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  • The Rarest of Senses
  • Monique Truong (bio)

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[End Page 120]

WE CANNOT UNDERSTAND the power and the meaning of food until we understand hunger. Hunger at its most basic is the lack of food, and therefore a body’s need and craving for food.

If we are very lucky in this world, we feel hunger as a minor physical discomfort that can be readily sated: a sandwich to go, a bag of chips from a vending machine, a cup of soup in the microwave.

Hunger, of course, can also mean a craving for something that food represents or promises but somehow has failed to deliver to us.

The ritual of sitting down to a meal, is this not the theater of community and family? Eating a dish prepared by someone who cares for you and your well-being, is this not the tangible representation of love and caring? Then, there’s the intake of flavors, vivid and deep, nurtured by the sunlight above and the earth beneath our feet, is this not the epitome of a sense of place and the pleasure of belonging?

It’s this latter form of hunger—the hunger of the spirit more so than the body, though they are often intertwined—that my novels and essays fixate on.

As a writer, I’m interested in food and eating as performance, ritual, replacement, reward, punishment, pleasure, resistance, and as means of creativity and communication. Basically, everything but the food itself. If I write about a tree-ripened plum, its purple skin split by the sun, I don’t do so in order to make the reader desire the plum itself, but for what that plum represents within the narrative and the text. In life, I desire the plum too. In literature, the plum is a bit more complicated than that. [End Page 121]

My novels are often described as being rich in food. But they are also rich in hunger. In 2003, after my first novel The Book of Salt was published, I was asked by the pen/Faulkner Foundation in Washington, D.C., to write a response to Eudora Welty’s collection of autobiographical essays entitled One Writer’s Beginnings. As Welty had done so eloquently, I was tasked with tracing my memories back to a moment when writing, which for me means writing larded with hunger, became a necessity. I found myself back in San Diego County, California, at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, which in April of 1975 was a relocation camp for Vietnamese refugees, and what I found there was a ridiculously symbolic “first” meal in the United States of America—hamburger and fries—and a note, penned by my mother, that helped us procure this sustenance that otherwise would have been out of reach. Written in English, the note contained words that I couldn’t yet read but would continue to feed me. It was a memory so submerged that I had to telephone my mother to make sure that I had not made it all up.

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Rooted in a moment of forced migration that altered and shaped my perspective on food and my imaginative relationship to it as well, that meal and note explained why my belly and my brain have had such a decidedly codependent relationship; why food and words are my conjoined obsession.

All those thousands of refugees, standing in long lines, hour after hour for their own first meals, were in shock, in grief, and unmoored, but the one thing that they probably were not was physically hungry, especially considering the food at Camp Pendleton.

Yet, food there was the obsession, the sole focus and task of the long days of otherwise not knowing what would come next. Instead of seeking the larger, overwhelming, unimaginable answers, we refugees focused on which truck had the fresher fruits, which one had chicken, which one was trying to serve us something called “egg foo young,” a dish that we certainly did not recognize and that everyone called mửa, or throw-up. [End Page 122]

When we left Camp Pendleton, my family came to Boiling Springs...


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