This review is by contributing writer Thuy Dinh, a practicing attorney and the editor of the literary webzine Da Mau.
In Vietnamese, words that convey happiness and suffering are themselves distinct tastes. While happiness is always nutty-sweet (ngọt bùi), suffering provides a wide range of bitter tastes: bitter-spicy (đắng cay), sour-bitter (chua cay), medicinally sharp like bitter melon (khổ qua) or acidly bitter like soap berries (bồ hòn—a Southeast Asian fruit that’s also used as a natural detergent).
In Bitter in the Mouth, Monique Truong dazzlingly explores a whole array of an outsider’s experience via the literal and figurative trope of synesthesia. Her main character, Linda Hammerick, suffers from a rare sensory disorder: she registers words first and foremost as specific tastes, isolated and independent from their meanings. When she hears the word mom, Linda thinks of chocolate milk. (Incidentally, the word chocolate from the Aztec word xocolatl means bitter water). Linda’s challenge–which is also the central mystery of the novel—is how to unravel her sensory confusion, to discard/distill the bitter from the nutty-sweet.
Linda’s memory begins not in infancy, but Athena-like in 1975 when she is 7. She either does not remember or is vague about the years and events that precede 1975. Bitterness is the first taste that Linda remembers, which was “bitter in the way that greens were good for us were bitter. Or in the way that simmering resentment was bitter.” Linda’s favorite color is fire, because it contains “red and yellow and orange and blue.” The following excerpt from the first chapter provides the main clues to the novel’s mystery, which is not revealed until the book’s second part:
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). The only way to sort out the truth is to pick up the cards again, slowly, examining each one.
Facts in Truong’s novel are never what they seem, the same way an acquired language may assault, dilute or obliterate an immigrant’s mother tongue. In this sense, all outsiders are synesthesiasts. Truong, a 21st century writer writing about displacement, has drifted a long way from the refined taste of Proust’s madeleine and the fragrant waft of Tran Anh Hung’s Scent of Green Papaya. Her protagonist’s sensory world is instead attacked by tuna casserole and chicken a la king, gray, gloppy food held together by Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup—“the Great Assimilator,” as Linda wryly quips. American optimism, embodied by Bisquick pancake mix (“the possibilities, the sweet and the savory, were all in that cheery box”) is both salvation and forgetfulness.
Linda’s mom—her chocolate milk—is both her mom and not her mom. Linda’s true name and the word matricide both evoke peach. Linda is her father’s New York City because it was there that he met the love of his life. Linda’s best friend is her uncle Harper, who evokes a not-too-subtle reference to the novel’s literary influence, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. (Or perhaps Harpers Ferry, the site of the abolitionist John Brown’s failed rebellion against Southern slaveholders).
Yet Linda asserts that she “was never Scout. I was Boo Radley, not hidden away but in plain sight.” Linda’s self-identification with Boo Radley is another clue to the novel’s mystery. She is a self-willed, almost ruthless exile who cannot even entertain the sentimental thought of nostalgia. While Uncle Harper is the closest embodiment to Linda’s sense of home, he is no Atticus Finch because he, like, Linda, is mutely and deeply estranged from his own Southern Baptist culture.
Linda’s need to reconstruct her personal history from memory’s gaps and distortions is probably similar to an immigrant’s reinvention of identity in his/her adopted homeland. In this sense, a self-inventor is both explorer and fortune teller: how to construct a believable narrative from a jumble of cards?
Truong proceeds to answer this question by weaving in the seemingly disparate legends of Virginia Dare (reputedly the first child born in North America to English parents), the Wright Brothers, and the poet-slave George Moses Horton—outcasts who helped define North Carolina’s cultural history. Her novel is an ambitious and poignant meditation on how to define your true essence, a compelling assertion that individual will can trump biological and geographical destinies. To celebrate your affliction—if being different is seen as an affliction—is not enough; you must learn how to synthesize your synesthesia into a larger canvas so that, like the Wright brothers, your ultimate achievement isn’t simply “flight but flight accompanied by a safe landing.”
Monique Truong has flown and landed with amazing grace.