Thursday, March 31, 2011

Featuring Asian American Authors: Monique Truong

Submitted by Kelly Musselman '11

Monique Truong was born in Vietnam in 1968 and immigrated to the United States in 1975.  She graduated from Yale University in 1990 and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.  She won the Bard Fiction Prize in 2003 and the Young Lions Fiction Award in 2004, both for her first book, The Book of Salt.  Her second novel, Bitter in the Mouth, was semi-autobiographical in nature and focused on an outsider in the town where Monique lived for four years as a child in the U.S.  Linda, the main character, has synesthesia and the story details her life and her interactions with the other residents of Boiling Springs.

"Monique Truong's novel The Book of Salt is set in the household of writers Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1920s Paris. Revolving around a Vietnamese cook the lesbian couple have hired, a man named Binh, the novel mixes reality with fiction. While Binh is a fictional character, Stein and Toklas did indeed have a Vietnamese cook in Paris, a cook mentioned only in passing in several of their writings.

Truong was born in Vietnam and was taken out of the country as a child just before the communist takeover in 1975. Her own experience as a refugee who journeyed far from her homeland, led her to wonder about the circumstances that prompted Stein and Toklas to leave America to live in France, and why their cook left Vietnam behind to move to Europe. Through the character of Binh, who narrates The Book of Salt, she explores these questions. "The book," according to Christopher Benfey in the New York Times Book Review, "is about exile: both Binh's aching distance from his native Saigon and his two Mesdames' cheerful distance from America."

In Troung's novel Binh leaves Vietnam because his father disapproved of his homosexuality and forced him out of the house. After spending several years at sea, he arrives in France, where he works for several families before joining Stein and Toklas. Binh also enjoys the pleasures of Paris's indulgent sexual underground, even having a tryst with a young Ho Chi Minh. While describing both Binh's life in Vietnam and his new life in the Stein household, The Book of Salt also includes much information about Binh's Vietnamese cooking.

"The novel is in fact largely a meditation on the senses and sensuality," a critic for Kirkus Reviews wrote. By "interweaving the narrative with suggestions of ingredients, recipes, and exotic dishes, Truong provides a savory debut novel of unexpected depth and emotion," Margaret Flanagan stated in Booklist. Shirley N. Quan in Library Journal concluded of The Book of Salt that "Truong is able to create Asian characters and blend them with historical elements to create a work that will appeal to a broad audience." -- From Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2004. From Literature Resource Center.

For more information about Monique Truong, please see the articles in Literature Resource Center, visit her Web site, or check out one of her books from Burling Library (or your local library!):

The Book of Salt
 Burling 3rd Floor  PS3620.R86 B66 2003
Bitter in the Mouth 
Burling 3rd Floor PS3620.R86 B57 2010

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