author now, she may have become so with this book -- I have a friend who has been "published" in NPR essays more than once, and she is not economically, at least, a professional writer. I try to avoid looking at Truong's photo,which suggests to me, yes, a spoiled and calculating young woman. So if Anne's critic sees the book as "bloodless" I may, by the time I finish reading it, concur there, as well. At this point, I am enjoying the book, have twice laughed aloud with it.

As previously noted, I once wrote for myself a few pages in emulation of Judith Thurman's Colette. The result was very sensual, certainly erotic, maybe only lightly so. I thought I'd done well but dismissed it somewhat as too easy to do, not something to sustain booklength.

I've never cared to write much fiction myself, because I am not a natural storyteller, I am repulsed by the negativity of modern fiction, and I love writing essays. But I am thinking about writing a "story" that consists solely of character exposition -- no action. I would not be the first to explore it, but explore I would, as the mode/strategy does appeal to me. I like descending into the character of another (something like figuring out why a person has reacted in a certain way, and then figuring out why I respond differently, to paraphrase, I think, Flora); writing it would allow me to go further, with practical consequeneces for me but no lecture for another person!

Abby's picture

Small sprinklings

 The matter of Sweet Sunday Man and the stolen notebook makes me believe that Truong may be playing with the danger of the senses; that is, their ability to overwhelm and very often decieve.  Binh's obsession with the photograph of he and Lattimore, his description of the nature of their relationship (one in which they seem to perform romanticized ideals for each other), even the very dubbing of his love "Sweet," all this makes me think of cravings for imagery, touch, scent, lushness of every kind. Binh sees the world as something to be tasted, his language is food language, sensory language.  He often talks about consuming and being consumed.  But because of Lattimore's betrayal all of these ideas of sweetness and sensuality are connected with illusion, and a cunning one at that.


One Student's picture

And, And, And ...

Having finished the book, and having thought about it some more ...

This story contains queer characters, but those queer sexualities are not center stage, although the queer sexualities are part of the story. What happened between Binh and Lattimore wouldn't have happened if both of them didn't have sex with men. Binh might not have ended up in France if he hadn't had sex in Bleriot. BUT his sexuality does not drive the plot, although it is integral to the plot. He suffers most for being Vietnamese; his sexual relationships with men merely provide the vehicles for his humiliation, humiliations which would not have occurred if he were not Vietnamese (perhaps he would suffer more for his sexual practices if he were white, and his sexuality mattered more in his social contexts). The fact that Toklas and Stein are in love with each other is a very basic premise of the plot, but Binh describes their relationship to each other as individuals, rather than as lesbians. Their romantic and sexual relationship is not glossed over, but it is not ...

I can't find the right phrase to describe it, but there's a type of queer novel (which I haven't read much of) which is all about coming out and being rejected and finding a community and an identity and whatnot. A narrative about being lesbian or gay or trans or whatever. The Book of Salt is not so one-note. A complex dish, in which the salty taste of gender merely offsets the many flavors of races and nationalities and languages and journeys and class and wealth and clothes and family and ...


A relief for me. This is the kind of story I want to read more of, in which there are people like me, generally speaking (I'll settle for anything that isn't very heteronormative), but who have lives outside their genders, identities beyond their sexual partners and practices. To be honest, these days most of my recreational reading material is fanfic, because fanfic is very often queer, and very often written by queer women for queer women in a relatively queer and female community. Fanfic has its own tropes, of course, but they are very often queer tropes. I take what I can get. And I've been writing what I want to read, too, both in my fanfic and in my original fic. Someone's got to do it, normalize (for lack of a better word?) queerness so it's not all Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don't Cry and The Well of Loneliness. Stories about queer people, not about queerness.

