Writers & Company

From The Book of Salt to The Sweetest Fruits, Monique Truong's fiction explores the hunger of the soul

The Vietnamese American novelist and essayist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her personal connection to the literary themes of food, hunger and displacement.
Monique Truong is a Vietnamese American writer based in New York. (Haruka Sakaguchi)
Listen to the full episode59:11

Vietnamese American writer Monique Truong was six years old when her family fled to the United States, just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Living at first in refugee camps, they were sponsored to work on a rabbit farm in Boiling Springs, N.C., and finally settled in Houston.

For Truong and her parents, food was an essential connection to Vietnam ⁠— they would drive for hours to find the ingredients to prepare traditional meals. Facing racism and bullying at school, Truong also found solace at the local library.

Today, Truong is an award-winning novelist and essayist, exploring themes of food, displacement and hunger in her work. Her fiction is often based on real-life people, seen through the eyes of characters who have been marginalized in history. 

Truong's latest book, The Sweetest Fruits, revolves around the prolific 19th-century journalist, travel writer, translator and storyteller, Lafcadio Hearn. Famous for his ghost stories and folk tales, Hearn's life and character are revealed through three women who loved him — his Greek mother, his African American wife in Cincinnati, and his second wife in Japan. 

Truong's debut novel, The Book of Salt, was a prize-winning critical and popular success, named to many best-of-the-year lists. Inventive and beautifully written, it is in part a story about the Paris household of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, recounted by their Vietnamese cook.   

Truong spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Brooklyn, New York.

Food obsessed

"I think about food all the time. I'm having breakfast and I'm thinking about what am I going to have for lunch. But that's not what informs what I write about when I touch upon food.

"I'm more interested in the idea of what that food is meant to feed. Not just the body, but the soul, the spirit. Often, food is trying to meet a hunger of the spirit and the soul that it rarely can fully sate. But we reach to it anyway. 

"When my family and I first came to the United States as refugees in 1975, food became such a component of home that was no longer there. The basic ingredients were no longer there — and yet slowly but surely my mother and father began to piece that element of their life together.

Often, food is trying to meet a hunger of the spirit and the soul that it rarely can fully sate.

"We would drive miles to find basic ingredients because of where we were living in the States, which was a very small town in North Carolina. It became very powerful, these meals that we could reassemble."

Burden to bear

"There was a whole racial code, and de facto segregation, that was still in place within my little elementary school in 1975 North Carolina. I did not fit into the demarcation of Black or white. You might ask, because I didn't fit into either category, did that necessarily make it a negative experience?

"Sadly, the answer was yes. Because somehow, even though there were no other Asian American students within my elementary school, the children had epithets ready for me, from day one. 

I was still the same little girl. But all of a sudden I was a monster. I was something to be despised and hated.

"That was so confusing to me. I didn't understand them as epithets at first.

"But then very quickly, you didn't need to really understand the meaning of these specific words. You could understand how they were intended to be received by the tone of voice and the disdain.

"Every day was a barrage of these words that were lobbed against me. The problem was — in addition to the fact that it was a hateful bullying based on my body, based on my race — that I could not understand why. I was still the same little girl. But all of a sudden I was a monster. I was something to be despised and hated."

Inside the kitchen

"The Book of Salt came from just a couple of pages that I had read in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. In it, she has a chapter called 'Servants in France.' The first thing that you can glean from that chapter is that they must have been very difficult employers, because they had a rotating cast of servants.

"At least three of them she identified as Indo-Chinese men. Given the names that she identified them by, I could tell that they were most likely Vietnamese. So that caught my eye.

"She writes about them in the most affectionate but also incredibly dismissive way. Calling them childish, drunks and liars. It was such a potent mixture of both affection and dismissal.

Every celebrity chef at that time was a white man or a white woman. And yet, if you looked into the kitchen you knew it was often undocumented men from Mexico or from Central America who made it possible.

"I live in Brooklyn. I take the subway every day. I would see, on the train, the young men who I knew were the people who made the food and restaurant scene possible in New York — that supposedly vibrant incredibly diverse scene.

"Every celebrity chef at that time was a white man or a white woman. And yet, if you looked into the kitchen you knew it was often undocumented men from Mexico or from Central America who made it possible.

"I spent a lot of time on the train just seeing their faces and thinking about their lives — and how their lives probably mirrored the ones that were lived by the cooks in the Stein and Toklas household. Perhaps they were not fluent in the dominant language of the household or of the workplace.

"Perhaps that rendered them less human, less of a heart and more of just a physical body that did labour."

Lafcadio Hearn, circa 1900. The Greek Irish writer lived in and adopted the customs and religion of Japan, taking the name Takumo Koizumi. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Uncredited labour

"Among the cookbooks and food reference books that I have at home, I have a volume of Southern Foodways Encyclopedia. There was a short entry for someone named Lafcadio Hearn. He was born on a Greek island. He grew up in Dublin. He lived in Cincinnati. He lived in New Orleans.

"It was in New Orleans that he made his mark on Southern food. He is credited with writing the very first Creole cookbook to be published in the U.S. It's called La Cuisine Creole.

"He was intriguing to me. He moved to Japan and became known as the Western expert on Japanese folklore, fairy tales and ghost stories. It listed his place of passing as Tokyo in 1934. 

It seemed improbable that all these places could be part of one man's biography. Because I do see the world through the lens of food and cooking, I got a reprint of the book. It was infuriating.

"It seemed improbable that all these places could be part of one man's biography. Because I do see the world through the lens of food and cooking, I got a reprint of the book. It was infuriating.

"It started off with an introduction that was very much a celebration of New Orleans. And then it went right into the idea that men were more scientifically minded and therefore better cooks than women and got paid more accordingly.

"The book was published in 1885. There was no passing reference to the fact that the people who made this type of cuisine possibly originated out of enslaved labour." 

Monique Truong's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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