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Notes Towards Day 12 (Thurs, Feb. 23): Licking (The Book) of Salt

Anne Dalke's picture


"Powered sugar, cracker crumbs, salt...forgive my lack
of appreciation, my nonaffection for the snow" (225).

I. coursekeeping

signing in
reminding you of the very specific posting expected Sunday
evening, to help plan the last 9 classes of the semester together

in preparation for that posting (and our discussion,
which will follow) please read

Peggy McIntosh. “Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: 
A Feminist Perspective.” Working Paper No. 124.
Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. 1983. 1-33.
Available through Education Resources Information Center.

also spend some time re-reading, reflecting on what we have done;
reading  some new material about feminism, what it is/does/might be
(assign yourself the reading you wish I'd given you, and haven't...)

Last Tuesday, we focused on how images [of quinces] work on us,
how we learn to read them, what we bring to those readings,
how universal/not our interpretations may be...

II. Today, let's expand the sensorium beyond the visual....


...and write a paragraph about what you are experiencing.

Listen, now, to the "sound" of what salt tastes like...

The novel is filled with tastes....
how is that accomplished?

(How does a taste "get into" words...?)

What is the relationship between the sensation of a taste,
and the language with which it is described? ...which
activates our our taste buds?

What is the relationships between sensations (more
and the words which represent them?

III. Trying to taste more fully, today,
both the metaphoric and epistemological
dimensions of Truong's novel,
still exploring what sensuality "has to do" with feminism....

(From) Kathy Neustadt, The Folkloristics of Licking (The
Journal of American Folklore 104, 423, Winter 1994):

"anthropologists have managed to distance themselves
from their own bodies and objectify the bodies of those
whom they making our historical and cultural
sensory biases conscious, and by exploring new
perceptual models of experience and interpretation,
we might get a fuller mouthful of truth...."

Salt has many uses in Truong's text:

"My Madame knows that intrigue, like salt,
is best if it is there from the beginning." (177)

"Salt enhances the sweetness." (185)

"She had added a spoonful of salt to the
water to help cleanse the wound." (201)

"I charge four times the usual price
for a salt print like that one." (246)

One thing that salt accentuates about this text:
that it's about tasting. Touching. Feeling.
Expanding the sensorium.

"It is 'writing the body,' Cixous-style....
Listen to what your tongue say;
slow down thinking to perceive"


Might this be dangerous? Illusory?
Can we not trust our expanded sensorium?

Abby: 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.

IV. Let's think some more about the possible
political consequences of an expanded sensorium....

 (From) "The Folkloristics of Licking":
how do we come to know what we know; how close is "too close"?
And what would a science look like in which knowledge was
constituted by the deeply implicating and intimate experiencing
of the Other?

[In] much of what we roughly characterize as "Western thought"...
the eyes...are privileged above the other senses....Sniffing, tasting,
touching...are so immediate, so intense, so of the body..."stress on
the observation of material which discrete items...are
experienced at a remove would seem to lie at the core of our
Western epistemology.

...the power inhering in licking as a new mode of epistemology comes
from its continuity with, and its presentation and immediation of, the
nonlinear, nonrepresentational, nonmediating, "feelingful dimension
of experience"....Licking, as opposed to looking, seeks to recognize
and celebrate the existential conditions that all of us--whatever
our relative positions in the ethnographic act of "gazing"...
are engaged with and must struggle to comprehend.

This might be one way to think about
The Book of Salt
as a feminist text:
replacing "the gaze" with "licking"
(cf. Jane Hedley on Adrienne Rich's love sonnets,
in which gazing is replaced with touching....)
Here's another!

Jessy: This story contains queer characters, but those queer sexualities
are not center stage...there's a type of queer novel...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....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.

... 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.

What do you think about that as a
description of contemporary feminism
(& a definition of contemporary feminist fiction):
an inclusiveness that not only gets beyond women,
but/and more generally,
gender-definitionality and gender-centrality?

V. Let's look @ some other alternatives the novel offers:

Binh comments on the story Bão told him about the sailor
who came from a family of basket weavers:
"A curse...was that man's boundless search or, perhaps,
his steadfast belief that there existed an alternative

to the specific silt of his family's land (59).
" a theory of love and redemption....I, like the
basket weaver, looked at the abundance around me
and believed that there was something more." (249)

Does an alternative to home exist in this novel?
Is there "something more"?

"She thought she was hearing GertrudeStein's laughter....
I thought I was hearing my father's voice. She had left
hers behind. I had unfortunately overpacked." (160)

"there is no forgiveness in ancestor worship,
only retribution and eternal debt." (196-197)

"To them, my body offers an exacting, predetermined
life story. It cripples their imagination
as it does mine....
I am an Indochinese laborer, generalized and indiscriminate,
easily spotted and readily identifiable all the same. It is this
curious mixture of careless disregard and notoriety that
makes me long to take my body into a busy Saigon
marketplace and lose it in the crush. There, I tell myself,
I was just a man...." (152)

Wherein lies the space of a more freely imagined life?

"'the mutations of your condition are endless'...
the varietal nature of human attraction" (128)

What is the role of sex in this novel?
What is the relation of sex to narrative?

"there is no narrative in sex, in good sex that is. There is
no beginning and there is no end, just the rub, the sting,
the tickle, the white light of the here and now." (63)

What is the relation of narrative to a life freely lived?
"She appears to the world an empty page inviting a narrative." (158)

"She has a democratic stare....She looks and looks until she sees....
Her weakness...lies in the sheer force of her suppositions...They
make her vulnerable in unexpected ways." (157)

"Sorrow preys on the unprotected openings, the eyes, ears, mouth,
and heart. Do not speak, see, hear or feel. Pain is allayed, and
sadness will subside. best for someone like me." (107)

"I lie to myself like no one else can." (80)

VI. How do we read this novel, in light of Stein's aesthetic?
"Pointless overdecoration, GertrudeStein explains, thinking of the
commas and periods she has plucked from the pages of her writings.
Such interference, she insists, are nothing more than toads flattened
on a country road, careless and unsightly. The modern world is without
limits, she tells Miss Toklas, so the modern story must accomodate
the possibilities-
-a road where she can get lost if she so choses
or go slow and touch each blade of grass." (28)

"My based mostly on my ability to look for the
signals and intepret the signs. Words...are convenient, a handy
shortcut to meaning. But too often, words limit and deny." (117)

"'Slip your own meanings into their words'...Language is a house with
a host of doors, and I am too often uninvited and without the keys." (155)

"A 'memory' for me was another way of saying a 'story.'
A 'story' was another way of saying a 'gift.'" (258)

VII. What kinds of words does Truong/Binh use?
How did they "operate" on you??

Jan Clausen, "The Cook's Tale."
Women's Review of Books
20, 10-11 (July 2003):
like a documentary film technique, the camera imparts its
own sense of motion to still photographs--
a swooped, focusing, animating effect...

"bloodless": heavy reliance on images and repetition
(overwritten? inviting of interpretation?)

lacks fleshed-out people:
Binh flexible and mercurial,
but static, suspended between eventful
memory and present, w/ few choices
sexual & linguistic homelessness
feminized stereotypes of Asian men

"flat": appropriate both to their iconic status and
cook's need to know them as behavioral probabilities....?

VIII. But: let's look harder and longer at the
uneasy power relations in the novel
(per Clausen):