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A Well-Seasoned Meal: Identity in The Book of Salt

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In The Book of Salt, Monique Truong uses both the structure of the novel and the use of food, salt in particular, to look at the identity of both her characters and her art form. Through The Book of Salt, she facilitates approachability, highlights intersectional identities, and, inevitably, critiques the very accuracy of reproduced images, including that of her own work.

The structure of the novel encourages readership. Novels are approachable, drawing prospective readers in with stories, entertaining them with adventures while the readers then stay for a while longer, slowly and subtly becoming exposed to more clearly developed opinions, calls to action, and intentionally shrouded thoughts. Novels invite the reader in. Unlike essays of theory, they provide a welcome mat, not a barrier to entry. While theory tends to purposefully alienate, making the reader work hard to access and understand the work (in language that is inaccessible to readers without an academic, scholarly background, which often means turning away readers along the lines of class, race, and gender because of the both historic and current barriers to education that are defined on the basis of placement within those identities), novels intentionally create spaces that are accessible to many people. Novels, alternatively, are often created for a mass-audience: they need to be popular amongst this broad crowd to be “successful,” which means they must be readable to a variety of people. While the language of some novels can be difficult to work through, that language often serves the purpose of the story, while the language of theory can often be cumbersome simply because people should have to work at it.

Truong’s telling of The Book of Salt likewise welcomes a reader into its story. The first sentence starts in medias res, references the photographs that will become a part of daily life for Bình as he works for Gertrude Stein (known throughout the novel as “GertrudeStein”) and Alice B. Toklas and later ends with more photographs, creating a parallel structure that is just as murky in its telling at both ends. The narrator quickly moves in to describing the characters, producing as of yet uncontextualized statements like “My Mesdames accepted their offer without hesitation. They had an almost childlike trust in photographers…I had been with my Mesdames for half a decade by then. The photographers had not been there from the very beginning” (Truong, 1). Here, the stage is set very early in the novel for GertrudeStein and Alice B. Toklas to play a large role in the novel. While these characters’ identities are gradually fleshed out, as well as the supposed identity of the narrator, the story becomes more obfuscated as the narration continues, confusing who is truly telling the story and who is the audience. This constant state of guessing kept me wondering throughout the novel, kept me wanting to get to the bottom of what was going on and made me imagine, filling in the blanks with stories spun in my own head. In an essay for O, Oprah Magazine, Toni Morrison described reading as an art that she approaches “…slowly, digging for the hidden, questioning or relishing the choices the author made, eager to envision what is there, noticing what is not…it is when I surrender to the language, enter it, that I see clearly. Yet only if I remain attentive to its choices can I understand deeply… Whatever the consequence, the practice itself is riveting. I don't need to ‘like’ the work; I want instead to ‘think’ it” (Morrison, 2). This type of reading, one that is inviting to exploration and imagination is one that Truong facilitates with her constant questioning.

The very concept of what this novel is doing is called into question by the narration style utilized within The Book of Salt. In the middle of the book, it seems as though Bình is scolding the Old Man for ducking into the story, saying “This is my story. I will tell it, and you will lie there mute” (Truong, 196). Here, Bình explicitly claims the story as his own, eliminating even characters who solely exist in his own mind to interfere. As the story continues, the person he is addressing the story to is vague, as Bình addresses both “Sweet Sunday Man” and his mother as “you” in his narration (Truong, 221, 224). As the story continues, it is revealed that GertrudeStein has been keeping a notebook, tucked away under a stack of papers in a cabinet, called The Book of Salt that mentions Bình, and which, he extrapolates, is about him. The fact that Bình cannot read English (and the only possible translator, “Sweet Sunday Man,” disappears swiftly) means that he will never know what had been written about him. This variance of style of narration brings the reader in, but it also highlights a key difference in the power structures within the Stein-Toklas household. Despite the fact that GertrudeStein and Alice B. Toklas afford Bình more dignity than his other employers have (letting him eat at the same time they do, for example), does not mean that they consider him an equal. This claiming of a narrative purportedly by a Vietnamese man, but appropriated by a white American show a colonialist stance, even in the recording of experience, sneaking in a theme of the author.

            Within the mode of these more accessible works of written material, novels contain hidden (and not so hidden messages). Novels are often meant to entertain, but they also contain opinions, themes, ideas that cannot be shouted to the hills because of environments, because the environments around the novels release are not ready for the ideas or because the ideas are not ready to be shouted. Novels do not always do an infallible job of masking the messages of the author, though they may not always be carefully shrouded. When Oscar Wilde was on trial, the opposing attorney read from Dorian Gray to indict him. In a New Yorker article, Alex Ross claims that “Wilde went to prison not because he loved young men but because he flaunted that love, and “Dorian Gray” became the chief exhibit of his shamelessness.” (Ross, 1).  While novels may not be the perfect hideout for subversive thought and expression, they do hold the potential to discretely expressive illicit or radical notions. On the subject of the novel’s feminist potential, Barbara Johnson says “...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. Literature…is…a mode of cultural work, the work of giving-to-read those impossible contradictions that cannot yet be spoken." (Johnson). Novels can contain multitudes, most often things that are not apparent (sometimes not even to the author).

