- Monique Truong’s Literary South and the Regional Forms of Asian America
Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth (2010) begins with an epigraph from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). In an essay that reflects upon the importance of Lee’s book, the South, and Southern literary traditions to her own writing process, Truong fondly recalls rereading Mockingbird, which she immediately thought of when she decided to set Bitter in the Mouth in her former hometown of Boiling Springs, North Carolina (2010 population count: 4647 [US Census]). When she returned to Lee’s book, its final scene “sparkled anew” (“How a Mockingbird”). In these closing pages, Atticus Finch reads the boys’ adventure novel The Gray Ghost to Scout, who falls asleep as he reads. When Scout wakes up, she claims that she has heard every word. In Lee’s famous closing lines (which Truong used for her epigraph), Scout proclaims, “‘An’ they chased him ‘n’ never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him . . . he was real nice. . . . ’ His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. ‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them’” (295–96). Truong originally remembered these lines as referring only to Mockingbird’s enigmatic Boo Radley (and of course they do). But they also accurately describe the ending of The Gray Ghost. “That Harper Lee,” Truong recalls with admiration, “is one cheeky writer. Her main character learns an important, indelible life lesson from a book on the last page of her own book. What elegant symmetry! And, how hadn’t I seen it before?” (“How a Mockingbird”). [End Page 716]
The focus of Truong’s epigraph—the metaphor of seeing as understanding—offers a glimpse of one of Bitter in the Mouth’s key ironies. Although the quote from Mockingbird pivots on what one does and does not see, the dominant sensory experience in Truong’s book is taste, not sight. Bitter in the Mouth is a coming-of-age novel centered on first-person narrator Linda Hammerick, who, when her beloved great uncle dies, must return to the rural town where she grew up. Truong initially presents Linda as an outcast because she has synesthesia, a condition in which she experiences words as tastes whenever she hears or speaks them; these incoming tastes are typographically highlighted as italicized words. But halfway through the book, Truong allows her readers to “finally see” the heretofore racially unmarked Linda, and the end of part 1 reveals Linda’s identity as Linh-Dao, a Vietnamese adoptee. Although this transracial and transnational adoption story is in many ways the narrative’s heart, throughout much of Bitter in the Mouth, Linda/Linh-Dao’s most affective and intimate connections are with the white queer and Southern others in her community, especially her great-uncle “Baby” Harper, whose secret life in drag is only disclosed after his death, and her best friend, Kelly, a white woman who is exiled from their small community because of her teen pregnancy. The revelation in Bitter in the Mouth, then, is not just about Linda Hammerick’s Vietnamese identity, but rather the surprising confluence of global South and queer rural histories, communities, and affiliations; their representation in literature; and their ramifications for discourses of race.
Offering new connections among regional and ethnic American literary histories, a queer global and US South, and what I call the regional forms of Asian America, I argue that Bitter in the Mouth imagines a literary South to contest the more visible—or usual, prominent, and normative—constructs of race and region. “Regional forms” extends a rich history of scholarship exploring the fraught relationship between varied practices of literary regionalisms and their representation of particular locations in the US as sites for cultural productions of race and ethnicity. For Americanists, the term regionalist literature may recall a category of late-nineteenth-century fiction that is first, often described as an offshoot of realism, and second, often applied to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century texts authored by women and ethnic writers who represented spaces beyond the bounds...