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home and hyacinths: how the way we see the world influences the way we approach stories

hannah's picture

Monique Truong titles Bình’s narrative The Book of Salt -- and salt, at least the fleur de sel that Bình discovers during the book, is described as “a gradual revelation of its true self… there is a development, a rise and fall, upon which its salinity becomes apparent, deepens, and then disappears” (98). Like salt, then, this book and its stories are also a gradual revelation of self. Through the tale of the basket weaver and the water hyacinths, Bình unfolds a narrative about himself and the theme of home.

And yet, so much is left unclear… open, it might seem, to interpretation. As I read The Book of Salt, I couldn’t help noticing how stories are influenced by the people who approach them – through hearing, telling, and understanding. I want to explore, through close reading of both the book and our class’s response, the ways that Truong captures that.


the hearing

Very early in The Book of Salt, Bình’s friend Bao tells him a story of a family that tries, unsuccessfully, to grow rice. The rice plants in the field, though, are always choked off by water hyacinths. Finally, the mother decides that they’ll just cultivate the water hyacinths – and with it, they’ll weave baskets. The baskets turn out useful, beautiful, and successful, and they’re able to trade for food and resources. But the story doesn’t end there.

When one of their sons is just a teenager, he decides to travel to the next village and make his living independently. He takes a basket full of cuttings and travels to the next village over. And the water hyacinths don’t grow. He tries again and again, in the next village and the next and the next, but there is “not one place where his family’s water hyacinth cuttings would grow”. Finally, he ends up at sea.

That’s it. That’s the end.

How did you hear the story? Did it end as you expected? Did you find yourself in it?

The way in which we are first introduced to the tale of the basket weaver and the water hyacinths is through Bình’s reception of this tale – he remembers connecting to it, saying, “a curse, I remembered thinking when I first heard the basket weaver’s story, 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). In the book, it indicates his position and establishes him as one hearing and identifying himself within the story; a man who is displaced from his home and in search of something else. The way he hears is affected by the perspective he brings in.

Bình notes this influence-on-stories-exerted-by-the-hearer even earlier than this, however: when he first arrives in France and searches for a position in various households, he finds himself being asked to tell stories, too. This desire lies not in his interests, but in theirs -- “they have no true interest in where I have been or what I have seen”, he says. “They crave the fruits of exile, the bitter juices, and the heavy hearts. They yearn for a taste of the pure, sea-salt sadness of the outcast whom they have brought into their homes” (19). And he tells them, albeit reluctantly, knowing that his narrative will be romanticized and misunderstood. The hearers of his story may understand his words, but they hear only what they have been culturally constructed to listen for.

I noted in my Serendip post that the method of storytelling in The Book of Salt reminded me of Chinese folktales, leaving me with “the feeling that things are left unfinished and that the rest of the story is up to you to fill in”, and in the book, Bình and his mother happily fill in the details of stories told to them, hearing a different version of the story than perhaps the one that was originally meant. This was also interesting to note in our class – the initial analysis of several students along the lines of (“a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”/“it’s better to be thankful for what you have”) were completely different than the way I personally interpreted the story. Does that mean that one of us failed to think deeply about the folktale? Not at all… I’d argue instead that we as listeners are granted a certain amount of authority over the story, and that we hear what our background and range of experiences have trained us to listen for.

Hearing, then, should be considered as a cultural act.


the telling

Bình continues to tell the story of the basket weaver as a consistent theme throughout his narrative – “For me,” he states, “it is more than just the differences, the obvious contrast between the nature of the weaver’s livelihood and mine… I want to know the part of his story that Bao did not tell me. What happened in the house, surrounded by water hyacinths in full purple bloom, that made him go?” (57). The way that he frames this story and retells it to the reader also explains part of his background and motivations. The aspects that he is particularly drawn to (leaving home for the sea) are aspects that he thinks parallel his own life, and the parts he places emphasis on are the parts with which he resonates.

Bình illustrates this throughout the book, as the way he tells the story of the basket weaver changes. At first, he questions the desires of the weaver, continuing that “to take one’s body and willingly set it upon the open sea, this for me is not an act brought about by desire but a consequence of it, maybe” (57). And although he never explicitly states all the reasons he chose to come to France, one understands that he differs from the weaver in this; his traveling is not based in a longing for, but in a consequence of something.

Later, he expands upon the parallels between his story and the weaver’s: “in me, faith did flourish and, like the basket weaver, it was with faith that my story began. when I first heard the weaver’s story, I did not see that we had more in common than this… No, I did not think to ask, ‘What keeps him from returning home, to a house surrounded by water hyacinths in full purple bloom?’” (63). This question, as if phrased to himself, prompts the reader to ask why Bình himself has not returned home – an important theme in the story, and a question that frames the beginning and the end of the novel very well.

He uses his authority as teller of another story to indicate to the audience, in turn, something about his own.

This is extremely important to note; while the details stay the same, the basket weaver’s tale itself is retold and reread to mean different things in Bình’s life. In my last paper for this class, I noted that “all we are is stories”, stories that reinforce and complexify our identities (serendip, 4 Oct 2016), and I believe that’s still true. But it’s also important to recognize that as our perspectives on life change, the way we look at -- and thus, the way we repeat -- the same stories will change as well. The power to change lies not in the tale, but in the telling.

Bình knows this, and in the final pages of the novel, he emphasizes that no one else is capable of relaying his story. It is his, and his only: “I alone am qualified to tell it, to embellish, or to withhold” (215). calamityschild touched upon the importance of his voice in a history that has traditionally erased it, noting that “Bình [takes] authorship over his own story and his self-portrayal” (serendip, 25 Oct 2016) and The Unknown notes that “The elliptical narration… demonstrates how fully his present is infused with the past” (serendip, 1 Nov 2016). When we combine these two observations, it’s clear that both Bình’s history and his positionality influence the way he communicates himself to the world.