In spinning the story in her own novel, Truong uses food to bring into question intersectional identities and the differences between them. The narrator is first presented as a Vietnamese immigrant in France, a man with “…desires that no man would admit to having” but that are revealed over the course of the novel (Truong, 15). His employers are the famous Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein (referred to in the novel as, simply, “GertrudeStein”). Because of the differences in their identities, the characters are allotted different privileges.  These characters are all queer, but they express that queerness differently, influenced by class, race, and gender.

In The Book of Salt, Bình spices up the lives of Alice B. Toklas and GertrudeStein with the seasonings he slips into his dishes. These spices convey an exoticism that the former world travelers, Toklas and Stein love to exploit. bell hooks describes this context wherein “…ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks, 21).  Bình’s food is treasured not because it mixed with new flavors, but because those new flavors are associated with a culture that is Other to Stein and Toklas. hooks continues, saying “To make one’s self vulnerable to the seduction of difference, to seek an encounter with the Other, does not require that one relinquish forever one’s mainstream positionality. When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups…can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power over in in intimate relations with the other” (hooks, 22).  Bình

Food is also a key part of relationships within the book. These “relationship,” which are both romantic and sexual are all centered around food in different ways, existing and ending differently because of the identities of the people involve. Food jumpstarts a relationship between Bình and his boss while they are working in a kitchen together. The relationship is one that is full of discrimination from Bleriot towards Bình because of Bình’s ethnicity and class position, a divide that is exacerbated by the fact that Bleriot is in charge of the food, while Bình is regulated far below the chain of command. The end of their relationship, one brought about through interactions around food, leads to a different life for Bình—a life centered around food in a different way, as a chef who briefly works for families before a quick dismissal, and also means that he is kicked out of his family. On the end of his relationship, Bình tell his brother “I did not waste the life you gave me…I traded it away for Bleriot’s lips” (Truong, 52).  Conversely, food provides a cornerstone in the relationship of GertrudeStein and Alice B. Toklas. When Alice B. Toklas deigns to step into the kitchen she creates food that make her lover desire her more, not devalue her as subservant. Truong describes GertrudeStein as thinking “it is unfathomably erotic that the food she is about to eat has been washed, pared, kneaded, touched, by the hands of her lover” (Truong, 27). Here, food strengthens the relationship between Toklas and GertrudeStein. It is rarely prepared by one of them, but adds to a long term romantic and sexual relationship that they are afforded by their shared class, race, and gender. The different identities across relationships mean that the individuals (and the relationships they are a part of) have both different relationships toward food and take different forms.

Food preparation itself is gendered. Women have long been doing work within the home, including cooking, without getting paid to do it. Their work has by and large not been valued monetarily in capitalist societies that value money above all else. In The Book of Salt, though, Bình’s mother uses her cooking skills to earn a living and support her husband, but both the techniques she uses and the money she earns from her sold food are delegitimized by male members of her family because of their association with femaleness. In contrast, the techniques that are used in the kitchen that Bình and his brother work at are highly valued skills because of their association in a male-dominated work place. When Bình applies those skills to a kitchen aboard a ship, he is mocked by the Old Man because of the way he is sullying them by applying them to a traditionally female-held position. In this way, food demonstrates a very clear cut gendered difference within the book.

The use of a flavoring device (of both food and novels) that is salt foregrounds details and backgrounds others, raising the reader’s attention to some details and not others, and questions the accuracy of representation. Novels flavor the everyday routine, salt flavors the everyday meal. In The Book of Salt, both are there in the title, and throughout the storyline. Salt is a symbol of hard work at a job and also of desire. When Bình is full of desire, he finds “the taste of salt on my fingers” but also found it on his mother’s breast when he first had her milk (Truong, 58). Salt “enhances the sweetness” of everything even as it never forms a full meal or a true impression of something (Truong, 185). The salt in the novel highlights important events, but it is not the event itself. Likewise, the novel is not the true revolution, but the things it compliments.

Even through all of this analysis, however, it is entirely possible that I am missing the point of Truong’s work. Not simply because I am misinterpreting the plot or items that I have identified as significant tropes. I may have simply misread The Book of Salt because of my highly westernized viewpoint. In her analysis of westernized tellings of the Keres tale “Sh-ah-cock and Mi-o-chin or The Battle of the Seasons” and the various interpretations that can be made of it, Paula Gunn Allen says this of western points of view that twisted this tale and all stories of the Other far from its original intent and context: “Westerners have for a long time discounted the importance of background…the earth herself…is blithely ignored…Similarly, women’s activities…are devalued as blithely…elite attitudes are all part of the price we pay for overvaluing the foreground“ (Allen, 243-244). Novels, for all the room they leave for interpretation (even faulty interpretation), also leave room for stories, for accessibility, and for the spread of ideas. The creation of alternate worlds leads to relatable experiences between reader and character that gesture towards a space of more discussion. By framing feminist dialogue around novels, or using them as a jumping off point, we can create a more accessible community and include more people in the conversation.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale.” The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Print. 222-244.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks:  Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 21-39.

Johnson, Barbara. Barbara Johnson: The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race and Gender. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1998. Print.

Morrison, Toni. “The Reader As Artist.” O, the Oprah Magazine. Harpo, Productions, July 2006. Web, 6 Dec. 2013.

Ross, Alex. "Deceptive Picture: How Oscar Wilde painted over “Dorian Gray.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 8 Aug. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

Truong, Monique. The Book of Salt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.