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sensual perceptions

calamityschild's picture

Intersectionality is a theory that examines “the intersecting patterns” of systems of oppression (Crenshaw). It is a framework that accounts for the intersections of identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc., which overlap and inform the experiences of people who are of multiple marginalized identities. It is an analytical tool that addresses the layers of identity that accumulate and form a wholeness, and recommends that this wholeness be approached with respect to all the social categorizations that are applied to different bodies. When it comes to the ways that the body is interpreted, I argue that intersectionality is a useful framework, because it resists the narratives that are imposed on bodies based on identity, which tend to simplify, reduce, and erase the complexity of a person such as Bình. Intersectionality suggests that processes of interpretation as always incomplete, since there is no way to perceive the other in the fullness of their identity. However, even though an intersectional understanding of the other might be inadequate, The Book of Salt offers human sensuousness as a means to form connections, despite the impossibility of acquiring a complete knowledge of the other.

In The Book of Salt, Monique Truong paints a highly sensorial, intricate picture of Bình’s multifaceted life as a queer, immigrant, Asian, male laborer. Bình’s lover, Marcus Lattimore, has a great interest in Gertrude Stein’s work and persuades him to steal one of Gertrude Stein’s original manuscripts for his own use. Bình, unable to decipher Stein’s writing in English, delivers it to Lattimore without knowing what it is about. However, Lattimore unexpectedly departs from Paris, leaving nothing behind for Bình but a note revealing the title and contents of the manuscript: “Bee, thank you for The Book of Salt. Stein captured you, perfectly” (Truong, 238). I argue that Gertrude Stein could not have possibly captured Bình so well, given their limited degree of contact, and that an intersectional interpretation of Bình’s body is a refusal of Stein’s reading of his queer, male, racialized, exiled, colonized, laboring body.

In Paris, Bình’s body is a strange thing to be beheld. It is Asian, so it is foreign; it is queer, so it is misunderstood; it is immigrant, so it is generalized; it is colonized, so it is poor, etc. His grasp of the French language is poor, and his English is even worse, impeding his attempts to communicate with French-speakers and bringing them almost to a halt with English-speakers. The inarticulacy of his condition is therefore exaggerated in the conditions of his employment, in which his limited French is his best hope of communicating with Stein’s limited French. Beyond the language barrier, the two are separated by differences in class and race that render Bình more or less unknowable to Gertrude Stein. Despite the fact that they share a residence, Bình’s activities are mostly invisible to Stein, occupying different spaces in the household, out sight to Stein and her guests. His relation to Stein is ultimately one of servitude, and consequently, the uneven power dynamic obstructs the possibility of a close relationship between the two. Lattimore’s claim that Stein “captured [him] perfectly” is implausible, since Stein’s unfamiliarity with Bình precludes any accurate reading of his profoundly complex identity.  

Bình is aware of the impression his body gives to others, and he says, “[My body] marks me, announces my weakness, displays it as yellow skin. It flagrantly tells my story, or a compacted, distorted version of it, to passerby curious enough to cast their eyes my way” (Truong, 152). He laments that his appearance “stunts their creativity, dictates to them the limited list of whom [he] could be” (152). Those who casually witness Bình’s non-normative body impose narratives onto it based on their expectations of a body they read as Asian, male, foreign, and laboring:

“To them, my body offers an exacting, predetermined life story. It cripples their imagination as it does mine. It tells them, they believe, all that they need to know about my past and, of lesser import, about the life that I now live within the present” (152).

It is for this reason that Bình longs to return to Vietnam, where he “was just a man, anonymous, and, at a passing glance, a student, a gardener, a poet, a chef, a prince, a porter, a doctor, a scholar…[he] was above all just a man” (152). He describes his desire to “take [his] body into a busy Saigon marketplace and lose it in the crush” (152). In Vietnam, he could escape the scrutiny of Parisian onlookers, and appreciate his own body as unremarkable—and more importantly, acceptable—in a place where more people look and behave like him. The acceptability of his body depends on the context he is in, and against the backdrop of Vietnamese society, he loses the visual markers of otherness that prefaced all of his interactions with Parisians. 

