An Interview with Monique Truong
The main character of The Book of Salt is a cook. What's your
relationship to the preparation of food?
I cook for pleasure. I cook to experience something new. I cook, like the
characters in my novel, to remind me of where I have been. I always cook or
rather I always "taste" the food first in my mind. I approach a recipe
like a story. I imagine it, sometimes I have a dream about it, then I go about
Tell us about the novel's structure.
The Book of Salt opens in Paris in October of 1934. Bình, the
cook, has accompanied his employers Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to the
train station. He seems to be faced with a decision. Will he go to the United
States with his Mesdames? Will he return to his family in Vietnam, or, will he
continue his life in France or will he travel to some other place of his
choosing? Before Bình's "choice" is revealed, the reader is brought
back in time and made privy to the stories of the Vietnamese cook and of his
American employers. What led each of them to live far from the land of their
birth? What, if anything, could bring them back home again? The answers to these
questions are found in Bình's memories, musings, observations, and possibly
lies--all of which are continuously asserting and interrupting one another.
Bình's stories are told via his internal voice, one which is far richer, far
more agile--in fact, it is a stark contrast to the voice that comes out of his
mouth. Bình is a man living in a land, working for employers whose languages
are foreign to him. He struggles with their words, and they win the
confrontation every time. Limited and silenced, Bình has only his memory and
his imagination to keep him company. In the last chapter of the novel, the story
returns to the train station where the reader is in essence asked to make the
same decision as Bình. Whether they would emerge from Bình's life triumphant
or in despair; whether they would be pulled together or asunder by the competing
stories of Bình's past, present and future?
How did you get the idea for your book?
When I was in college, I bought a copy of the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book
because I was curious about Toklas' hash brownie recipe. It turned out that the
famous recipe was not a Toklas recipe at all, but one submitted by the artist
Brion Gysin in a chapter called "Recipes from Friends." Gysin's recipe
was actually for a "haschich fudge" and was for a sort of dried fruit
bar concoction "dusted" with a bunch of pulverized "canibus
sativa." It didn't sound tasty to me, but I read the rest of the book
anyway and found that it was less of a cookbook and more of a memoir. In a
chapter called "Servants in France," Toklas wrote about two "Indochinese"
men who cooked for Toklas and Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus and at their summer
house in Bilignin. One of these cooks responded to an ad placed by Toklas in the
newspaper that began "Two Americans ladies wish- " By this point in
the cook book, I had already fallen for these two women and for their ability to
create an idiosyncratic, idyllic life for one another. When I got to the pages
about these cooks, I was to say the least surprised and touched to see a
Vietnamese presence and such an intimate one at that in the lives of these two
women. These cooks must have seen everything, I thought. But in the official
history of the Lost Generation, the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas,
these "Indo-Chinese" cooks were just a minor footnote. There could be
a personal epic embedded inside that footnote, I thought. The Book of Salt
is that story, as told from the perspective of Bình, a twenty-six-year old
Vietnamese man living in Paris in the late 1920's. I have imagined him as one of
the candidates who answered Stein and Toklas' classified ad.
When did you begin writing the novel?
The novel began as a short story called Seeds, which I wrote in
1997. I had graduated from college, worked for two years as a paralegal, gone to
law school, and was practicing intellectual property law in New York City by
then. I was still calling myself a writer, even though I had not written any
fiction since graduating from college in 1990. I began to write again because I
was co-editing Watermark, an anthology of Vietnamese American poetry and prose,
and I had submitted a piece that I had written early on in college to my
co-editors for consideration. They rejected it. I was mortified. I took four
days off from work in order to prove to myself and to my fellow editors that I
was a writer. When I sat myself down to write, I knew the story that I wanted to
tell. I had never forgotten about the Vietnamese cooks who worked in the Toklas
and Stein household. "Seeds" was the beginning of The Book of Salt.
Are you still practicing law?
Why did you go to law school and practice if you considered yourself a
I was a coward. My grandfather was a writer back in Vietnam, but besides
him I didn't know of any other writers. I didn't know how to go about creating a
writing life for myself. I had no roadmaps, and I had a bad sense of direction
to begin with. I thought that if I went down that path I would end up at the
How did you make the transition from being a lawyer to a full-time
I quit my job at the law firm. Actually, I wasn't so immediately bold.
After I wrote "Seeds," I knew that there was more that I could write
about Bình, the cook, but I found it impossible to work as a lawyer and to
write at the same time. I didn't have the physical or emotional energy to do it.
One of my Watermark co-editors suggested that I apply for a Van Lier fellowship
for writers under the age of thirty. Luckily, they gave me the fellowship
because I was twenty-nine when I applied. The fellowship came with a cash grant
that allowed me to pay my rent and school loans for about two months. I asked
for and received a leave of absence from the law firm that I was with at the
time, and my career as a lawyer has never been the same.
Why did you choose the title The Book of Salt?
Salt--in food, sweat, tears and the sea--is found throughout the novel.