But the question that concerns us, the class as a group, is whether The Book of Salt fits into a feminist canon. In my first, unconconclusive post, I proposed that gender and sexuality are central to feminism. In The Book of Salt, gender and sexuality are not central but they are important. I also say that gender and sexuality cannot be discussed without race and class and nationality and, and, and ... And so perhaps The Book of Salt represents an accomplishment which feminism is right now struggling with: this book achieves a kind of inclusiveness, in which any and every person is relevant because any and every person is gendered in addition to and, and, and ... And the gendering informs the rest, the rest informs the gendering. To be Binh, to be GertrudeStein, to be Lattimore, to be Bleriot, to be Alice B. Toklas: all queer, but such utterly different experiences because of that and, and, and ... (GertrudeStein: the sexuality of a self-described genius; Alice B. Toklas: the sexuality of a self-described genius's lover, caretaker, etc.)

admin's picture

Jane Rule

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sarahcollins's picture

Class summary from 11/15: Book of Salt, Round 1

First we discussed some lingering disputes over Butler’s Kindred, such as how, if at all, it is a “feminist didactic", as well as complaints about the book's style.

Then we were asked to describe a picture of a solemn, dark-haired, moustached woman. Our reactions to the picture of Alice Toklas:

Dark lighting; possibly posing; male or female?; prominent nose; bangs frame the face; expression apathetic, neutral, hint of sadness; focus particuarly on the effect of the eyes

Our observations on the contrast between the book’s description of Toklas and ours:

-The narrator makes her face into a story, he is much more elaborate and sensuous; uses lyrical diction, more literary devices; it’s more personal, it assumes a closer stance to woman than our class.

Why is the book written in this rich, effusive style?

-It’s a reflection of the speaker’s perception of the woman

-It illustrates the sensuous nature of the novel

-It’s in excess because excess is a possible theme

-It invites many interpretations: is it an excessive description? Or an elaborate façade over shallowly depicted characters?


How does language (such as “an oyster with sand in its lips”) work on us?

Words vs. images: are words more assailable, more subject to common testing?…and tasting?

-In relation to memories – pictures, like the ones used in B of S, evoke the very idea of memory

-Do you trust the narrator? What does it mean to trust the narrator? Is he faithful to the “truth”?


We were given a pinch of salt to taste, after which we attempted to capture the sensation with words:

Salt is sweet; tongue rejects, it’s pungent, stinging; clear physical reaction; basic, metallic taste; many respond that it lingers; bitter; evocative of memories of foods, ocean, tears; overpowering, abrasive; disgusting; recognizable; sharp; taste buds dance, tongue shuffles

How would you describe a taste to someone with no tastebuds?

Is it more or less difficult to capture images or sensation with words?

-There’s too much to describe in images; salt is more real

-Listen to what your tongue says; slow down thinking to perceive


Why is this book in this course? What role does sensation play in feminism?

-The Gaze: who is gazing at whom in B of S? There is a fracturing of the Gaze and of gender roles

-Communication: Vietnamese, French, and English speaking characters

-Turning assumptions of 2nd wave feminism on their heads

-Gertrude Stein’s resistance to conventional (masculine?) dramatic functions, such as chronological plot

-It is “writing the body”, Cixous-style

Anne Dalke's picture

lighting the lights/performing the unconscious

"My writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on...."

"being intelligible is not what it seems, after all all these things are a matter of habit..."

(from the program notes)

I've just come from the rather astonishing performance of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (yes, go see it tomorrow night--last chance!). The piece about the production in Bryn Mawr Now emphasizes the fact that it is a valedictory to Goodhart-as-we-know-it. What it DOESN'T mention is what an astonishing representation of the play of the unconscious this play is. Maybe Jessica Rizzo--who was "Death" in a gorgeous black gown--can tell us a little next week, about how it feels to (consciously?) perform the unconscious?

One Student's picture

Describing the Walls In Front of Me

I've been reading (skimming, really) Native Anthropology by Takami Kuwayama. Kuwayama has a message for Western anthropologists: "My message to the anthropologists of the cneter, in the United States, Greak Britain, and France, is a plea to realize, first, that their overwhelming power has created relations of domination and subordination in anthropological practice; and, second, that beause of their dominant position they have, intentionally or not, suppressed the voices from the margins." He also has a message for marginalized group: "To peripheral anthropologists in Asia and other regions, my message is about the danger of becoming nationalistic or even chauvinistic and of dogmatically ejecting everything Western (i.e., the central discourse) in their desire to be intellectually independent."

