by Monique Truong
Can an Asian immigrant write the American Great Novel? If you ask any major literary establishment, the answer is always no. Great American Novels have always been written by white men, most recently Jonathan Franzen. The immigrant's story is always the immigrant's story and does not speak for the rest of America. Or at least this is the discourse.
But of course the answer to the question "Can an Asian immigrant write the great American novel?" is: yes. Monique Truong proves this in her latest novel Bitter in the Mouth. Truong, who was born in Saigon, indeed reinvents perhaps the most "American" genre (besides the road novel): the Southern Gothic, that genre that looks at the charms and hardships that makes life in the American South life in the American South. The literary genre is rich in examinations of race--Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, for example; or Heartbreak Hotel by Anne River Siddons. The problem with the genre however is that it has always looked at race as either Black or White. The authors are always Whites trying to make-up and/or defend the south in an act of revisionist romanticism. This South is a white, heterosexual, Christian South that is supposed to represent a truer, more real America where apple pies are baked and cups of sugar are shared and everybody is good. Karin Gillespie who writes the Bottom Dollar Girls novels, or Robert Dalby who writes the Piggly Wiggly novels is another example, albeit more commercialized attempts.
Monique Truong's novel, however, is a novel about the hidden south, the other America that was there to begin with but was always an outsider. Bitter in the Mouth is a novel about being an outsider and perhaps the main character is the biggest outsider you can find in Southern literature: Linda Hammerick, a Vietnamese adoptee who has synesthesia, that is, she tastes words. Her names makes her taste mint, God is a walnut, and mom is chocolate milk. She calls her dad "dad" and her mother DeAnne. She dances with her gay uncle. She goes to law school. With Linda, Truong has created a memorable character who is a shuffled deck of cards (long quoted passaged [about 1/2 a page], but I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in the novel]:
"I'll tell you the easy things first. I'll use simple sentences. So factual and flat, these statements will land in between us like playing cards on a table: My name is Linda Hammerick. I grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. My parents were Thomas and DeAnne. My best friend was named Kelly. I was my father's tomboy. I was my mother's baton twirler. I was my high school's valedictorian. I went far away for college and law school. I live now in New York City. I miss my great uncle Harper.
"But once these cards have been thrown down, there are bound to be distorting overlaps, the head of the Queen of Spades on the body of the King of Clubs, the Joker's bowed legs beneath a field of hearts: I grew up in (Thomas and Kelly). My parents were (valedictorian and baton twirler). My best friend was named (Harper). I was my father's (New York City). I was my mother's (college and law school). I was my high school's (tomboy). I went far away for (Thomas and DeAnne). I live now in (Boiling Springs). I miss (Linda Hammerick)."
Truong's novel is about, above all, this type of distortion. For one, it's about the way our bodies are distorted: Linda's taste distortation; the way she's a tomboy while her best friend becomes skinny and sexy; the way she looks Asian yet has a southern accent. It is as if we cannot trust our own bodies because our bodies fail, as many do in this novel, and is the cause of Linda's homecoming from New York back to Boiling Springs (via Greyhound bus). It's about how our own identities are distorted: can one be Asian with white parents? Can one belong to a white Southern community with yellow skin and slanted eyes?
Indeed the distorations in this novel is a type of disappointment--"The truth about my family was that we disappointed one another"--and the way we fail ourselves and our families (as well as how they fail us). Bitter in the Mouth is a book about our shuffled lives, how in the process of shuffling we find ourselves lost: Linda's first 7 years before the adoption is lost, her uncle's identity as a gay man is lost in familial shame, DeAnne's motives are hidden in a long history of disappointment. Bitter in the Mouth is an intricately woven family saga.
Above all, Truong does this all beautifully. Her prose is slow like a southern drawl. Though way Truong tries to let us experience Linda's synesthesia bogs down the novel, at the same time it slows us down to appreciate these words and their meanings. Truong not only deftly portrays her lost and spiteful characters, she paints the south that is part mythology, part history, part personal tale.
In this way, Truong not only writes an immigrant's story, she writes the Great American Story about the hidden America that has never had its story told. As Linda says at the end, "We all need a story of where we came from and how we got here. Otherwise, how could we ever put down our tender roots and stay."