Friday, June 29, 2018
June 29, 2018: Summer Class Readings: The Book of Salt
[This week my two Summer session courses—an FSU grad class on Ethnic American Lit and a MAVA class on the Literature of Work—conclude. So for this week’s series I’ll highlight and analyze some of the texts we read in both courses! Hope your summers are going well!]
On the historical novel that provocatively combines the themes of my two summer classes.
For the last long text in my Ethnic American Literature grad class, I decided to teach for the first time a novel I first read long ago and revisited when its author delivered the opening creative reading at my 2016 NeMLA convention in Hartford: Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2003). Set in early 20th century Paris, Truong’s historical novel is narrated by the Binh, a gay Vietnamese immigrant who is working as a private chef for Gertude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. As I understand it, Binh is an entirely fictional character, while of course Stein and Toklas are very real historical figures, and so Truong’s novel intertwines history and fiction in complex and ambiguous ways. Those blurrings of genre likewise reflect various liminal sides to Binh’s identity, from his cross-cultural story and related questions such as those of language and family/heritage to his private and hidden sexuality and the homosocial and romantic relationships he remembers and narrates. These themes are all both embodied in and allegorized through Binh’s frequent observations and reflections on food and cooking, and particularly the uses and abuses of the titular mineral.
Those culinary observations are more than just a representation of or allegory for other themes or aspects of the novel, however. They’re also central elements of Binh’s professional life and identity, and Truong’s consistent emphasis on those elements make Binh’s profession an equally prominent part of her novel as a whole. That sounds straightforward and non-controversial enough, but to be honest in thinking about the Asian American novels I’ve read (a decent number, if I still have far more to delve into of course) I have to say that there are few that focus in any significant way on the professional identity or work experiences of their protagonists. I’m not saying that readers don’t learn what characters in these novels do for a living, but rather that what they do for a living is almost always a relatively minor detail, one of many character traits but not a central focus or theme of the text. This is particularly true of novels that focus on first or second generation immigrant characters, likely because other themes such as cultural conflict and assimilation are so central to those texts, but also perhaps because professional success can seem like a latter stage for these characters compared to the initial, foundational elements of the immigrant experience.
Of course many immigrants do not have the chance to find personally fulfilling work upon their arrival in a new nation, and many others have to work at jobs or professions far below their level of training and experience in their home country. But novelists are not limited by the general realities of any community, and instead can imagine stories that allow them to push readers toward new perspectives and possibilities. By linking her protagonist’s professional identity and passion so fully to other aspects of his identity and perspective, and indeed by using it to connect him to many other characters and communities in the novel, Truong does just that. She asks her readers to consider Binh’s profession alongside his culture and heritage, his sexuality and secrets, the many facets that contribute to his voice and identity. This choice certainly affects the way we see Binh and his story, and adds a vital layer to the novel that otherwise would be absent or downplayed. But it also has the potential to shape the way we see immigrant stories overall, asking us to link ethnicity and work in intersectional ways that can only create fuller and more nuanced perspectives on the individuals, families, and communities in our own society and culture.
June Recap this weekend,
PS. Thoughts on this text? Other readings on ethnicity and work you’d highlight?