Bình himself realizes the limits of prescribing stereotypical characteristics to things based on a perfunctory interpretation of their features. As Bình recalls his experiences with a mysterious man he met one night on a bridge, he reminisces about the restaurant the man brought him to. Bình sees a red lantern outside of the establishment, assumes that it is a Chinese restaurant, and upon entering, he is taken aback by its “un-Chinese” interior, with “no red letterings, no gold-leaf flourishes, no spangled dragon, no shiny-bellied Buddha” (94). However, the meal continues to surprise Bình with additions of unexpected ingredients and flavors. At the end of dinner, Bình says, “’That was not Chinese food,’” to which the man on the bridge responds, confirming that the restaurant is not Chinese, the chef is in fact Vietnamese, and he cooks dishes from all the places he’s been (99).

Bình’s impression that the restaurant was Chinese altered his perception of this experience. By taking the presence of the red lantern as a signal of Chinese cuisine to come, he convinced himself that his meal would adhere to all the standards of a Chinese dining experience. Assumptions can delude, and in this case, they limited Bình’s ability to sense the complex identity of the restaurant. Still, Bình finds a way to detect the particularities of the multifaceted experience through taste, using gustatory sensation to discern edible traces of the chef’s transnational background. As he tastes the food at the restaurant, he is able to distinguish, more or less precisely, the individuality of the dishes. Through palatal inquiry, Bình discovers the presence of fleur de sel, which is a hallmark of the chef who prepared the food, according to the man on the bridge. Bình, impressed by the savory bloom of the fleur de sel, determines that the “gradual revelation of its true self…is the quality that sets fleur de sel apart from the common sea salt” (98). Implicit in this revelation is the notion that human sensuousness can reveal truths. At the restaurant, Bình acquires a deeper understanding of identity through taste, taste being such an intimate act for him that he likens the sensation of fleur de sel on the tongue to a “kiss in the mouth” (98). Later, Bình recites the line to describe an intimate encounter with the man on the bridge, saying that “a kiss in the mouth can become a kiss on the mouth” (99).

As the night progresses, Bình and the man on the bridge grow more comfortable with each other, and their relationship develops into intimacy. Bình holds tightly to the memory of this man, who he feels initially feels a kinship with because the man on the bridge is also a displaced Vietnamese man in Paris. But it is not just their shared traits that bridge the gap between the two of them. Bình and the man on the bridge also have in common their curiosity, their earnest desire to please, and their carnal desire to know the other. In that respect, the romance Bình had with the man on the bridge was deeper than the ones he previously shared with Blériot and Lattimore, since Blériot’s affection was complicated by his professional and racial dominance, and Lattimore was more interested in Gertrude Stein’s work than Bình. Still, “the tonalities of sex…are easily recognizable and instantly understood,” and this understanding of sensuality becomes grounds for a new mode of recognition that goes beyond a skin-deep reading of the body (123).

Even the structure of the book echoes this gesture towards recognition through human sensuousness. Truong’s use of the first person enables Bình to speak for himself throughout the novel and allows him to chronicle his life from a most intimate viewpoint, while avoiding the remoteness of storytelling that has been filtered through the third person. The use of the first person is a move towards establishing a direct connection between Bình and the reader, an effect which Truong replicates throughout The Book of Salt, situating characters in close proximity to Bình to facilitate exposition. Thus, Truong emphasizes intimacy as a means to break down the distance between the self and the other. In Bình’s narration, he foregrounds his own senses, articulating experiences in tactile realism. Every memory is recollected in lucid detail. Every dish is described in elaborate terms. By giving primacy to Bình’s senses, The Book of Salt establishes a hermeneutics of embodiment, a process of interpretation that occurs through sensors in addition to language. It posits the body as a source of knowledge that can be realized through sensorial experience.

