Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

Monique Truong Takes the Fifth

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Photo by Daniel Libman

On a very mild morning in Brooklyn I met with writer Monique Truong. Author of two novels, The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth, Monique is also a noted foodie, and recently curated an exhibit on Pho in America for the Smithsonian. We talked over coffee and croissants at a café called Rucola in the Boerum Hill neighborhood, a spot somewhere near the midpoint between her home and her current writing space — a walk she likes to take every day before writing.

truong-bitterFifth Wednesday Journal: Your novels are language centered. Obviously with Gertrude Stein in Salt, but then also even more with the words and the flavors for synesthesia in Bitter. How did you arrive at those matchings?

Monique Truong: At first I was trying to match the words and the flavors as I was going, and I realized it was taking way too long. Let’s say, for example, the word Linda, which triggers the flavor mint. That was obviously much more important because I was going to use it so much in the book. As I was writing I tried to come up with the flavors and just decided it wasn’t that important, and it was taking me too long. I needed it to be random, and you know when you’re trying to come up with something that’s imitating randomness it’s almost impossible. Also, flavors tend to have a lot of cultural meanings. Let’s say the flavor of cherry. First of all, it has like a sexual meaning and it triggers all these things, and if I had intended it to do that then that’s great. So in the end I just wrote my dialogue and then made a list of all the flavors I remember from the 70s in North Carolina.

FWJ: So those pairings then had nothing to do with the sound of the word or the meaning of the word?

MT: Right. Because that isn’t how it worked for her. Although it is true if it was a homonym it triggered the same flavors, “there” and “their.”

FWJ: And in the letters she writes and reads the words don’t trigger flavors, which I thought was maybe why you included a good number of written correspondences.

MT: And also, I would imagine that for her it also would be a relief. You know, a different medium.

FWJ: How did you select “Walnut” for God? You had to think about that somewhat. Couldn’t be random.

MT: No, that really had to be random. It couldn’t be a sour flavor because then a reader could read into it that there could actually be a meaning, a rational meaning why God would trigger a sour flavor or a sweet flavor.

FWJ: Or bacon.

MT: The God of flavors! No, it couldn’t work that way.

FWJ: Before you were a novelist you practiced trademark law. There must be a connection to that and the language playfulness of Stein and the word synesthesia of Bitter.

MT: When you work in a large law firm you need to be protected. Litigation is a huge department, and intellectual property law, which is what trademark falls under, is a much smaller department. One of the clients of the department I worked for was Boy Scouts of America. My law firm was defending them against girls who wanted to be boy scouts, and gay boys who wanted to be boy scouts, and I didn’t want to do that work, and I told them I didn’t want to do that work. They basically said if you tell us one more client you don’t want to work for you’re out of here. I knew my days in litigation were numbered. Trademark I didn’t even really understand until I was practicing. I left the large firm and went to a boutique law firm that did Trademark, and our clients were entities like Children’s Television Workshop. The Muppets are very litigious, as you can imagine. One of the highlights of my trademark career was, do you remember when Snoop Doggy Dog became Snoop Dog? I was the junior attorney on that case.

FWJ: Both your books are also very food centered.

MT: I’m pretty much food obsessed, it’s true. When I first started writing, it was a real big concern for me because as an Asian American writer to write about food kind of puts you in a cultural ghetto. Historically Asian American writing has centered around food. One, it’s easier because Asian Americans, a lot of us, actually are food obsessed. But two, it makes it easier, more palatable for editors to sell. I thought, do I really want to do this to myself? But it’s really what I think about. It’s how I view the world. Through a croissant. So why shouldn’t I write about the world through lovely, buttery layers of dough?

FWJ: For Book of Salt, how much of the research came from Gertrude Stein’s writing and how much from other sources?

MT: My research wasn’t that directed; I saw Brassaï’s photos, but it was more because I was interested in seeing images of Paris. Then I saw that he had a collection of letters home, and I thought this is interesting: a young man in Paris and he doesn’t have a lot of money, and from that I got the price of underwear, the price of a meal, the weird little minutiae that Stein and Toklas wouldn’t be interested in because money wasn’t an issue for them, though it was an issue for their cook.

FWJ: So interest in the period came first?

MT: It began as a short story. I’ve always admired the short story more than the novel. A short story writer has to really be economical with words, and I love that. I love that sort of precision. So I wrote a short story that became the second chapter of the novel. But the character wouldn’t leave, so it became a novel.

FWJ: How did you go from historical to autobiographical?

MT: North Carolina, and this is pretty clear from the book, but North Carolina was a difficult place for me to grow up. I really did grow up in a town called Boiling Springs, so all that is autobiographical. I could have gone into therapy. Instead I spent seven years writing about this place to get it out of me. And it actually did because when I started I was 35 and I was still incredibly angry about those three years being in that little place. It really did shape my personality. When I first started writing it I had no idea what this book was going to be about. I just knew I wanted to revisit it. I knew the book was going to be about synesthesia, and I wanted to set it in the American South, in this town, and part of the process was that I had to go back to it physically.

