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Silence, Language and Expertise in The Book of Salt

abby rose's picture

Silence, Language and Expertise in The Book of Salt


“Quinces are ripe, GertrudeStein, when they are the yellow of canary wings in midflight. They are ripe when their scent teases you with the snap of green apples and the perfumed embrace of coral roses. But even then quinces remain a fruit, hard and obstinate--useless, GertrudeStein, until they are simmered, coddled for hours above a low, steady flame. Add honey and water and watch their dry, bone-colored flesh soak up the heat, coating itself in an opulent orange, not of the sunrises that you never see but of the insides of tree-ripened papayas, a color you can taste. To answer your question, GertrudeStein, love is not a bowl of quinces yellowing in a blue and white china bowl, seen but untouched.”

-The Book of Salt (40),Monique Truong


         In The Book of Salt, Bình navigates and absorbs the world as a poetic, masterful chef. Although young in age, his wisdom of the world is unparalleled by some of the most renowned thinkers of the 1930s, including American author and expatriate Gertrude Stein. After Bình is launched into exile across the oceans and far from Vietnam, he eventually lands in Paris where his native Vietnamese becomes an anomaly and Parisian French becomes a primary determinant of acknowledgement and respect. Bình winds his way through various kitchens of Paris, refining his culinary technique as well as his practice of the unforgiving language shared by both his employers and the colonizers of his homeland. In addition to his speech, Bình’s silence shapes the way his wisdom and humanity are understood and the way his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, behave towards him.

         In her essay “Freedom’s Silences,” Wendy Brown explains that “[s]ilence calls for speech, yet speech, because it is always particular speech, vanquishes other possible speech, thus cancelling the promise of full representation heralded by silence” (83). Being Vietnamese, Bình speaks with accented, clipped French. Since his employers Stein and Toklas regularly subordinate him due to their racism--for example, Toklas claims him as her “Little Indochinese” (Truong 142)--each time he speaks he risks reifying their prejudices against him. Knowing this trap, Bình lives primarily in silence. He refuses to speak when he senses that his words will only be used to illustrate a caricature that he does not embody. Brown goes on to say that “[w]hen silence is broken by speech, new silences are fabricated and enforced” (83). Bình’s reception in his households demonstrate this enforced silencing due to speech. Because his words are twisted by his wealthy White employers, he is forced further into literal and personal silence.

         Bình articulates in the Book of Salt the pain he suffers at the hands of the employers he dubs ‘collectors’ who demand from him more than his expertise in the kitchen, but the stories of his scars. They wish to consume his life not to understand him better, but rather for “a taste of the pure, sea-salt sadness of the outcast whom they have brought into their homes” (Truong 18). And Bình’s battle with the language adds to the dehumanizing effects of working in Parisian spaces, for with “every coarse, misshapen phrase, for every blundered, dislocated word, [he pays] a fee. A man with a borrowed, ill-fitted tongue, [Bình] cannot compete for this city’s attention” (18). He speaks of carrying a mirror in his pocket, a habit that developed due to his need to assure himself that he still exists, that he is still a human.

         Brown sheds light on Bình’s experience in Paris as she discusses the “fetish of breaking silence” (84). As illustrated in The Book of Salt, wealthy White elite call upon marginalized peoples to speak about their lives and their struggles with perverse pleasure. However, “these productions of truth may have the capacity not only to chain us to our injurious histories as well as the stations of our small lives, but to instigate further regulation of those lives while depoliticizing their conditions” (85). Because these racist ‘collectors’ control Bình’s payment, his shelter, and thus his means of survival, his testimony often binds him to his oppression.

         Gertrude Stein, the ‘collector’ in question, picks and pulls at Bình’s French every evening in her home. A game for her, a test for him, she selects everyday household objects for him to define with his uneven French. Although Gertrude Stein’s own French is faulty, too--she conducts this game with a English to French dictionary--her wealthy, White privilege permits her the role of ‘master’. While the pop quizzes generally include cotidian objects like matchboxes, dogs, horseshoe nails, Gertrude Stein one evening asks how Bình defines love. Caught in a familiar chokehold, Bình thinks to himself, “[a] classic move from the material to the spiritual, GertrudeStein, like the collectors who have preceded her, wants to see the stretch marks on my tongue. I taste a familiar drop of bitter in the back of my throat” (Truong 36). Not only does Gertrude Stein call for Bình to expose his vulnerability by speaking about love, but she also understands the difficulty of articulating this task in his second language.

         In response to Gertrude Stein’s peculiar demand, Bình “point[s] to a table on which several quinces sit yellowing in a blue and white china bowl. [He] shake[s] [his]  head in their direction, and [he leaves] the room, speechless” (36). Rather than struggling to articulate his beliefs and playing the character of the wounded Vietnamese immigrant, Bình answers with a silent gesture, further explained in the opening quote. In this moment, silence for Bình serves as “a means of preserving certain practices and dimensions of existence from regulatory power, from normative violence, as well as from the scorching rays of public exposure” (Brown 85). He resists conforming to the stereotype built for him by people like Gertrude Stein, all the while illustrating his profound philosophy on love without allowing his voyeuristic employer access to this knowledge. This scene introduces an empowering element to Bình’s silence, which complicates the imposition of silence that occurs simultaneously.