Western anthropologists in the past created the divide by constructing locals as 'natives', objects of study. Contemporary Western anthropologists maintain it by ignoring the anthropological work done by the 'natives' themselves.But 'native anthropologists' deepen the divide: b y rejecting the central discourse, they make it even more difficult for dialog to occur. But to participate, Kuwayama suggests that they must familiarize themselves with the master's tools.

This interests me particularly as a netizen, blogger, and member of the fen who would like to do scholarship about online communities and what is produced online.

I think there are rough parallels between the situation Kuwayama describes and Binh's linguistic experiences in Vietnam and in France. Westerners in Vietnam don't bother to learn much Vietnamese. The Vietnamese know only what they need to know. There is no discourse between these two grops, because there is no shared language, literally. But what would the reaction have been if Binh had attempted to learn French fluently, or to learn English? To discourse with Westerners as an equal? It's not just language, it's race and class, signified by language. Sometimes you're not permitted to use the master's tools. Binh is given barely enough access to the language he needs in order to serve Westerners; to take orders, really.

What does any of this have to do with feminism? The funny thing about the male/female dichotomy is that the two halves share each other's lives. Woman's place is not often physically separate from man's place. The women in the parlor drinking tea are very near the men in the dining room drinking liquor. Needless to say, they speak the same language. Whereas only a few 'natives' share the lives of 'imperials'. While I define 'feminism' quite broadly, The Book of Salt seems to have much more to do with race and language and nationality and colonialism than with gender and sexuality, which is the center of feminism. Race, class, nationality, etc. must be taken into account by feminists, but I think that gender and sexuality is the starting point and the point of unification for the various strands of feminism.

But Book of Salt is told from the POV of a man who has sex with other men, who serves two women who are in a queer relationship. There must be some angle.

And I can't think of one right now; maybe it would help if I finished the book first ...

And I find that analyzing taste is very difficult, even more difficult than describing a taste. Usually, I analyze words, thoughts, relationships, images.

I can't think of anything else right now. I keep running into walls.

kwheeler's picture

yay anthro

“My message to the anthropologists of the center, in the United States, Great Britain, and France, is a plea to realize, first, that their overwhelming power has created relations of domination and subordination in anthropological practice”

Kuwayama’s message (from what I have gather in the couple of quotes Jessy has given us) is nothing new to the anthropological discourse; the discussion of power-relations in anthropology has been around for decades especially given the influence of the postmodern feminist movement in contemporary anthropology. The discussion of this power-imbalance is essentially what I’ll be researching for my final project if you want to check out my proposal, /exchange/node/1300.

“But 'native anthropologists' deepen the divide: by rejecting the central discourse, they make it even more difficult for dialog to occur. But to participate, Kuwayama suggests that they must familiarize themselves with the master's tools.”

This is way off topic but I think Kuwayama’s discussion lends to our past discussions about the feminist movement and participation in preexisting patriarchal institutions. Authors such as Woolf tell us that women need to create their own institutions, distinct from those governed by men. However if we apply Kuwayama’s ideas to the feminist movement he suggests that women must comply with the standards and norms that men have determined in order for us to gain acceptance and for our ideas to be considered valid. How does this fit in with readings such as Sosnoski’s, who suggests that we go against the grain and must change our methods from competition to concurrence? What about the idea that women should be writing for women? Does Kuwayama think we must cast aside such idealism and face the reality of the situation; that we must play by “the master’s” rules in order to participate in the dialog?

Anyway, back to the Book of Salt… I think Jessy brings up some interesting ideas about language in the book. While reading I found myself wondering why language was so difficult for Binh after living in France for so many years and working for the Steins. The idea that Binh wasn’t given access to learn language makes a lot of sense given the underlying discussion of race and class inequalities Book of Salt has to offer. That said, the novel would be completely different if there wasn’t the language barrier, especially considering past class discussions (and readings I’ve done for Anthropology about the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis) about the importance of language in determining the way you think about the world and behave in it.