The word "salary" comes from the word salt, so salt is another way of
saying labor, worth, value. For me, the title is also a nod toward the Biblical
connotation of salt, in particular to the turning of Lot's wife into a pillar of
salt for "looking back" at her home, to the city of Sodom. That story
says to me that the Catholic God, whom the cook is so wary of, not only
disapproves of the activities of the Sodomites but also of nostalgia. Bình is a
practitioner of both. In the novel, there is an unpublished manuscript by
Gertrude Stein with the same name, which plays a significant role in Bình's
relationship with his American lover, Sweet Sunday Man.
Is there really a manuscript by Stein entitled The Book of Salt?
No, I made that manuscript up. In the novel, Bình claims that Stein's The
Book of Salt is about him. Stein has certainly written about cooks and
servants. In Portraits and Prayers, for instance, there is a piece called
"B. B. or the Birthplace of Bonnes" about all the women from Brittany
who had worked in the Stein and Toklas' household. Also, two of the
"lives" in Stein's Three Lives were servants. So, it does not
seem improbable to me that Stein could have devoted a few words to a cook like
There is a character in the novel that Bình refers to as "the man
on the bridge" until he finds out that his name is Nguyen Ai Quoc. Isn't
that one of Ho Chi Minh's pseudonym?
Yes, when Ho Chi Minh was living in Paris he called himself Nguyen Ai Quoc.
A fictionalized Nguyen Ai Quoc appears in the novel as a man whom Bình meets on
a bridge over the Seine. They share a meal, their longing for a home, their
thoughts about the French, among a number of other significant things all in the
course of a few short hours. But a question that "the man on the
bridge" asks of Bình stays with him for much longer: "What keeps you
You have Bình meeting "the man on the bridge" in 1927.
Wasn't the real Ho Chi Minh living elsewhere by then?
Yes, Nguyen Ai Quoc was living and organizing in southern China by then,
but he was forced to flee the region for a time in 1927. He went to Moscow and
from there he traveled around Europe as a tourist visiting castles and
cathedrals. According to the historian Stanley Karnow, a French communist friend
of his actually recalled meeting Nguyen Ai Quoc on a bridge in Paris in 1927
during the course of that pleasure trip.
What inspired you to include a fictionalized Ho Chi Minh in the novel?
Actually, I think of the character in The Book of Salt as a
fictionalized Nguyen Ai Quoc as opposed to a fictionalized Ho Chi Minh. From
what I have read about him, his name changes often signaled or accompanied a
significant change in the man as well. When he was in Paris, he was literally
"a man on the bridge" between democracy and socialism. He eventually
felt rejected by both and turned towards communism to reach his goal of
independence and self-determination for Vietnam. By that time, he was well on
his way to becoming Ho Chi Minh. The man that interested me was Nguyen Ai Quoc,
the young man living in Paris who read Shakespeare and Dickens in the original
English, who wrote plays and newspaper articles, who earned money as a painter
of fake Chinese souvenirs, a photographer's assistant.
In the novel, "the man on the bridge" tells Bình that he
also worked as a cook. Is this based on fact?
Yes, I had done some research on Nguyen Ai Quoc because someone told me
that he had been a cook in France. It turned out that he was an assistant cook
at the pie bakery of the Carlton Hotel in London, whose kitchen at that time was
under the supervision of the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier. As a young
man, he had left Vietnam by working as a "mess boy" on a French ocean
liner going from Saigon to Marseilles. I decided that my cook, Bình, would take
a similar route. Many of Bình's experiences on the fictional freighter Niobe
were based on or inspired by the more well-documented experiences of Ba, as he
called himself then, on the Latouche Treville. Nguyen Ai Quoc's travels out of
Vietnam began in 1911, and they took him to Dakar, Brooklyn, London, Paris and
many other port cities around the world. From 1917 to 1923 he lived in Paris.
Some time in the summer of 1923, he left Paris for Moscow to begin his full-time
education and activity as a "revolutionary."
You were born in Vietnam and came to the United States in 1975 as a
refugee. Did that experience play a role in shaping this novel?
I was six years old when my mother and I left Vietnam in April of 1975. It
was suppose to be just a precautionary measure, a temporary solution to keep us
safe from the nightly bombings. My father, who was a high level executive for an
international oil company, stayed behind at their bequest. Later that month,
when Saigon fell to the communist forces my father left on a boat for the South
China Sea, the same sea that my mother and I were lucky enough to have flown
over in an airplane just weeks before. The departure, the loss of home, that act
of refuge seeking have everything to do with the themes playing themselves out
in The Book of Salt. There are no military conflicts in my novel, there are no
soldiers, there are no weapons. I suppose it is no coincidence that the first
long distance flight of my imagination as a writer would take me to a time in
history when Vietnam was more or less at peace. When you are a child of wartime,
peace is the all consuming fantasy. Also I think as a child of wartime, one of
the questions that stays with me and that I've tried to answer for myself by
writing this novel is what if there was not a war, what then would make a person
leave the land of their birth behind?