FWJ: So it really was self-discovery, just as it is for Linda. I was impressed with the way you handled that moment where she finally learns about synesthesia in such an undramatic fashion.

MT: There is almost this kind of willful suppression of difference. In order to really function in the world with synesthesia, it often means, one, this is the way I am and I can’t imagine the world any differently. And two, if I acknowledge that this is so different from everyone else, then I have to acknowledge that I’m a freak. All that gets pushed back and people just function and live, and suddenly they’re having a conversation with someone else or they hear about it in some strange way.

FWJ: They don’t walk around thinking I’m so interesting, I should do more research on me.

MT: Right. It’s not like that at all. In fact there are people I’ve known for a long time who will tell me they have synesthesia and they’ve never mentioned it. A gal who I worked with at the law firm, an attorney, who very interestingly is now a painter, she has the form of synesthesia where you see colors associated with people. It’s not the same as seeing an aura. It’s different. I don’t know how it’s different, but you have to trust me, it’s not a hippie kind of aura thing, it’s like when they think of you they see a specific color. Everything about you is assigned that color.

FWJ: Is there some sort of evolutionary strategy for synesthesia?

MT: They think that children, babies, are all born with it. As adults we have walls between the senses, and babies don’t have these walls. For them the world is just this massive sensory overload. That’s the theory. I don’t know; I don’t have children.

FWJ: They do make a lot of noise.

MT: They’re responding to everything: flavors, sounds. I actually know a novelist who has the form of synesthesia Nabokov had, which is that when you see text you see the letters in different colors. My friend, her version of it, every letter has a different color and sometimes a certain color overwhelms a word and will give the whole word a wash. I actually think more people have synesthesia than are willing to admit it.

FWJ: Your stories come out in spirals with lots of interwoven threads. Is that by design?

truong-saltMT: I don’t think linearly. I like to write in a first person voice because it’s someone telling you a story and people don’t talk linearly. They prioritize because they want to emphasize something or hide something so it unspools in their own specific way. I can get away with being nonlinear with a first person voice. I also like occupying someone else’s linguistic storehouse. You have to learn how they use certain words, their cadence. I like that. It’s also rather constraining. I’ll give you an example. In Salt, in one of my drafts I used the word roadkill. Roadkill didn’t exist in that period. Even though I’m in the head of the cook and not actually trying to recreate exactly what he would say to you.

FWJ: It’s tricky because he’s not even really speaking French.

MT: No. He couldn’t be speaking French. He’s speaking Vietnamese, his thoughts. And it’s not even thoughts — it’s trying to match up words for a man who doesn’t have any words.

FWJ: How do you keep track of it all when writing?

MT: I use note cards to keep track of the threads of the story. I was actually very, very lucky when I was doing the final draft of Book of Salt. I had a Lannan Fellowship, and they give you a whole house. I had the whole house to work with.

FWJ: You had the whole draft on note cards? Written by hand?

MT: Yes. I would break down the chapters so that each would be five or six note cards, and then I could place them around the house so I could physically walk through them, because I couldn’t see it anymore. That happens by the last draft. I would make little notations after awhile that certain chapters were in Paris and certain chapters were in Saigon by putting in the corner a P or an S. It would be asking a lot of readers to just follow Binh in his head wherever he wandered. There had to be something a little more concrete that will allow you to understand what was happening. That’s why it went back and forth. It was simply Paris then Saigon, Paris then Saigon. Whether you’re very conscious of it or not, that was the rhythm. You teach a reader how to read your book.

FWJ: With the second novel you have a little bit of historical information about North Carolina mixed in with the narrative as well as her relationship with that bit of the history.

MT: I really love that part of that novel. During the editorial process people were asking, why is this history here? Part of me wanted to say, use your head. Her own history was a mystery to her, so why wouldn’t history be something of interest? Especially the history of where she supposedly comes from. Also, when I was living in North Carolina you learned your state history in grammar school. That was part of her intellectual life as a kid, these stories of her state. The stories of statehood and the esteemed citizens of the state are sort of like a creation myth. Why did North Carolina exist? Where did we come from? What stock did we come from? And it’s all meant to convey something to children, like all stories told to children. We’re Tar Heels, we can’t be pushed from the battleground.

FWJ: You mentioned Harper Lee in the end notes to your book and what an impact she had on your writing. Who else had that kind of an impact? I assume Gertrude Stein was important.

Monique Truong’s web site

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Daniel Libman’s story collection is Married but Looking. He writes regularly for Fifth Wednesday Journal and serves as an advisory editor.

The complete interview with Monique Truong is available in the fall 2013 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Order page.

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