Poets & Writers
Sept/Oct 2010

The Taste of Memory: A Profile of Monique Truong

By Renee H. Shea

More than a few writers ̶ from Thomas Wolfe to Marjane Satrapi – have launched successful careers on the strength of an autobiographical novel. But when Monique Truong set out to write her debut, she wasn’t quite ready to mine her life for fiction. Instead, for the narrative of her first novel, The Book of Salt (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), she imagined Binh, a gay Vietnamese cook who worked in the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The book was enthusiastically received and went on to win the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, a Stonewall Book Award-Barvara Gittings Literature Award, and the Asian American Literary Award.

Truongs second novel, published in August by Random House, hits a bit closer to home. Bitter in the Mouth is set in Boiling Springs, the small town in North Carolina where Truong and her family lived during their first years in the United States. It is the story of Linda Hammerrick, a smart, lonely, ferocious, and funny girl who believes she is unlike everyone around her, including the members of her own family. Linda has synesthesia- a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. In her case, words trigger taste. “If the sky before a tornado could be bittern into and swallowed, then it might have the bitter taste that was my first memory,” she says early in the novel.

Truong first learned about this phenomenon from a television interview with a man who has synesthesia. After some research she learned that Vladimir Nabokov, composer Alexander Scriabin, and painter Wassily Kandinsky were also synesthetes, a point she notes in the new novel. Although Truong discovered that the neurological condition is often a terrible affliction, her initial response was that it must be “fantastic …to have this wonderful connection between food and words.” When further investigation revealed that people with synesthesia have heightened memory, Truong knew it would give her, as she says, “the opportunity to write about the things I love: food, memory, and differences.”

Truong knows about differences. She was born in South Vietnam in 1968,at the height of the Vietnam War. On April 23, 1975, when she was seven, she and her mother were evacuated on a military aircraft-her father stayed on at the request of Shell Oil Company, his employer, until April 30, the day Saigon fell. The family lived briefly in a relocation camp in California, then settled in North Carolina for four years, moved to Kettering, Ohio, for another four and finally relocated to Houston, Texas, where her mother currently lives. In an article she wrote for Time magazine in 2003, Truong recalls being carried into the underground bomb shelter in her family’s home in Can Tho, a city south of Saigon, on the banks of the Mekong Delta. “the high-pitched whistling of death passing over you and landing on someone else’s body is a lullaby that no child should have to hear in the middle of the night,” she writes. Truong describes the prejudice she experienced growing up in places where she was called ”jap” and “chink” and made no feel her physical difference: “I was born in a country where everyone looked like me. When we were in a relocation camp, it was still Vietnamese people. Moving to Boiling Springs meant that I was no longer the same person to the rest of the world. I was absolutely defined by my appearance.”

In order to write Bitter in the Month, Truong revisited that difficult part of her childhood, the four years in Boiling Springs when she learned to speak English and first went to school. She says that time was “in many ways a rebirth-another birth- because I became a different person, whether I wanted to or not.”

Truong coped with feeling like an outsider by immersing herself in her education. After graduating from high school in Houston, she went on to earn a degree in literature from Yale University, where she began writing, followed by a degree from Columbia Law School. After graduation in 1995, she worked as a litigation associate at a private firm for three years. While she remains a member of the New York State Bar Association, she knew from the start that law was not the profession for her. She says she never felt she was doing anything positive. She knew she wanted to write, but hadn’t done so since leaving college.

She credits the Asian American Writer’s Workshop (AAWW), a nonprofit organization in New York City, for the community and encouragement she needed at that time. Truong recalls her pivotal first meeting with cofounder Barbara Tran, a Vietnamese American poet. “I saw that she was doing a poetry reading in New York City. I clearly remember leaving the law firm early that evening, dressed in a navy blue suit and high heels, and lugging along my massive briefcase. Hearing Barbara read I was so moved, really to tears that I went up to her afterward and introduce d myself as ‘a writer.’” She began working with Tran on an anthology that the AAWW published in 1998, Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose. In fact, Truong submitted a story she had written in college for possible inclusion, but Tran and other editors rejected it. So Truong reengaged with writing and stared a new story, one that would eventually become the second chapter of The Book of Salt. It was, she says, “the beginning of the end of my legal career.”

Truong later received a grant to attend Yaddo, so she quit her job, but she continues to work as a lawyer off and on to pay her rent and student loans. Although Truong hopes never to return to full-time law practice, she appreciates the financial freedom it gives her, a freedom she feels is unavailable to may authors. “They end up making changes to an existing project-or perhaps even choose not to begin a narrative they’d like to work on- because it’s not one with appeal to the widest readership. I don’t have to factor that into the way I think about the kinds of stories I want to tell. I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but it’s one of the things I’m really grateful for- even though I would rather do just about anything than be a lawyer again!”