         In this quiet exchange between Bình and Gertrude Stein, Bình shares with the reader his worldly wisdom through his primary mode of expertise, cuisine. Bình explains how cooking provides respite and reassurance away from the unforgiving Parisian language:

“Becoming more like a displaced animal each day . . . [in] every kitchen . . . I am the village edler, the sage and revered. . . . it is the sheer speed of my hands, the flawless measurement of my eyes, the science of my tongue, that is rewarded. During these restorative intervals, I am no longer the mute who begs at this city’s steps” (Truong 19).

Bình survives regular dehumanization by seeking shelter in kitchens and voicing his true expertise through food. However, even his command in the kitchen is questioned as consumers of his signature omelet routinely ask for a secret ingredient. This question is an affront to Bình’s intelligence - “Do I look like a fool?” he wonders each time. “Please, Madame, do not equate my lack of speech with lack of thought. If there is a secret, Madame, I would take it with me to my unmarked grave” (153). He comments on this insult further as he explains that there is no secret ingredient, rather a mastery of cooking developed over time in the hearth of his employers’ homes.

         Interactions such as these undermine the legitimacy of Bình’s most practiced skill, and are linked to the racial and class differences between Bình and his employers. Even though the title of ‘chef’ is one with dignity, and Bình has worked in enough kitchens to earn a title as such, he has only been afforded the title of ‘cook,’ a name relegated to the underbellies of ships and linked to a lower caste. Conversely, his employer Gertrude Stein’s profession as an author and art collector is linked to an elite crowd. It is with this White bourgeois standing that Gertrude Stein’s authority is always given more recognition than Bình’s, even when the subject is his own life. Though Bình is more than capable of telling his own story in his own language, Vietnamese, and even through his cooking, he is never given the platform to be heard because his language is deemed unworthy by English and French speakers around him and his mode of mastery is not given credence.

         During his stay at the home of Stein and Toklas, Bình discovers a book written by Gertrude Stein about him titled “The Book of Salt”. Gertrude Stein takes authority over the life of her “Little Indochinese”; according to an American lover of Bình’s, Stein “capture[s] [him], perfectly” (238). However, Bình actively chooses to not divulge personal information to his employers so that they may not consume his life for pleasure and misunderstanding. In fact, the very little that Gertrude Stein knows of him has been filtered through her racist perspective and through their shared second language, French. So the presumption that she ‘captures him perfectly’ in her observations does not speak to her skill, but instead yet another misunderstanding and lack of connection with another elite, American, French speaker.

         Even in a description of the preparation of quinces, Bình exudes wisdom and depth and a unique perspective on love. He has travelled the seas in exile, conversed with intellects such as Ho Chi Minh, loved through heartbreak, and honed his craft in kitchens across the world. In spite of his expertise on life and cuisine, Bình is consistently disregarded in his encounters with the elite around him. Forced to prove his worth through an unbending language and navigating the world as a Vietnamese man, Bình collides with White, upper class ways of knowing. The abuse of elite Parisian society leaves Bình emotionally and psychologically battered, feeling subhuman. The Book of Salt not only articulates the damaging effects of a hierarchy of knowledge and language, but also illustrates the beauty and profundity held within those who reside in at the bottom of this pyramid in galleys and kitchens from France to Vietnam.


Works Cited

Brown, Wendy. "Freedom's Silences." Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005. 83-97. Print.

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


Anne Dalke's picture

I can’t tell you what delight it gives me to see you reaching back to a text from an earlier course, Wendy Brown’s argument about “Freedom’s Silences,” to re-read a new text in this one. I think your analysis of Bình’s life, lived primarily in silence, is acute, from your showing that “each time he speaks he risks reifying their prejudices,” that “his testimony often binds him to his oppression,” to his thoughtful choices to remain silent (about his recipes, for instance: “do not equate my lack of speech with lack of thought). You do such a nice job of showing how these choices accord with Brown’s explanation: that such silences serve as “a means of preserving certain practices and dimensions of existence from regulatory power, from normative violence, as well as from the scorching rays of public exposure” (or, in your formulation, he “chooses to not divulge personal information to his employers so that they may not consume his life for pleasure and misunderstanding”).

You end this astute analysis with the summary comment that such choices illustrate both the “effects of a hierarchy of knowledge and language,” and “the beauty and profundity held within.” I’m wanting to nudge you back to Brown @ this point. Do you think that, Bình’s case, “"the capacity to be silent is a measure of freedom”? That such silence “has a political value”? If, as Brown argues, "productions of truth may chain us to injurious history and the stations of our small lives,” does choosing silence mean "practicing freedom in the interstices of discourse and in resistance to it”? Brown got in trouble in our class last year for her dismissal of those who “speak incessantly of suffering”; is Bình doing that in “speaking” this novel (to us, if not to GertrudeStein)? Brown’s words again: refusing “to live in the present, preserving trauma, sacrificing autonomy, imperiling creativity, privacy, and integrity….”

So eager to talk through (or hey: sit in silence) with you around such questions.

abby rose's picture

opening the paper up rather than concluding. you've shown what you think, so how do you get out of it. you don't have to do the high school thing where you restate.

Bình's life through Brown's lens... think about the politics of what you're saying; another character that you could write about in another paper; 

rewrite conclusion.