Telling, then, should be considered as a cultural act.


the understanding

Bình concludes his story with a final glance back at the basket weaver’s: he speaks directly to his mother, explaining that her life and actions have enabled him to do the things he has accomplished in life. “Ma, please do not cry,” he begs, “from the morning of my birth to the night of my death, I will never have to want, to question, to solicit your affection… but I, like the basket weaver, looked at the abundance around me and believed that there was something more” (249). He uses this tale to reexamine his story in a completely different light; to turn it on its head, so to speak, by focusing no longer on the journey but in the assurance of a love that enables that journey.

It's not about the movement of the weaver, but about the bloom of hyacinths.

With this in mind, he explains the motivation behind his leaving Vietnam: “The world was immense before I left my corner of it. But once I did, it grew even more immense…. believe me, I never had a desire to see what was on the other side of the earth… ‘I never meant to go this far,’ I said to Bao. What I meant was that when I boarded the Niobe I had no intention of reaching shore” (250). This brings the reader back to the theme of home, which seems in Binh’s narrative to quietly remain unresolved. He left Vietnam, but not for a destination, and he stays in France, but not for a home. By the end of the novel, his Madames are in America and he is – free, for lack of a better word. The book loops from present to past and to present again, begging the question: after all his questioning, in all of his stories, where is home?

Binh reflects that “for a traveler, it is sometimes necessary to make the world small on purpose. It is the only way to stop migrating and find a new home” (258). This idea – that of “making the world small on purpose”, forming one’s perspective around a chosen understanding of the knowledge available – permeates every aspect of Binh’s life. “Which version of this story should I believe?” (229), he asks, and smalina points out that by choosing one version “he can instead believe a different story, one which reassures him” (serendip, 1 November 2016). His choice, in this way, is enabling. He is shifting his authority from one who hears the stories, to one who makes meaning from them.

This is the way that stories are made. They are heard, and then they are retold, and then they are understood… and then they are reinterpreted to be heard again and told again and so on and so forth. “A story, after all,” Binh notes, “is best when shared, a gift in the truest sense of the word” (165). It is a part of the process, this relational giving and taking of narratives.

Understanding, then – the comprehension and the making of meaning and the actions afterward – should be considered a cultural act.


 “What keeps you here?” the man on the bridge asked Binh, and the question is echoed in the final lines of the book (261). Is it that Paris offers a home, or that Vietnam lacks one? Is it freedom brought by a mother’s sacrifice, or independence granted by a father’s death? Or perhaps it is neither, just a peace in inhabiting the present.

“What keeps you here?”

The question is resolved and yet unanswered, content in its own uncertainty, much like the Chinese folktales I remember hearing as a child.

Open to interpretation.


Anne Dalke's picture

ah, so now I’m remembering our discussion, after your last paper, about how we might read the fable of “Turtles All the Way Down”—how we can never fully understand these stories, how there’s always more to know. And now I’m also seeing a clear relationship between that line of thinking and the one you explore here, where the stories in The Book of Salt are also all about “gradual revelation”—and/yet/but also always incomplete, always “open…to interpretation.”

Along with the thematic link between your two papers, I’m noting some stylistic continuity: in each you use a refrain, a pattern of repetition, to ring changes, offer different interpretations. In both cases, it’s a very nice way to make your key ideas instantiated in the form of your writing. This time, you also weave in a number of readings by your classmates, which add an important dimension to (and evidence of!) the idea of multiple interpretations. Thank you for all this.

When we discussed The Book of Salt during our “barometer” exercise, you mentioned the story of the water hyacinths; I’m very glad to see you exploring it further here. In your first section, you report that Bình hears it as a curse, a story about the impossibility of re-site-ing oneself, of finding an “alternative”; move through the ways in which his own stories are misunderstood by others; end with recalling our varied readings in class, how all of us “hear what our background and range of experiences have trained us to listen for.” I finished that section thinking, how depressing is this? Can we not hear what we have not been primed to see? (And was thinking of Zoe Strother’s noting, yesterday, the “suspicious” look of the power figure…she knew/had been trained to look as we did/had not been….)

But in your second section, you trace the ways in which the basket weaver’s tale is retold and reread to mean different things in Bình’s life, observing that “as our perspectives on life change, the way we” tell and look @ “the same stories will change as well.” Which seems not depressing @ all, but exhilarating to me: as we change, our understandings of stories change. But then you surprise me by turning from the ever-evolving evolution of interpretations to the claim “no one else is capable of relaying Bình’s story.” Are you now saying that no other interpretations than his own (even his ever-evolving own) are possible?

In the final section of the paper, you offer a lovely, and loving, final reading of the story, as one “focusing no longer on the journey but in the assurance of a love that enables that journey," and in accord with that reading, end with nice attention to the "relational giving and taking of narratives."

When you come to your writing conference on Tuesday, I’d enjoy discussing the various changes you ring on these themes, and/but we should focus most of our time on your current independent study. You’ve said that you would be interested in querying the black/white binary, that you might use The Book of Salt or Americanah or Between the World and Me to do this. You also have a list of other books you’d like to read, which might help you along in exploring this theme. Last but not the least least, you mentioned the possibility of exploring your own position in the stratification of racial oppression.

Lots for us to discuss, and a need to focus so that this is something do-able within three weeks…am looking forward to our talking.