It’s not likely she’ll have to . In addition to the accolades she received for her first novel-it was also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Guardian First Book Award -she has racked up an impressive record of grants and awards. She’s held writing residencies from the Lannan Foundation. The Luguria Study Center, Hedgebrook, and the Foundation Valparaiso. She received a PEN American Robert Bingham Fellowship in 2004, the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton for 2007 and 2008, and, earlier this year, a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Truong credits her “lawyerly habits” for the structure in which she manages her writing life. She maintains a detailed file for each grant or fellowship including a chart of deadlines, the number of times she’s applied, the number of recommenders needed, whom she has asked in the past, whether she would need to relocate, and the dollar amount of the award. She says she gets “frustrated, disappointed, and depressed” by rejections, though “rarely embarrassed” because she keeps her eye on the real prize-not the accolades or even the money but the time to write.

Truong acknowledges that her background as a lawyer has influenced not only her writing life but also her way of thinking about the rewards of her labor. “As writers we are socialized into a state of perpetual gratefulness-to receive a grant, a publishing contract, a book tour- as if we didn’t earn anything with our labor and talents. Lawyers don’t think that way. They know that they have a valuable skill and expect valuable compensation for it. I love my fellow writers, but I wish that they would think and behave –just in this instance-more like lawyers.”

Happer Lee’s idealist lawyer Atticus Finch was an early inspiration in Truong’s life, even before she started writing. Truong recalled reading To Kill a Mockingbird when she was around eleven years old: “I had this sense that if I opened up the curtains in my room, I would see the town she was writing about. It was so vivid to me, the first time U had had that experience as a reader.” Bitter in the Mouth , also a coming-of –age story, opens with a quotation from To Kill a Mockingbird, a conversation between Atticus and his young daughter, Scout. Additionally, Linda’s sad and colorful great-uncle is known as Baby Harper, and at one point Linda observes, “In Boiling Springs, I was never Scout. I was Boo Radley, not hidden away but in plain sight.”

“In the Southern gothic, there’s always a Boo Radley character who is physically or mentally different, maybe hidden away, and it stands for so much more,” Truong says. “So I thought of Linda and Boo Radley figure. She’s out there to be seen- and the novel’s about seeing someone, really seeing someone.”

While Truong considers Bitter in The Mouth as being part of the Southern gothic tradition , she says she is “reimaging” the subgenre made famous by authors such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor as well as Lee, all three of whom she considers to be among the best writers in the American canon. “One of the things I always try to think about when I am telling a story is that I want to reclaim certain things that belong to me, my personal history and the larger History with a capital H. So in this instance, it was about how I was part of Boiling Springs, like it or not: I was there, and it made a huge long-lasting impression that it is still a part of me. I wanted to tell a story of the American South that included someone like me in one way or another. I have to admit I’m curious if readers will allow me that claim or if they’ll say, ’Oh, she was there for only four years.’”

Regardless of readers’ response, Bitter in the Mouth has many elements of the Southern gothic, from the name of the town, which so perfectly captures the literal and figurative climates, to the downright bizarre cast of characters living amid a maze and minefield of secrets and lies, to the multiple intersecting narratives. Within the first few pages of the novel, Linda’s formidable and slightly crazed grandmother, Iris Burch Whatley, spits from her deathbed these haunting words: “What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two.” Readers are left guessing whether this is an accusation or a prediction until the final pages of the novel, and the domineering spirit of Iris never leaves. As Southern novelist Jayne Anne Phillips comments on the book jacket, Truong “invents Americana for a new America.”

But no aspect of the new novel is more firmly ensconced in the vintage of Southern tradition than the character of Baby Harper. As she did in The Book of Salt, Truong explores the impact of one’s sexual choices and politics, this time in the close relationships between Linda and her great-uncle. “I was thinking about the alliances and connections people make,” Truong says, “often because they’re different from those around them in some way, often though, not the same way.” Fully aware that the intimacy of an older gay man and a younger relative dining and dancing together may seem suspect, Truong points out that she is deliberately exploring what she calls “the unreliable reader,” that is, how a reader’s own assumption and expectations influence that reader’s approach to a text.

In Bitter in the Mouth, Truong exhibits a slightly macabre, often wicked sense of humor. When the mother of one of the characters abandons her wifely duties to become a cocktail waitress in a seaside bar, Truong writes that she “didn’t pass away. She drove away.” Baby Harper. Who late in life find love with a funeral –home director and becomes a bereavement photographer, arrives for Linda’s Yale graduation dressed to the Southern nines and looking , even from her affectionate perspective, like “a mix of Colonel Sanders, Tom Wolfe, and Pee Wee Herman.” Truong pokes eye-rolling fun at academe as Linda, at Yale, takes courses with pretentious titles such as “Dysfunctionalia: Novels of Misspent Southern Youth and Their Social Context” and “Filmic Constructions of Masculinity: Boy Don’t Cry but Sometimes They Dance.”

