Q: Your novel Bitter in the Mouth deals with questions of identity and belonging. Why did you decide to wait until halfway through the novel to reveal an important piece of information about Linda's background?
A: Linda Hammerick’s story hinges on the interplay between the differences that we can see (our bodies, for example) versus the differences that are internal and invisible (in Linda’s case, a neurological condition called synesthesia, which causes her to associate tastes with words that she hears or speaks).
It’s too often the visible differences that shape and over determine what we believe we know, understand or have in common with one another. We end up misunderstanding what is truly different or similar about those around us. The Linda in the first half of the book is defined by her synesthesia. She’s not ready yet to come to terms with the rest of her story.
As Linda tells us: “We keep secrets to protect, but the ones most shielded—from shame, from judgment, from the slap in the face—are ourselves. We are selfish in our secret keeping and rarely altruistic. We act out of instinct and survival and only when we feel safest will we let our set of facts be known.”
Q: Why did you include the medical condition synesthesia in the book?
A: For me, synesthesia is an irresistible example of and a metaphor for how profoundly subjective our individual experiences within the world can be and how we learn—often very early on in our lives—to hide, to modify, and to normalize our experiences in order to communicate, to form relationships with, and to fit into the family, community, and world around us.
Also, I love to write about food, so this scientifically documented condition allows me to write about tastes and flavors once again but from a very different angle, one that encourages me to rethink the description of commonly understood flavors. Linda, for instance, tells us that the taste of fresh dill is “a bright grassy entryway leading into a room where something faintly medicinal had recently been stored.”
Q: In The Book of Salt, your main character, Binh, is a Vietnamese cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. How did you come up with the character of Binh, and what is the significance of the Ho Chi Minh-like character that Binh encounters on the bridge?
A: In The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in a chapter entitled “Servants in France,” Toklas wrote the following:
“When it was evident that connections in the quarter were no longer able to find a servant for us, it was necessary to go to the employment office. That was indeed a humiliating experience, from which I withdrew not certain whether it was more so for me or for the applicants. It was then that we commenced our insecure, unstable, unreliable but thoroughly enjoyable experiences with the Indo-Chinese.
[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in a newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: ‘Two American ladies wish—‘ There were many candidates. [He] was my immediate choice. He was a person with neat little movements and a frank smile. He spoke French with a vocabulary of a couple of dozen words.”
Toklas goes on to say that after this cook left their employment, she attempted to fill his place with other Indo-Chinese cooks but none of them worked out because they all either drank or lied.
I read Toklas’ cookbook during the summer of 1989, a year before graduating from college. I didn’t begin to write my first novel until my second year of practicing law, which was in 1996. During all that time, part of me was thinking about these “Indo-Chinese” men, asking myself what made them travel so far from their home and what they must have seen within that incredible Stein and Toklas household. I think part of it was also the heady mixture of affection and condescension that I detected in Toklas’s few pages about these men.
I adored her and still do, but I felt deeply that she had done them a disservice and left them to history as caricatures of men. I wanted to imagine them as fully formed humans again.
As for the “Ho Chi Minh-like” character or as he is known in my novel, “the man on the bridge,” he is based on Nguyen Ai Quoc, the pseudonym that Ho Chi Minh used when he was living in Paris. The years when he was in Paris were a bit too early for him to meet Binh, which disappointed me greatly.
I wanted them to meet because I had used elements of Nguyen’s biography as part of my research for how a young man like Binh would have traveled from Indochina to France (working on a freighter as a kitchen boy, apparently).
I kept on researching and found a passage in Stanley Karnow’s book Vietnam: A History in which he writes that a French communist friend of his recalled meeting Nguyen Ai Quoc on a bridge in Paris in 1927. According to Karnow, Nguyen had been organizing in southern China but was forced to flee the region. He fled to Moscow and “with little else to do…[Nguyen] toured Europe to gaze at castles and cathedrals.”
I think it’s important to emphasize that the character in The Book of Salt is 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 were accompanied by 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 of course, he was well on his way to becoming Ho Chi Minh.
The man who interested me more 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, and who earned money as a painter of fake Chinese souvenirs and a photographer’s assistant.
Q: You also are a co-editor of Watermark, a collection of Vietnamese-American poetry and prose. How did you and your co-editors select the work to include in this anthology?
A: My co-editors and I decided early on in the editorial process that we would base our decisions on literary merit alone. We wanted to celebrate and to highlight these writers for their beautiful, strong writings, not because of their life stories or themes fit some pre-determined agenda about the Vietnam War or its aftermath.
It really makes me so proud that many of the Watermark writers have since published highly acclaimed novels and poetry collections, including co-editor Barbara Tran, le thi diem thuy, Truong Tran, Mong-Lan, Linh Dinh, DaoStrom, Andrew Lam, and the National Book Award-recipient Thanhha Lai.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a novel based on the life of the writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). He’s half-Greek and half-Irish and, to me, entirely American in that he came to the U.S. as a young man and re-invented himself and kept on doing so throughout his life. By the time he passed away in Tokyo, he was a Japanese citizen named Koizumi Yakumo.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am grateful for every day that I can wake up in the morning and write. I have little savings and have no steady income. I gave up all of that when I left the legal profession, but I never regret the decision. Despite everything, writing is the only thing that has ever made me feel strong.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb