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"playing the game of words": Notes Towards Day 17 (Tues, Nov. 1)

Anne Dalke's picture

[i'm leaving up these notes, for reference, as an archive....
though classtime was spent very differently, as we attempted
to read and reflect on our group dynamics...]

*processing our experiences at Norris Square
remind us to allow for some space between reflections:
if you're a quick speaker, step back;
if you're slower getting into the conversation, step forward

* cf. the mission of Norris Square with smalina,
"Exile and Finding Home in Food":
"food connects Bình to his loved ones,
to the home he left behind..."

* reminder:
those who didn't go on trip have an extra
posting due, about what they saw in videos, website
(Beatrice, Franny, Joni, Nyasa; collect the tape now)

by midnight tonight:
everyone has a fourth short posting due,
either reflecting further on our trip to Norris Square,
or about today's reading or discussing...

* I really want both:

am very eager to share feedback w/ Mar and her interns,
also eager for guidance in where to focus the last day of
our discussion of Truong's novel.

* for Thursday, finish reading T
he Book of Salt

* on where we meet: move to Thomas 104?
all the time/occasionally/when classes flip?
(here, same time, on Thursday)

* heads up re: your second 6-pp. paper for me,
due by 5 p.m. next Mon,  Nov. 7:
a reading of
either Getting Mother's Body or The Book of Salt.

* Glad to schedule writing conferences this week

* do you also want to spend part of Thursday's class
in writing workshops--or is that too soon?
[if you want to do this, come to class with
three passages you think you might be able to work
closely with, to explore an idea that interests you;
we'll go 'round, share these, break into groups
based on shared interests...]

originally wanted this paper to be about intersectionality--

* speaking of which! tomorrow/Wed @ 6, in Park 278,
Katie Dalke's talking about  LGBTQI healthcare,
and her experience as a provider

* Liv also took up intersectionality, in a posting where she said
that she's decided to use The Book of Salt for her next paper:
during our close reading I started thinking about different ways to
talk across intersectionalities....between class, race, gender and is a great way to discuss
the "meat" of your position
using a sensation that can resonate with the reader...

Love to have more along those lines--
and/but really! write about the question that most interests you,
one that'll teach you something new, if you pursue it...
not interested in reprise of something you already figured out.

Only requirement: ground it in a close reading of one of the two novels.
You could do this by framing one of the books with another one you know:
Creighton compared TBofS to Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker: "both are
stories about displaced Asian men whose racial identities cause them
to feel a sort of rootlessness in their respective countries. [Both] central
characters...are haunted by the memory of their deceased fathers...
both have troubled love lives...both struggle  to articulate a life caught
between two cultures, two languages, and two places." Where could
you go with that list of similarities? What could you learn from
developing the c
omparison, reading one book thru lens of other?

Creighton also laid out a range of other possible topics; she noted
that "Binh's narration...communicates things that have been left out
of history. The erasure of his giving Binh
authorship over his own story and his self-portrayal....
many angles of this book...can be used to understand Binh's story.
Asian family dynamics, interracial relationships, queer relationships,
immigrant labor experiences, and the feeling of being an alien..."

Creighton also wrote about "savoring" Truong's
"vivid, sensitive, luxurious" descriptions; Rosa, too,
characterized the book as "extremely lyrical."
Right now, based on your postings, the hottest topic
here seems to be language use.

II. Last Tuesday, we looked @ how language was used,
first by Gertrude Stein in her poetry, and then--
stepping off from that--how Bình uses the sensuous
language of cooking, in the novel, to define love;
we moved from talking about how limited/misleading
words can be, to how powerful/ imaginative they are.

Also directed your attention to the use of photographs,
how the novel is built around the description of several famous
ones (which aren't actually pictured; another great paper topic:
relation between words and images, ability to describe what's not seen.

Fac'y meeting: can blind ppl study art history?)

A number of your postings, last week, were about other topics
(still missing postings from Alliyah, Franny, Joni, Kamara, Nkechi, Swati...)
Abby, HannahS & Nyasa were continuing to revel in S-LParks' visit;

HannahC reflected on different ways of telling a story,
how The Book of Salt is composed in "bits and pieces,"
with each character revealing themselves,
rather than as a connected narrative, laid out on a timeline;
reflected, too, on how stories are like bridges
connecting the storyteller & audience,
with the structure of what's written on one end,
our own identity @ the other--really helpful way
to think about structuring class discussion....

5 of you--Beatrice, Gabby, Sula, Rosa, Amaka--
focused on language use, giving us a related
cluster of ideas I'd like us to pursue today:
starting very concretely with what's evoked by one particular word, "salt,"
then asking a larger question about what it means to learn-and-use
a new language,  particularly the language of the colonizer
(what Bình's experience of learning to speak French, then some English,
might be showing us about the process of subconsciously accepting
the meanings of a culture different from the one he was born in).

III. Salt has many (sensorial, metaphoric and epistemological) dimensions in Truong's novel:

"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)
"Before I could taste my mother's milk, I tasted the salt on her nipple" (217).
"Powered sugar, cracker crumb, salt...the snow" (225).
"Tell me the word for 'salt'" (241).
"I charge four times the usual price for a salt print like that one." (246)

"Salt is an ingredient to be considered and carefully weighed....The true taste of salt--the whole of the sea on the tip of the tongue, sorrow's sting, labor's smack--has been lost, according to my Madame, to centuries of culinary imprudence. It is a taste that Miss Toklas insists is sometimes unnecessary...and other is the hinge that allows the flavors of the other ingredients to swing wide open" (212).

"Salt, I thought. GertrudeStein, what kind? Kitchen, sweat, tears, or the sea. Madame, they are not all the same. Their stings, their smarts, their strengths, the distinctions among them are fine. Do you know, GertrudeStein, which ones I have tasted on my tongue? (260-261).

onewhowalks really nailed/blew open this lyrical sequence, with a posting about "binh/lots wife" (which got a coupla snaps):

For my first reflection on The Book of Salt, I want to talk about some biblical salt. First, the title of Truong's novel replicates the style of the titles of each Biblical "Book:" Book of Esther, Book of Job, Book of Genesis, etc. 

The first book of the Old Testament is the Book of Genesis. Chapter 19 holds the story of Lot, a nephew of Abraham, who lived in Sodom. God had decided to destroy Sodom because of how sinful it was; namely, that gay sex was popular in Sodom (think: SODOMy). Because Lot lived there, Abraham pleaded with God to spare Sodom; God compromised that if 10 "righteous" were found there, the city would not be destroyed.  Angels were sent to Sodom and Gomorrah; they stay with Lot. The men of the town gather around his house so that they might "know" the men who are staying with them- he offers his virgin, engaged daughters up for sex to spare the 2 traveling men/angels. The men of the town accuse him of being a judgemental foreigner, and the angels make all the men blind. They then tell Lot that God is going to destroy the town and that he should take his wife and daughters and leave. As God rains down burning sulfur on the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's wife looks back, in sorrow for lost roots. God turns her into a pillar of salt. 

God isn't just warning against homosexuality, he's warning against nostalgia. 

Christianity IS a presence in the Book of Salt- not just in the title, but The Old Man (whose voice/ideals/morals stay with Binh even after Binh is away from his father) was deeply involved with The Church. But twisted. Binh is nostalgic (and gay) but maybe he will challenge the biblical ideals shown in Genesis. 

Also, salt comes up in many places throughout the bible: in sacrificial rituals and as a sacred symbol. Additionally, in Ezekiel 16:4, this line appears in a section labeled sometimes as "Jerusalem as an Adulterous Wife":

"our ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. 5 No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you."

Salt is acting in tandem with washing and swaddling to clean and prepare infants for a good life. Seems important.

...I felt like I wanted to bring [this connection] into this space.

Where might we go with this connection...?

IV. Countering nostalgia: learning another/the colonizer's language
(a French minor!) meditated about what might be “lost in translation," on "how associations in different languages play out," whether a book like this would...could be translated," if it "would make an ounce of sense in another language?"

