- “Distorting Overlaps”: Identity as Palimpsest in Bitter in the Mouth
Monique Truong’s novel Bitter in the Mouth (2010) palimpsestically constructs its protagonist and narrator with layered secrets. First, she has a “secret sense” (18): synesthesia, a neurological intertwining of her brain’s sensory signaling system that causes her to taste as well as hear spoken words. Second, Linda carries the secret of having been raped at age eleven. These two secrets are divulged to the reader early in the novel (though they are kept from the other characters). However, Bitter in the Mouth initially withholds Linda’s third secret from readers. Linda introduces herself at the novel’s opening as “Linda Hammerick” (4), daughter of Thomas and DeAnne Hammerick. An old aristocratic Southern family, the Hammericks “made their money in cotton, which was another way of saying that they had made their money in slaves” (55). The family history of slaveholding marks Linda not only as white but also as having racial privilege built on systematic racial inequalities. Not until over half of the novel has passed is Linda referred to as “Linh-Dao Nguyen Hammerick” (158). In the novel’s following section, titled “Revelations,” readers learn that Linh-Dao was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States in 1974 with her Vietnamese parents. Those parents, Khanh and Mai-Dao Nguyen, died in a house fire in North Carolina in 1975, at which point Linh-Dao was adopted and renamed by the Hammericks. Reviewers have noted the “big reveal” (Audiobibliophile)1 of Linda’s Vietnamese parentage but have either ignored the rape or have placed these disclosures about race, synesthesia, and rape alongside each other without exploring the connections among them.2 Some read the revelation of Linda’s Vietnamese birth as a novelistic flaw: they find it “contrived” (Terrazas) or “bland[ ]” (Audiobibliophile). Others value the novel’s de-emphasis on race (Pelaud; Hoffman). In contrast, I read race as central to this novel and all three secrets as necessary to the novel’s layered construction of identity and its palimpsestic practice of thinking.
I begin this essay, then, with two claims: that the figure of the palimpsest offers a useful hermeneutic tool for analyzing the layers and secrets of Bitter in the Mouth and that, further, Truong’s novel offers the palimpsest itself as a framework for thinking about the complexities of identity construction. As an [End Page 155] interpretive tool, the palimpsest asks us to see distinction and interaction simultaneously: to see individual textual layers and their significance and also to see the blended patterns produced as the layers combine. Truong’s treatments of disability, sexual violence, and racial difference create palimpsestic layers within the novel, comprising the three secrets held by the novel’s protagonist. The palimpsest hermeneutic allows us to examine each of these portraits but also asks that we attend to their interactive and mutually constitutive functions. Individually, these portraits join contemporary theoretical calls to depathologize disability, to contextualize sexual violence, and to address the affective component of racialization. Combined, the novel’s three secrets expose the racialization of vulnerability within sexual assault and the violence of double-consciousness. Significant beyond the workings of the novel itself, these palimpsestic portraits of race, gender, and (dis)ability redistribute the labor of racialization, placing the burdens and responsibilities of racial formations on the culturally dominant rather than conventionally racialized subject. Additionally, the novel’s palimpsestic style and structure train readers in palimpsestic thinking more broadly and offer the practice of such thinking as a basis for social engagement that allows both dominant and nondominant subjects to escape the interpellative traps of racist hegemony.
Early in Bitter in the Mouth, Truong trains readers in palimpsestic thinking through her prose style. Linda’s first-person narrative begins:
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...