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Licking The Book of Salt

Notes towards Day 21
Critical Feminist Studies

The Book of Salt

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

The Folkloristics of Licking:
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 interpretaion, we might get a fuller mouthful of truth....

We'll taste more fully, today,
both the metaphoric and the epistemological dimensions
of Truong's novel. But first....

I. coursekeeping
belated Stryker: Class Notes
Nature a story we tell about the material world: "I don't believe in nature" the inescapability of material life as a justificaiton for the status quo (nature as a justificatory story)

"geographical circulation is part of how I think": the bodily practice of travel to generate knowledge...continually discentered...a humbling education..."If you can't be at peace where you are, move"

and an addition to our discussion of
Kindred as dream(s):
Her time travel is (to me) obviously dreams, and her physical alterations post-travel are metaphorical....the clue is when Kevin says she always comes back when she's in fear for her life--"everyone knows" you don't
experience your own death in dreams.

reporting in from Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights
tickets for Age of Arousal: now only $10!!
Seeing the Setting for the Voices now available on-line!
6-pp. drafts due by 5 p.m. tomorrow

Tuesday after Th'sgiving break: Gertrude Stein's "Lifting Belly,"
Poetry by Marilyn Hacker (esp. "Calzone" and "Embittered Elegy")
other favorite poems; our own??

reviewing/re-scheduling the remainder of the syllabus:
Th, Nov. 29 poetry and prose by Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Sandra Cisneros
T, Dec. 4 Wendy Wasserstein, The Heidi Chronicles
Th, Dec. 6
Paula Vogel, How I Learned to Drive
Th, Dec. 13
8 p.m.: Linda Griffiths, The Age of Arousal (2007) performed @ the Wilma

II. Returning to taste the salt....

"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)

Salt (in other words!) has many uses...
One thing that it accentuates about this text?
That it's about tasting. Touching. Feeling.
Expanding the sensorium.

(from sarahcollins' class summary:
"It is 'writing the body,' Cixous-style....
Listen to what your tongue say; slow down thinking to perceive")
This might 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.

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.

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?

III. What role does Stryker's notion of "geographic circulation" play in this novel?

"Bridges belong to no one...a bridge has to belong to two parties, one on either side. There has to be an agreement, a mutual consent....Every bridge is...a monument to an accord." (92)

(The man on the bridge has the pseudonym Ho Chi Minh used while in Paris:
a "scholar-prince" with a postcolonial consciousness?)

On what are such bridges of accord built?

"it was the sight of these three sharing the broth left at the bottom of one bowl...a feast more imagined than had, that forever sanctified that marketpalce for lives here, I thought. Faith that there will always be something left at the bottom of the bowl, that none of them will take more than his share." (121)

"What does the gambler have faith in?...The answers...define the gambler's notions of risk and restraint. If 'nothing'...there is nothing to guide him back from the edge, nothing but the urge to jump. Risk encourages a gambler to be brave. Restraint advises a gambler to be prudent...the balance between the two...keeps him in the game." (195).

Binh's comment 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)

IV. 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)

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

--distorted intimacies of domestic service as a microcosm of distorted geopolitical relations
--condescension and racism in unwillingness to learn how to pronounce his name correctly

"Charity that has to be repaid?
Wouldn't that make it a loan?" (164)

The Book of Salt as a good test case for Barbara Johnson's claim that

literature is important for feminism…as the place where impasses can be kept
and opened for examination, questions can be guarded and not forced into
a premature validation of the available paradigms...
giving-to-read those impossible contradictions that cannot yet be spoken.