- “A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who Is Holding the Pen”: Postcolonial Collaborative Autobiography and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt
Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt contains the following passage in which the novel’s protagonist, Binh, describes a book shown to him by his clandestine lover, Sweet Sunday Man: “‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,’ you read to me from the book’s cover. Hearing the title only in English, I am still able to understand. My Madame wrote a book about my other Madame. How convenient, I think. GertrudeStein would never have to travel far for her stories. They, I suspect, chase her down and beg to be told” (14). Such a passage, narrated from the perspective of the character whom Truong based on two Vietnamese cooks employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas while they lived at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris in the early 1930s, reflects and encapsulates the novel’s preoccupation with (re)constructing historical and imagined collaborative writing relationships.
For decades scholars have debated the question of “who really wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?” but only with the publication of Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt have they begun to pay attention to another submerged voice in Stein’s text: that of the male Vietnamese cook.1 Rather than approaching The Book of Salt [End Page 113] merely as a historical supplement to texts such as The Autobiography or The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,2 however, this paper examines how Truong uses the parameters of the historical Stein-Toklas controversy in The Book of Salt to extend a political project about postcolonial collaborative autobiography and Vietnamese American identity that she has already begun in her own scholarship in the field of Asian American Studies.
While in her critical writing Truong analyzes the power dynamics between Vietnamese American and white American co-writing subjects in the production of Vietnamese American autobiographies in the post-Vietnam War period, in The Book of Salt she enacts and explores the complexities of this co-writing dynamic in a rich and imaginative fictional form. By portraying the constantly shifting power dynamics that exist between four characters—Binh, Lattimore (Sweet Sunday Man), Toklas, and Stein, The Book of Salt allegorizes not only historical relations between Vietnamese-American and American co-writers, but also between diasporic subjects and colonial/neocolonial powers (such as France and the United States) and between racialized minorities (such as African Americans and Asian Americans). Truong plays on notions of the gift and theft in figuring these configurations of power in order to destabilize our understanding of some hierarchies and to stabilize our understanding of others. The Book of Salt, I argue, functions as a self-theorizing text that expands the concerns of Asian American literature into a wider theoretical register (to intersect with issues of postcolonialism) and into a wider geographical register (beyond North America and Asia to include Europe as a site of diasporic Asian American identity formation).
Thus, I bring theories of collaborative autobiography to a reading of a single-authored work of Asian American fiction in order to suggest how this approach can renew the discussion in Asian American Studies of the intersections among race, power, authorship, exploitation, and cooptation. This paper also builds on the existing criticism on The Book of Salt offered by scholars such as Anna Linzie, David Eng, Wenying Xu, and Carolyn Durham, all of whom have paid close attention to Truong’s portrayal of the hierarchies of race, class, and sexuality in the novel, but have done so primarily in relation to the Stein-Toklas controversy (Linzie), queer diaspora and historicism (Eng’s “The End(s)”), food and colonialism (Xu), and literary globalism (Durham). I depart from this earlier criticism in that I read The Book of Salt as a creative/theoretical intervention in the debate about postcolonial collaborative autobiography. Thus, this essay is specifically concerned with the conflicts, struggles, and modes of adaptation that arise in contexts where white authors and authors of color come together to produce a cosigned autobiographical text about the racialized subject’s [End Page 114] life. I also deal...