Childhood is a paradise we’re all evicted from, some more violently than others.
Writer Monique Truong, who was born in Saigon in 1968 and fled her country as a child on the brink of the Communist takeover, was in Atlanta recently to discuss her fiction at the invitation of the creative writing program at Emory University. Her strongest childhood memory of Vietnam, she says, is of the garden at her home, a villa overlooking a river outside Saigon, which her family abandoned in a panic a week before her seventh birthday.
“It was a beautiful, lush garden, filled with fruit trees and flowers,” Truong recalls when we sit down to talk at her hotel. “I remember spending a tremendous amount of time in that garden and just being incredibly happy.
“D’you know, the kind of happiness that –? No worries. I have to say that pretty much ended once we came to the States. Or when we started the journey. I don’t think I’ve ever [again] felt that kind of carefree protectedness.”
Truong’s two novels, set in completely unrelated places — “Bitter in the Mouth” (2010) in the Baptist terrain of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, circa 1975 and “The Book of Salt” (2003) in Paris in the 1930s — are connected by a central character who is Vietnamese. Neither fiction depicts the trauma of her own escape. She remembers the evacuation being carried out in secret as she and her mother lay pressed to the floor of the van taking them to the airport. The U.S. military loaded them into a cargo plane with other lucky Vietnamese who had a connection to America through a spouse or a job.
Truong’s novels begin in the new country, where the Asian immigrant is reborn but remains inconsequential to the outside world, both a freak in appearance and an invisible object.
At a relocation camp in California, Truong’s father, who had been an executive with Shell Oil, cast about for a sponsor. It was the only way to leave the camp and start life again. The American government had enacted a policy of dispersing Vietnamese families across the country to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves. Of the various contacts Truong’s father appealed to, only a military contractor in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, agreed to sponsor him. There, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, her parents enrolled in a small Baptist college to retrain themselves for American jobs. A trailer park became home. Truong, who spoke no English, started second grade in a red-brick schoolhouse where towheaded children assailed her as “Chink,” “gook” and “Jap.”
In Truong’s latest novel, “Bitter in the Mouth,” Linda Hammerick, an only child, grows up unhappily in Boiling Springs. Her parents’ marriage is strained; her grandmother Iris cuts with her tongue. Only her great-uncle Harper, a flamboyant Southern gentleman of the linen-suit variety who showers her with affection, brings her joy.
To get to the heart of who Linda really is — not disclosed until the middle of the story — Truong gambles with a virtually plotless novel that circles around Linda’s close relationships as well as her estrangements. Truong is too gifted a writer not to be charming, but the continuous return to past relationships and events, in order to get to an even deeper past, starts to feel claustrophobic.
Linda is estranged in particular from her cold, undemonstrative mother, and in general from the world, due to a rare neurological affliction. The condition causes her to receive words as tastes, making a conversation an exhausting onslaught of flavors. Her own name she perceives as mint, or “Lindamint”; “home” tastes like Pepsi; “wanted” like “salted butter.” Her best friend’s name comes across sweetly as “Kellycannedpeaches.” Synesthesia, the medical term for this confusion of two senses, is a fresh and canny literary device, a comic dart shot off throughout the narrative with shrewd economy. It’s also not a stretch to see synesthesia as a metaphor for racial difference, a dividing line between Linda and others, as Truong felt that her Vietnamese-ness left her ostracized by the community of Appalachian children she desperately wanted to belong to.
Truong wanted the reader to get to know Linda as a person, as an individual with her own quirks and needs, she says, before she disclosed the other aspect of her identity: that Linda is also Vietnamese. Born Linh-Dao, she was adopted by the Hammericks under unusual circumstances. Seven-year-old Linh-Dao is not the kind of Vietnamese orphan we expect. The war did not take her parents; they did not die in Vietnam. The tragedy was self-inflicted and unfolded in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the couple was living as Saigon fell. The inferno that consumed them burned away all memory from their daughter’s mind. Growing up in the Hammericks’ ranch house, she is only Linda Hammerick, she is only American, a Boiling Springs girl, because nothing else remains of her.
In Truong’s debut novel, “The Book of Salt,” the character of the young gay Vietnamese cook, Binh, employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, was inspired by Truong’s discovery that the doyennes of the Lost Generation kept a succession of Indochinese cooks in Paris. As their servant, Binh must submit to regular humiliations such as Toklas’ inspection of the cleanliness of his hands. Only when he seduces guests with his cooking does he experience bursts of confidence. In those moments Binh becomes suddenly more than “the mute who begs at this city’s steps,” more than the man who has left his home for foreign cities “that have carved their names into me, leaving behind the scar tissue that forms the bulk of who I am.”
This scar-tissue man, doubly isolated in Paris by his foreignness and homosexuality, is a spellbinding narrator whose story carries us as smoothly as a dream from Stein’s grand apartment on the Rue de Fleurus to his journey across the South China Sea to his mother’s kitchen in Vietnam.
How did Truong fabricate a character so distant from her own experience? He is drawn from three people, she reveals: herself, her mother and her father, the family triangle that began anew in America. From her mother came recollections of being a privileged young bride served by a brilliant cook, a Vietnamese trained in the classical French tradition, who kept puff pastry and fruit purees at the ready. Binh’s devastating loneliness Truong felt viscerally, she says, when her father described his hardships as a student in Paris, so poor that he would steam stale baguettes to have something to eat. His tone was always matter-of-fact and unemotional when he spoke; Truong, the writer, supplied the emotions to the telling, to understand the story behind the story.
Binh’s perpetual insecurity, his worry about being at risk of losing his job, is a dread Truong knew firsthand as a young lawyer in New York. Fresh out of Yale and Columbia, she withered under the ritual hazing by superiors that goes on at prestigious law firms. Every morning, she approached her office in tears. Later, as she wrote the story of Binh, the distance between the Asian immigrant success story and the Asian servant collapsed, and she understood Binh’s fear of inferiority as her own.
All the pain, all the glory experienced by Truong and her parents combines in Binh. But the creation of his consciousness, so utterly persuasive and alluring on the page, cannot be calculated by its parts. The trick of conjuring up a character, Truong says, is “one of the mysteries of writing.”
Perhaps Binh is a richer figure than Lindamint, who shares some of Truong’s biography, because he is completely mythic. Constructed from literature and memories that are not all Truong’s own, he is a freer agent. Or perhaps she felt freer to describe a past she could only imagine, her sentences flowing with a sensual poetry. Lindamint, who left Vietnam as a child like Truong, is a girl devoid of memory, her mind burned clean by trauma. She is reborn in Boiling Springs as an American girl, the old part of her killed off, a new self forced to rise up in alien circumstances. The memory that expands Binh’s life, the otherness that gives him his magic, are ghosts she doesn’t even know live inside herself.