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Notes Towards Day 13: Licking the Book of Salt

Notes towards Day 13
Critical Feminist Studies

I. welcome back:
remembering one another's names?
relevant gender-bending stories?
feminist tales from your travels?

Oberlin's new institute in
Gender, Sexuality and Feminism Studies

"Miss/Mr." @ Washington U Law School

On this matter of titles (which Quakers don't use...)

From the OED:
1. An inscription placed on or over an object...describing it
(In earliest use repr. L. titulus, superscription: the inscription on the Cross.)

2. a. The descriptive, formal heading...of a book

3. The name of a...composition; an inscription at the beginning...
describing or indicating its subject, contents, or nature

4. A descriptive or distinctive appellation; a name, denomination, style.

5. An appellation attaching to an individual or family in virtue of rank, function, office, or attainment

6. That which justifies or substantiates a claim; a ground of right.

Might it be feminist to use titles
(giving credit where it's due/earned)?
Or NOT to (refusing stereotypes/reductive gestures)?
Does a title invite you in, socially,
or leave you out, intellectually?
What sort of (literary/political) gesture is it?

Not unrelated:
anyone interested in dinner with Shirley Tilghman?

(First speaker in the Science for Leadership series:
6 pm in Wyndham on Wednesday, October 29)

II. report from/adjustments in response to
mid-term evaluations upcoming
(note enlarged webpage;
feel free to post on Mondays, Fridays;
your are encouraged to respond to one another's post-->
change that culture?)

Hilary, Melissa, Katie, Sarah:
a paragraph today, please,
on what's working/what's not--

III. Returning to lick the salt....

Let's try to taste more fully, today,
both the metaphoric and the epistemological dimensions
of Truong's novel.

dhathaway: the sense of taste is very undervalued in a lot of writing.
This story seems a lot richer with the use of it...

leftovers from before break/
a reminder of where we were....

Lots of reflections on pictures/words/sounds/interpretation:
some extensions--

recommended YouTube re: universal language
aaclh's poem in symbols, understandable only when read aloud

continued discussion about whether
words or images are more
rchauhan: a word is limiting. it has a definition and all the memories that one could associate with the word is linked to the definition.
skumar: words are anything but's easier to play with/"have sex with" words than it is with a picture.
ebock: "Lifting Belly" doesn't tell us a story, it introduces us to an experience. Not with the words and their definitions, but with the sound and feelings that the words give to us...a word will evoke something more specific than an image
sarahk: I saw the fact that I couldn't discern the meaning of the words as VITAL to the poetry
rfindlay: I, as the reader, had been an instrument for GertrudeStein...I'll allow myself the conceit that when I said I loved the poem, I wasn't praising GertrudeStein's ability as a poet, but my own as a reader. Hmph.

Return to these questions on Thursday:
Part I (and NYTimes article,
"'Sisters' Colleges See a Bounty in the Middle East")
think about the graphic novel as a feminist genre (?)
return also to the matter of the three waves of feminism/
problematize them--have gotten too handy/stereotypical....

skumar: Feminism is supporting choices...

lrperry:as soon as you say “Feminism is…”
you start leaving people out.

Lots to do! Go back, first, to The Book of Salt,
see what sensuality has to do with feminism....

"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...."

"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:
"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:
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?

(From one of your mid-semester evals:)
"I'm having trouble seeing the
course as particularly

IV. Let's look also @ the 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)

V. 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)

[back to rchauhan: "a word is limiting"]

"'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. 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.