Annotation: Y-Dang Troeung’s “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who is Holding the Pen'” (2010)

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt: Unsanctioned (Hi)stories of Love Caught in the Circuits of Global Capitalism.” See my abstract here.

Peer-Review: 0

Troeung, Y-Dang. “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who is Holding the Pen’: Postcolonial Collaborative Autobiography and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 56.1 (2010): 113-135. Print.

In her essay, Troeung argues that Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt challenges the conventional parameters of Asian American studies, pushing theoretical discussions beyond the strict geographic borders of the US nation-state and compelling postcolonial interpretations in a broader global(ized) context. She asserts that Truong evokes in her novel, the controversial debates surrounding the authorship of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as grounds to discuss the even more vexed and problematic practice of writing “postcolonial collaborative autobiographies” (117). Troeung cites Lorraine York’s study of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a work that was certainly produced through the “implicit collaboration” of both lesbian women, but where the power differentials in their relationship has led Stein to be popularly regarded as the principal, if not sole, author (115). In this respect, Troeung suggests that The Book of Salt powerfully recuperates Toklas’ forgotten labors, her genius as a cook and the tedious hours she spent typing up Stein’s manuscripts as important activities that enabled such a work to come to fruition.

Troeung notes that “Toklas’s labor is told to us by Bhin,” drawing a significant parallel between the two of them, emphasizing that such a history can only be revealed by a similarly marginalized domestic (laborer). She goes on to argue that these power differentials in collaborative authorship projects are characteristic of postcolonial collaborative autobiographies where “the white western co-writer is normally accredited as being the real writer/aesthetic genius while the racialized co-writer is either not credited as an author at all or is perceived as a secondary author who simply supplies the raw, authentic material for the autobiography” (117). But despite the similarities she recognizes between Toklas and Binh, Troeung admits that the latter’s status as a poor Vietnamese “illegal” migrant laborer relegates him to an even more vulnerable position.

Another noteworthy argument Troeung makes in her essay is how Stein and Tolkas’ salon in Paris functions as an allegory for the US nation-state. The couple’s commodification and objectification of exotic “others” through writing, recipes and labor can be understood as a stringent critique of US fetishism and consumption of diversity. In keeping with this allegory, if Binh’s entrance into their household is symbolic of his entrance into America, then Truong reveals the hollowness of American ideals of democracy, equality, and liberty. Troeung further notes how Stein and Toklas’ Parisian home also functions as a metaphor for US imperialism abroad. Troeung’s essay has been illuminating on many levels as it inspires me to consider more deftly The Book of Salt’s commentary on the United States and Asian American identity within a more global, postcolonial context.

Annotation: David L. Eng’s “The End(s) of Race” (2008)

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt: Unsanctioned (Hi)stories of Love Caught in the Circuits of Global Capitalism.” See my abstract here.

Eng, David L. “The End(s) of Race.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 123 (2008): 1479-93. Print.

In this article David L. Eng asserts that Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt draws “insistent attention to who and what must be forgotten so that the high modernism exemplified by Stein and Toklas might come to be affirmed” (1481). He notes that in order for this iconic lesbian couple to be inscribed in history as “Modernist” and to uphold the historical coherence of this putatively progressive era, the histories of exploitation and oppression of other queer migrants must be systematically disavowed and “forgotten.” As a result, Binh’s love—the intolerance he faces and the ultimate failure of his queer romances—needs to be relegated to an unsanctioned time and space as a history that can only be told as fiction.

I argue, however, this should not be viewed as entirely negative because Truong’s novel reveals the power of fiction to recover unrecorded, repressed (hi)stories of love to fill in the gaps of official narratives. While Eng explores how The Book of Salt offers a critique of Euro-American archival accounts of history, I want to extend his argument by considering how the historical erasure and ultimate failure of Binh’s queer romances can be attributed to the mechanics of global capitalism.

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

Babb, Florence E. “Queering Love and Globalization.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 13.1 (2007): 111-123. Print.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Introduction: Location of Culture” The Location of Culture. New york: Routledge, 1994. 1-18. Print.

Brocheux, Pierre. “Ho Chi Minh: A Biography.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. 14 Mar. 2010. . Web.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Ciuraru, Carmela. “Gertrude Stein’s Cook.” Lambda Book Report 11.7 (2003): 24-5. Print.

Clausen, Jan. “Review: The Cook’s Tale; the Book of Salt Read.” The Women’s Review of Books 20.10/11 (2003): 23. Print.

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

Eng, David L. “The End(s) of Race.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 123 (2008): 1479-93. Print. (Annotation)

Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967. 109-140. Print.

Hooks, bell. “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance.” Black Looks Race and Representation. New York: South End Press, 1999. 9-20. Print.

Jackson, Peter A. “Capitalism and Global Queering: National Markets, Parallels among Sexual Cultures and Multiple Queer Modernities.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 15:3 (2009): 357-387. Print.

Luibhéid, Eithne. “Queer/Migration: An Unruly Body of Scholarship.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (2008): 169-190. Print.

—. “Sexuality, Migration, and the Shifting Line between Legal and Illegal Status.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (2008): 289-315. Print. (Annotation)

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. Print.

Marx, Karl. “The Commodity.” Capital: Volume I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1992.125-177. Print.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.

Troeung, Y-Dang. “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who is Holding the Pen’: Postcolonial Collaborative Autobiography and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 56.1 (2010): 113-135. Print. (Annotation)

Truong, Monique. The Book of Salt. New York: First Mariner Books, 2004. Print.

Wang, Ban. “Reimagining Political Community: Diaspora, Nation-State, and the Struggle for Recognition.” Modern Drama 48.2 (2005): 249-271. Print.

Xu, Wenying. “Sexuality, Colonialism, and Ethnicity in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt and Mei Ng’s Eating Chinese Food Naked.” Eating Identities. Manoa: University of Hawaii UP, 2007. Print.

Žindžiuvienė, Ingrida’s. “Transtextual Bridge Between the Postmodern and the Modern: The Theme of ‘Otherness’ in Monique Truong’s novel The Book of Salt (2003) and Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932).” Literatūra 45.5 (2007): 147-155. Print.