When Bình and the man on the bridge discuss the circumstances of their meeting, the man on the bridge philosophizes on the significance of bridges: “A bridge has to belong to two parties, one on either side. There has to be an agreement, a mutual consent” (92). For him, a bridge represents “a monument to an accord,” a physical structure to span the distance between two places, standing in defiance of whatever barrier lies beneath the bridge (92). Taking the bridge-building approach and applying it to human perception, I propose that experiences grounded in the sensate can act as “bridges” between two bodies, which is not to say that sensual experiences always yield accurate readings of a body. However, human sensuousness is a way of seeing the other that is not tethered to the narratives imposed on a body based on outward appearance. Rather, it offers a point of access that allows both parties to touch and be touched, to see and be seen. It prioritizes associative relations with the other that, like bridges, “belong to two parties, one on either side,” and nominates sensuality as a way to access truth.


Works Cited

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241–1299.

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


Anne Dalke's picture

calamityschild --
So much that’s interesting here, and such openings! For starters, what an appropriate paper to follow the one you wrote last month on storytelling as a form of “endistancing,” since now you’re exploring alternatives to such narratives of identity. Since, as you say, “there is no way to perceive the other in the fullness of their identity,” @ least via story, you offer “human sensuousness” as another “means to form connections.” Right on!

You begin with a fine focus on Gertrude Stein’s inability to “capture” Bình, a “refusal of Stein’s reading of his queer, male, racialized, exiled, colonized, laboring body”; next, you claim more generally that “those who casually witness Bình’s non-normative body impose narratives onto it based on their expectations of a body they read as Asian, male, foreign, and laboring.” You then follow this refusal of the “exacting, predetermined life story” that Bình’s body “offers” others (a story that cripples both their imagination and his) with an exploration of the sensuality of food (esp. food that surprises, food that comes from all the places the chef has been), with “a new mode of recognition that goes beyond a skin-deep reading of the body.” You conclude by carefully refusing to over-generalize your claims, acknowledging that, while sensual experience “prioritizes associative relations,” and “offers a point of access that allows both parties to touch and be touched,” it  will not always “yield accurate readings of a body.”

All just lovely.

And now, of course, as always, I’m pondering where else/how further this line of thinking might go….for me, there’s still the question of how to get this sort of sensuality into words. I’d tried, the first day we discussed The Book of Salt, to open this passageway, by sharing some of Stein’s own poetry, and talking about how her poetic repeatedly overturns moments of clear referentiality….(does this “work”? Can words be non-referential? Can they not signify?)

I also mentioned in class that I’ve taught this book before, a number of times, in a class called Critical Feminist Studies. I usually started with serving salt, asking folks to taste it, then to write, describing the taste. Then we talked about the about the challenge of “rendering” sensory experience into prose, the relationship between the sensation of a taste, and the language with which it is described… which, in turn, can activate our taste buds….What is the relationship between sensations (more generally) and the words which represent them? Do you have to have experienced a taste, sensorially, to be able to apprehend it via words? Can words give you an experience you have not had?

Then I suggest that one way to think about The Book of Salt as a feminist text might be that it replaces "the gaze" with "licking.” I got this idea from an essay by Kathy Neustadt, “The Folkloristics of Licking” (The Journal of American Folklore 104, 423, Winter 1994): "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 interpretation, we might get a fuller mouthful of truth....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."

[me again:] Okay, so enough on that beat. When you come for your writing conference next week, we can discuss some of this, if you'd like, and/but we really should turn our attention to your current independent study.  Think some more about whether you'd like to focus on a single text, like Adichie's Americanah, or Chang-rae Lee's A Gesture Life, or on a larger (perhaps non-text-specific) question like the one you had about equating "survival" with corporeality (am thinking here of Coates' description of his own insistently materialistic understanding of the world...