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: Rachel C. Lee’s “Transversing Nationalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters” (1999)

Peer-Review: 0

Lee, Rachel C. “Transversing Nationalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters.” The Americas of Asian American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. 73-105. Print.

In her essay Lee asserts that the representation of popular American in Hagedorn’s Dogeaters calls attention to US neocolonialism in the Philippines. She suggests that Hagedorn depicts a world where “Manila residents take pleasure in and identify with icons of U.S. popular culture” which inform their desires (75). But while Lee recognizes American film as means of cultural imperialism, she argues that it also serves as potential grounds from which a collective Filipino identity can be fashioned. Lee notes that Hagedorn presents characters with different colonial mentalities, some hopelessly seduced by Hollywood dreams and others who eventually achieved a “political ‘awakening’” (74). She accentuates that this “awakening” takes many different forms that extend beyond the patriarchal nationalist paradigm as Hagedorn narrates important “feminist and gay awakenings” (74). Lee calls attention to how the novel is not told “from the perspective of elected officials and their military henchmen, but from the perspective of these leaders’ mistresses, sisters, daughters, and wives” (74).

Lee begins her essay by responding to the prevailing critiques of Hagedorn’s putatively “postmodern” literary style. Critics have denounced the novel for its loose treatment of history and lack of realism. Lee, however, places Hagedorn’s novel in the tradition of “decolonizing writing,” which Lisa Lowe describes as possibly “includ[ing] features associated with postmodernism (such as nonlinear, antirepresentational aesthetics), emerges not from a terrain of philosophical or poetic otherness within the West but out of the contradictions of what Bipan Chandra has called the ‘colonial mode of production’”(81). Lee emphasizes that Hagedorn’s shift between multiple perspectives is productive because it compels the readers to recognize how a particular incident is seen, experienced, and represented differently with respect to the narrator’s social relations and status. She offers Pucha’s first hand letter to Rio at the end of the novel as one example. There Pucha speaks extensively for the first time, challenging her cousin’s representation of her, which in turn causes the reader to question the information we have been presented thus far and even more importantly, our ideological assumptions. Lee further notes how Hagedorn’s novel offers different visions of reality that significantly conflict with official narratives by “intellectual such as the nineteenth century French traveler Jean Mallat and the Aemrican president William McKinly” (79).

Lee spends the later half of her essay discussing Hagedorn’s deliberate attention to the “perpetual nonsubjects of history,” particularly the experiences of “feminine postcoloniality” (82, 74). She demonstrates how women in the novel have severely limited societal roles and are deeply constrained within them. Lee notes how the “bomba star,” Lolita Luna, is an incredibly famous actress with an enormous fan but her agency is still deeply circumscribed by masculine power (82). Lolita yearns to escape to America and start a new life there, but to do so she must appeal to “her sexual patron, General Ledesma,” who ultimately refuses, or submit to being the object of an experimental film that intends to feature invasive camera close-ups of her vagina (82). Lee asserts that “Hagedorn’s novel continually stresses how politics—the legacies of colonial power relations, machismo, and patriarchal sentiment—impinge upon the intimate venues of sex, seduction, and family” (85).

But while American movies emerge as a form of US cultural imperialism in the Philippines, Lee argues that Hagedorn does not imply that the people are merely passive recipients of these American images and ideals, “us[ing] the penetrating force of cinematic gaze to reverse the usual power relations between spectator and spectacle” (87). Lee suggests that the gaze Hagedorn attempts to subvert is simultaneously masculine and imperialistic and she does so by focusing on the often overlooked women of the Philippines. Lee asserts that nationalism has historically had an antagonistic relationship with feminism as a predominantly patriarchal movement forwarded through the policing of native women. She notes, however, that Hagedorn’s character, Daisy Avila reconciles nationalism and feminism in the novel. Lee emphasizes that Daisy’s subsequent retreat from the public after winning the beauty contest, stirs “a national crisis because it defies the traditional role of the Filipina to serve her country through self-exhibition” (91). While Daisy must eventually appear on television and turn herself into a spectacle, she mobilizes the media to denounce the beauty contest as perpetuating a harmful pattern of female objectification, something her father, Senator Avila failed to notice or address.

Lee concludes her essay by focusing on “Rio’s transnationalism,” a female character who does manage to successfully escape to the United States (99). She asserts that Hagedorn presents the US as “the site for women’s escape from…[the] male authoritative gaze” (99). Lee emphasizes that Rio wants to go to America, not to become an actress but rather make films. In this manner Hagedorn opens the possibility “where women’s desires might exceed the terms set up by male producers and where women can both produce themselves and inappropriately choose their lovers” (100). Lee offers numerous textual examples alluding to Rio’s lesbian/queer sexual identity and importantly notes that she never gets married, suggesting that such a single independent life is possible in the United States. Yet, Lee also calls attention to the failures of “Rio’s transnationalism,” emphasizing that her escape to America is essentially viewed as an act of betrayal within the nationalistic paradigm because she supposedly allows “foreign men’s appropriation of native men’s possessions” (99).

Lee ultimately emphasizes that Hagedorn does not present Daisy or Rio as perfect models of resistance to imperialistic, sexist forces. Rio refuses to forsake her “deviant” sexual desires “to fight the nationalistic cause, since the prospects of her benefiting from the success of that revolution is question” and as Daisy mobilizes a political resistance movement, her feminist concerns are relegated to a subservient level of importance (102). Joey, the other prominent narrator in the novel, who possesses a queer sexual identity does join Daisy’s political project but at that point his queer-ness is also notably submerged. Lee ultimately accentuates that Hagedorn does not theorize queer subjectivity as “a positive counterhegemonic representational strategy,” offering instead, “space for alternative, as-yet-unrealized identifications to emerge” (103). Hagedorn’s novel reveals that in light of multiple oppressions, multiple strategies are necessary to overcome them.

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.

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