Others of you focused on the translations already going on within the novel.
traced the ways in which cooking and eating enable Bình "to reconcile his home...with his identity," then wrote,

language functions consistently to remind Bình of his distance from home. He insists that others ask him to speak so they can delight in the "otherness" of his accent, his "unique" and even "entertaining" way with words. It is this mockery that reinforces Bình's refusal to speak, to use the shared and language-less experience of taste to communicate (and, in turn, to call out the inadequacies of language). Though Bình can delight at the sound of English on his lover's lips, his lover cannot do the same for him, finding himself lost and distressed by his inability to understand. He is reminded, even in his romantic relationship, of his otherness. Later on in the book, Bình feels the weight of his inability to participate due to language barriers: "Lanugage is a house with a host of doors, and I am too often uninvited and without the keys" (155). 

I'm interested in the complicated relationship between these two worlds (of language and of food) when they collapse into one another--when Bình can know a food so well, can find such pleasure and such comfort in its taste and texture, but cannot speak its name in the language he is forced to use. 

The Unknown wrote similarly that the novel revels in the idea of language and translation: Binh frequently remarks on the fact that his own native language is essentially incomprehensible and unpronounceable to the French colonialists who govern Vietnam, and yet, despite his increasing facility with French, he is permanently identified as culturally and linguistically inferior. Truong employs...the idea that context and significance can be lost in a literal translation of one's words--to good effect...Binh himself writes in Vietnamese, speaks a little French and less English, but comments on the meaning of words as they play against each other in the three languages. Binh is isolated by his limited French, and his most frequent utterance is "Oh," a perfect expression of his in-between state: The word contains a note of agreement but not complete capitulation. Because Binh lacks a strong grasp of French, he also lacks access, a colonialist theme that is sounded throughout the novel.

bluish also wrote similarly that, while reading "book of salt" i've been thinking a lot about Fanon and his ideas about what it means for "the native" to speak the language of the colonizer….there's a LOT here to think about... I really hope we come back to language.

Frantz Fanon was a Martiniquais-French psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, writer;
lived from 1925-1961; supported the Algerian War of Independence from France.
His life and works have inspired national liberation movements/other radical political
organizations in Palestine, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and the U.S; still very influential in
the academy, in critical Marxist theory and post-colonial studies.
He asserts that one cannot learn and speak a language without
subconsciously accepting the cultural meanings embedded in it.

Fanon's "post-colonial psychoanalysis" gave careful attention to the
violent ramifications of colonialism on the psyches of the colonized;
he argued that the colonized individual was “stunted” by a “deeply
implanted sense of degradation and inferiority."

He focused a lot on the role that language played in this process,
on how it was used as a "weapon for colonization."
He argued that language is "a potent vehicle for
cultural and political domination in a colonial situation."

The first chapter of his first book, Black Skin, White Masks,
is called "The Negro and Language." Fanon argues there that
"Every colonized people--in other words, every people in whose soul
an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of
its local cultural originality--finds itself face to face with the language
of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country.
The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his
adoption of the mother country's cultural standards." Focusing on
the life of a black man living in the Caribbean, Fanon wrote that
he "will be proportionately whiter--that is, he will come closer to being
a real human being--in direct ration to his mastery of the French language....
A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed
and implied by that language....To speak a language is to take on a world,
a culture.”

What do we think? Does this describe what happens to Binh?
How does his story intersect with--exemplify/qualify--
the one that Fanon tells? In what ways is he "colonized" by
the French language? By the English one? Or is he not...?

V. continue this discussion on Thursday,
looking for further exs. of how Binh has to "adopt" Miss Toklas' tongue,
"which can only mean the removal of his own" (p. 211); of how he is
written into "a book about a cook" by GertrudeStein, who takes
his story--though he says he "is here to feed her, not to serve
as her fodder" (p. 215, p. 260). We'll look a little harder/longer
@ the uneasy power relations in the novel, @ how gender
intersects with varieties of racialized class formation.
And we'll look @ whatever else you mention in
tonight's postings...