Bitter in the Mouth is primarily the story of Linda as she navigates Boiling Springs, then Yale, and later New York City. Three other narratives, however, situate the novel within local history: the stories of the legendary Virginia Dare and the mysteriously lost colony on North Carolina’s Outer Bank, flight pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright , and slave poet George Moses Horton. Information, Details and speculations about each appear throughout the novel, seemingly unrelated to the main narrative, yet Truong explains that these are all stories of North Carolina. They are stories of invention and reinvention of individuals that Truong heard about growing up and that piqued her interest in why stories are told, why we need to hear them, and how they change over time. There’s a reference in Bitter in the Mouth to North Carolina Parade, a collection of exactly these kinds of stories that has special meaning to her. When the family first came to North Carolina, her father presented her with a copy inscribed “To my daughter Monique, to know about the state where we made our first steps to freedom.”

Truong still has difficulty talking about her father, who died in 2002, a year before The Taste of Salt was published (with the dedication “For my father, a traveler who has finally come home”). Her emotions reflect more than just the grief of losing a parent: Her father’s relationship to Vietnam is a piece of the puzzle in Truong’s understanding of herself as an exile, a hyphenated American, or a member of the Vietnamese diaspora. He was born in Vietnam, went to French and England for his education, and returned to Vietnam with his Swiss wife and their baby daughter. After they divorced, he married Truong’s mother and had Monique in 1968 and a second daughter in the United States. When he was thirty-eight-“multinational, multilingual, and multitalented,” as she described him in a 2006 op-ed piece in the New York Times- he came to the United States and continued to work for Shell. When he was force into early retirement, he took a position in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, leaving his wife and Truong’s younger sister in Houston. (He and Truong’s mother later divorced.) Although Truong, who was already living in New York at the time, and her father stayed in touch, he died soon after he remarried. She met her father’s third wife for the first time at his funeral.

During the writing of Bitter in the Mouth, Truong explored her feelings of being an unwelcome or uncertain position in society-feelings that have been rooted in her ever since she arrived in the United States when she was six. Indeed, they were a factor in Truong’s decision to enter law school, She says she felt especially “at risk” in college when she learned d about the Japanese internment during World War II: “From the moment I read that, I thought that it could happen to my group, or any other group, and Idid not want to be helpless in that situation,” The experience of her family in the relocation camps contributed to her fears, giving her a very clear idea of what internment could be. By the time she was thinking about law school, she explains, “I understood that the United States was a society governed by lawyers,” so knowing one’s rights under the law offered a form of control that Truong was determined to have.

Her family’s story is, of course, an intricate part of the colonial history of Vietnam and America’s role in the Vietnam conflict. In the 2003 article in Time, Truong reflected on her decision not to make the journey back to Vietnam that many of her friends chose: “I am still lost somewhere in between Vietnam and the U.S. The physical journey was completed long ago, but the emotional one is ongoing…. In the end, I hold myself accountable for not claiming the places, real flawed, where I am from.”

All that changed in 2007, Truong says she probably would have put off returning to Vietnam indefinitely, but her mother wanted to go back. Truong speculates that she needed to preserve “the fantasy of Vietnam” as a country where she would feel “normal again,” and where the effects of her thirty years in the United States “would be reversed.” For three weeks, she, her husband, and younger sister traveled with her mother on what turned out to be an emotional experience. Truong surprised herself when she burst into tears as the plane circled the airport before landing in Saigon, and she saw concrete bunkers still in place from the time of the war. During the first days of the trips, her mother kept going to places from her childhood, such as the site of her grandmother’s bookstore, that were entirely changed. Truong says she felt as though her mother was seeing “a whole city, a ghost city,” invisible to the rest of the travelers. Further disconcerting were the questions about Truong’s and her sister’s ancestry-whether they were Europeans or Americans -became, she says, “our bodies, our clothes, the way we carried ourselves was not Vietnamese.”

But Truong is glad to have made the journey and looks forward to a return. And there have been other journeys, including a visit to Boiling Springs while she was writing Bitter in the Mouth. When a good friend of her husband was being married in a nearby town, she suggested almost on a whim that they travel from their home in Brooklyn, New York, to the town of her childhood, a place she had sworn never to see again. Acceptance ultimately replaced anger. “I no longer felt that sense of helplessness or being trapped,” she says. “I returned as an adult, a happy person. Even the little elementary school that I attended  ̶  in my head a dark, horrible place  ̶  was the most adorable redbrick schoolhouse, right out of a movie.”

Truong is in the middle of an extensive book tour, but she’s already begun another novel that she described as having “a quintessential American theme: personal reinvention.” The story is based on a real figure from American literature and will be set in Greece, Ireland, the Unites States, and Japan  ̶  places her Guggenheim will allow her to travel.

Truong believes that the end of her fantasy of Vietnam, and perhaps her return to Boiling Springs as well, was a necessary step for fully adopting the United States as her home. “I cannot tell myself that there is another place where I belong,” she says with a hard-earned sense of peace. “I belong right here.”

Renee H. Shea

Professor of English and modern languages at Bowie State University in Maryland, has written profiles of Rita Dove, Sandra Cisneros, and Chimamanda Ngzi Adichie, among others, for Poet & Writers Magazine. She is coauthor of the book Literature and Composition: Reading, Writing, Thinking (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2010).