Ink added a hint of foreign flavor to its “Lit Week” last Thursday when Vietnamese-born writer Monique Truong, author of the 2003 national bestseller “The Book of Salt,” joined a host of students for the November edition of the Visiting Writers Series.
Reading to a packed house in the Library Auditorium, Truong presented several selections from her critically acclaimed novel. “The Book of Salt” chronicles the trials of Binh, a Vietnamese cook under the employ of famed lesbian literary couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Throughout the book, Binh constantly tries to reconcile with his tormented past in Vietnam while touring the beautiful rural sections of France with his “mesdames.”
“‘The Book of Salt’ is a parable for our beginnings, middles and ends,” Susan Pedersen, junior English major, said as she welcomed Truong to the auditorium stage.
Sporting an all-black outfit that prominently displayed her ties to the artist’s colony that is Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, N.Y, Truong took the stage and presented a selection from chapter 13 of “The Book of Salt.” In this portion of the novel, Binh deals with his social stature in relation to Toklas and Stein’s dogs, and copes with his morning duties after a long night of drinking with the local farmers.
“We servants speak the same language, learned in the backrooms of houses and spoken in the front rooms on occasions such as these,” Binh narrates as he recalls confronting Toklas while hung over.
Truong was inspired to write “The Book of Salt” after reading “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” in which she discovered that Toklas and Stein employed Indo-Chinese men as cooks at their French hideaway. The author felt previous depictions of Indo-Chinese cooks stigmatized them as simple-minded alcoholics, while Truong felt there was much more to say about their characters.
“Part of the project of writing the novel was to not leave them as I found them,” Truong said.
“So now we’re going to make a radical shift,” Truong said as she introduced her second piece of fiction, the introductory scene to her latest novel, “Bitter in the Mouth.”
The work-in-progress tells the tale of Linda Hamrick, a law school graduate who lives in Boiling Springs, N.C., the same town that Truong immigrated to in the United States when her family left Vietnam in the 1960s. Hamrick suffers from auditory-gustatory synesthesia, a disorder which causes her mind to actually taste the words she speaks. Truong said the meanings of the words have no effect on the tastes Hamrick experiences.
“Her first name triggers a taste like mint, while her last name triggers a taste like root beer,” Truong said.
The opening sections of the novel chronicle the early life of Linda Hamrick at a rapid-fire pace, as the reader is taken through her childhood and admiration for her whimsical Uncle Harper to a stage where she has taken on a more adversarial role in relation to her aging mother and dying grandmother.
“I loved my mother from age seven to 11. We had four good years,” Truong read. “That’s longer than most marriages.”
Despite the fact that Hamrick shares Truong’s real-life law background, as well as the author’s point of origin in Boiling Springs, Truong does not feel that the protagonist of her “Bitter In The Mouth” is in any sense autobiographical.
“I don’t think of her as a version of me,” Truong said. “I certainly used the facts of my life (to craft the character), but that’s not the same as creating a character that is emotionally you.”
In an interview after the reading, Truong also explained her decision to bestow Linda’s character with synesthesia.
“I was watching TV, some news magazine show, and they interviewed people with the condition,” Truong said. “I saw this soon after ‘The Book of Salt’ and I knew it was what I wanted to write about.”