August 13, 2011 at 5:08 pm , by Lauren Piro
I spoke with Monique Truong about her childhood experiences in the south, the themes of friendship, family and secret keeping in Bitter in the Mouth (the inaugural LHJ Book Club pick!), and how she ended up weaving an intricate story around a girl who tastes words.
The novel’s protagonist, Linda Hammerick, feels like an outsider in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, a town you lived in as a child. How much of your own life mirrors Linda’s? Is the story autobiographical?
I sometimes joke that if life gives you a little town called Boiling Springs and you’re a writer, you’d be foolish not to write about it. There was a lot in my own experience that I thought was important for me to revisit as an adult, as a writer.
When my family came to Boiling Springs, it was the summer of 1975. I remember clearly going to school for the first time and realizing that something had happened—that my body had somehow transformed. I was born in Saigon and was growing up in Vietnam as a little girl, but the moment that I stepped into the elementary school in Boiling Springs, I was no longer just a little girl. All of a sudden there was a lot of interest in the color of my skin, the shape of my eyes, and the color of my hair. I felt like there was this disconnect between how I felt inside and the way I was being treated based on how people were seeing me.
So in creating Linda, I was trying to draw on the confusion that I had and tried to imagine a situation in which a character would feel disconnected from her own body and not understand what was going on—though not in exactly the same way as it happened to me.
I don’t have synesthesia and I don’t have the same sort of family background as Linda, though.
Why did you choose to give Linda synesthesia, a condition in which many of the words she says or hears cause her to experience a taste?
Well, first of all, I love food. When I first heard about synesthesia, I could only imagine the benefits and the joy of having a condition like this. It wasn’t until I did the research that I understood it was not always a pleasant thing to have to live with! I knew I wanted to write about food again, but in a different way (my first novel, The Book of Salt, was about a cook). I wanted to explore the idea of flavors, and I realized synesthesia would allow me to do that.
I also loved the idea of a character living with a condition that makes her so different from everyone around her, and yet it is something she can hide. I was fascinated with this because it was different from the way that I’ve interacted with the world since the age of seven. The moment I walk into the room and people notice my ethnicity, they assume they know what sets me apart from them and everything around me. And while some of their assumptions might be true, that’s not the whole story.
How did you choose which flavors paired with each word? Did you have any metaphors in mind when you matched characters’ names and everyday words to specific flavors?
According to the research that I did, the word and flavor pairings are randomly generated (oh, that amazing brain of ours!). In other words, the flavor that Linda experiences when she hears or speaks a word is not based on the meaning of the word or even the context in which she first learned the word.
What is not random are the flavors. The flavors have to be ones that she has already experienced in her day-to-day life. That was the fun part. Linda is growing up in small town America in the mid-70s, and her mother is a hopeless cook. I generated a long list of all the flavors that I remember and associate with my childhood in Boiling Springs (my mother, though, is a wonderful cook), and at the very end of the writing of Bitter I matched the flavors up with the words.
I wanted to give Linda some sweet gifts: “Wade,” her childhood crush, triggered the flavor of orange sherbet, for example. “Kelly,” her best friend, triggered canned cling peaches. I also was wicked toward her, saving the worst flavor—canned green beans—for one of the most common words in the English language: “you.”
Bitter leaves a lot of blanks throughout the first two-thirds of the book. Once the reader gets to the end, her entire perception of the story changes. It made me want to go back and read the story again.
I wanted readers to be able to get to know Linda from the inside first. I wanted them to see how she perceives herself, and how she felt her synesthesia made her different from everyone else. I gave Linda the privilege of defining how readers get to know her, without them having preconceived notions about her life.
And also I love the idea of having a reader want to go back and reread. For most of the time that I’ve been a writer, I’ve heard that the novel is dead—that it’s a form that doesn’t have anything more to give, that it’s not interactive. And I don’t think that’s true! The words are static, but you as the reader are not static. You come to it with a particular mindset, at a particular time in your life, in your day. And so depending on when you approach those pages, they say different things to you or you see different things, and different themes become more important to you depending on what has just happened in your life. I think that’s fun.
Many of the characters in Bitter keep secrets from each other, and much of Linda’s real life is a secret from her. And of course, there are secrets kept from the reader. Why did you rely on this thematic element?
One of the things that I’ve observed about life is that one secret leads to another. Secrets are dangerous. And that is certainly the case in Linda’s life. Secret-keeping is really something that we learn to do as we grow up. As a child, I don’t think the instinct is to withhold. The instinct is to share. When Linda tries to share her condition with a person in her life whom she should be able to trust, her mom, that’s when she gets slapped down. There are things we’re told not to talk about, often with no explanation why. It’s just simply, “That’s not something you should ever say.” So I think secrets are a way to allow us to conform, to be like the rest of the folks around us as much as possible, and that takes away from who we are.
I was fascinated by Linda’s relationship with Kelly, her childhood best friend. They write letters to each other most of their lives, but at some points hardly speak face-to-face and don’t even look like friends on the outside.
The friends that you make when you’re young are often the ones that you feel like you can pick up again even after years of not speaking because I think they know something essential about you. They know you before you have a sort of armor around you. There’s something very strong about Linda and Kelly’s friendship, because they meet at the age of seven, before they start to worry about boys or beauty or any of that. So in a sense, I feel like they met when they were still whole, which might sound odd because they met as children. We think of children as being not fully formed, but in a way I think that children, especially girls, are actually more whole at that age. They are freer to be themselves—it’s only later that that sense of self gets chipped away.
Linda’s relationship with her great-uncle Harper is intriguing as well, and readers don’t get the whole story at the beginning.
As readers, when we approach a book, we don’t really come to it with an open mind. We know what we know about the world, and we can’t wipe away the slate. We are unreliable readers! So if I give you a family in the south in 1975 and I tell you certain physical traits about the mother, the father, the great-uncle, and so on, there are certain things you’re going to assume about Linda, because we have an idea of what a family is. But of course in Linda’s case, her family is not quite like that. I really wanted to sow the seeds for the reader to be a little apprehensive about her great-uncle Harper. As we find out right at the beginning, he’s a grown man. I want the readers to ask: why is he dancing with a little girl? But as the book progresses, the relationship reveals itself to be something very right for the two of them. They’re each different within that family in their own ways, and they learn how to be a part of that family and still maintain their differences.
We know that it was bitter, but I’m dying to know what Linda’s first taste was and who said the word that conjured it. Are there clues you can give me?
Ah, I think there are clues within the novel to Linda’s first word, which is also her first memory. Remember that “first” is a relative term in Linda’s life. Linda is born twice, as it were. Think of the moment when her first life ended, and think of the “last” word that she might have heard then. What language was it in? Maybe, that is the biggest clue as to why Linda has never heard that word again and re-experienced its bitterness.
Anything else you’d like readers to know before they dig in to Bitter?
I hope that readers will find that that there is quite a bit of humor in this novel. The book is funny. The descriptions of Bitter sometimes make it seem as if it’s a really sour and depressing book, and it’s not. Humor is actually a very important part of Linda’s coping mechanism, as it is for a lot of people, so it’s a big part of her narrative voice.