Abstract: Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2004)

Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2004): Unsanctioned (Hi)stories of Love Caught in the Circuits of Global Capitalism

In The Book of Salt (2004), Monique Truong challenges the conventional portrayal of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ lesbian love relationship as an indication of progress and greater tolerance towards aberrant sexual identities. By re-imagining their romance from the perspective of Binh, their live-in Vietnamese cook, Truong accentuates how Stein and Toklas’ relationship becomes a new normative model of love that renders Binh’s queer romances illegitimate because they cross racial, cultural, and class lines. In “The End(s) of Race,” David Eng emphasizes that Stein and Toklas are able to emerge as “the iconic lesbian couple of historical modernism” through the “forgetting of both Asia and Africa,” of queer relationships like Binh and Lattimore’s, a Vietnamese exile and American mulatto. While Stein and Toklas’ romance has been inscribed in history, Eng reveals how Binh’s love becomes a history that must be told as fiction. I further this discussion by considering how colonization and global capitalism perpetuate this historical erasure. Truong demonstrates how Binh’s status as an exiled, migrant laborer renders his love vulnerable to commodification. She presents the job hunt as a compulsory “courtship” Binh must engage in due to desperate financial straits and that as a chef he performs labor akin to prostitution.

As someone whose success in work and love hinges on ever-fluctuating market flows, Binh’s life is deprived of historical coherence—localized time and space. Unlike Stein and Toklas whose relationship has been historically integrated as part of the “Modernist” movement, Truong suggests that the romance of queer migrant laborers often remains omitted. I argue, however, that Truong reveals the power of fiction to recover marginalized, repressed (hi)stories of love. The novel allows Binh to re-appropriate the voice that has been caught and silenced in the circuits of global capitalism, providing him the agency to narrate his own tale.

Works Consulted

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Cohler, Deborah: “Teaching Transnationally: Queer Studies and Imperialist Legacies in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.” Radical Teacher. 82 (2008): 25-31. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Abstract: Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2004)

  1. Dearest Sharon,

    I think that your project is fantastic!

    I was wondering if you might further explore the roles of food and cooking within the novel. While I was searching for sources on Frank Chin and what he terms “food pornography,” I came across another source on this novel. The book is entitled “Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature” (Hawaii, 2008) by Wenying Xu and the fifth chapter is entitled “Sexuality, Colonialism, and Ethnicity in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt and Mei Ng’s Eating Chinese Food Naked.” I know that you might have looked at this source already, but I wanted to bring it to your attention just in case you didn’t.

    Also, as regards religious themes, I wanted to point out this line on Lot’s wife, who becomes a pillar of salt after disobeying God’s orders to not look back at the burning Sodom as she flees the city with her husband. “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”–Genesis 19:26. Of course, I am not suggesting that you should explore everything in one paper. Nevertheless, I wanted to offer this for your consideration as food and religion symbolism are prevalent throughout the text.

    Keep up the great work!

    Best,

    Chris

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thank you so much for your compliments and suggestions. I actually have read Wenying Xu’s article but I could have definitely incorporated it into my paper better. The link between food and sexuality is a very intriguing aspect of the novel that I really should look into further. “Food Pornography” also seems promising so maybe I’ll check out Frank Chin as well.

      The religious theme is another point that deserves more ellaboration. The title itself is rather biblical and yes the story of Lot’s wife seems to be really significant to the motif of “salt” throughout the novel. I know that Catholic imperialism was also a major aspect of French colonization of Vietnam as especially demonstrated through the “Old Man,” Binh’s father.

      Thanks again for your really helpful comment and I can’t wait to read an abstract/prospectus you wrote to offer some of my own feedback.

      Best,
      Sharon

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